Zsolt Törőcsik: At the meeting of EU heads of state and government yesterday an agreement was reached on support for Ukraine. The war-torn country will now receive 50 billion euros, which it will have to account for, and the Commission will report on this annually. Ahead of the summit there was huge pressure on the Hungarian government to go along with the deal. Mr. Orbán commented on the deal by saying that we’d negotiated that the Hungarians’ money couldn’t be given to the Ukrainians. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a guest in our studio. Good morning.
In your social media post yesterday you wrote that Hungary remains on the side of peace. Is it possible that the EU will eventually give this 50 billion euros to Ukraine?
Here the key issue is indeed peace. We aren’t in a good position in this respect, because Brussels is gripped by war fever, and everything’s revolving around the war. So the European leaders are arguing according to the logic of war, while Hungary believes that everything in Brussels should be revolving around peace: that we should strive for a ceasefire as soon as possible, followed by peace negotiations. Because almost two years have passed. There were all sorts of hopes, both for the Ukrainians and for the West, which haven’t been fulfilled. The war remains open. Hundreds of thousands of people have died. In practice there’s slaughter on the front line, in conditions reminiscent of the two world wars. Hundreds or thousands are dying every day, with no end in sight. We should be working to bring things to an end as soon as possible. So it’s in this context that Hungary must pursue a pro-peace policy. Our position is clear: we won’t supply weapons. We cannot prevent the Brusseleers from being pro-war, because their view of the war’s outcome is different from ours. I’d be happy to say a few words about this, if you’re interested. They’re supplying weapons to Ukraine, and want to continue supplying weapons to them. We’re not supplying arms, nor are we giving money for arms. It’s very important that when we talk about Ukraine receiving 50 billion euros now, this isn’t for weapons. That’s another debate. That’s also happening, but that’s another financial fund: in Orwellian language it’s called a “peace facility”, and that’s where the money is to be put, from which weapons are then sent to Ukraine. We aren’t doing that. There’s a discussion about increasing this, but that didn’t take place yesterday, and that will be dealt with in the next few days at the level of the foreign ministers. On that, our position is also clear: we aren’t giving money to buy weapons and to put weapons into Ukraine, because we’re on the side of peace. The 50 billion euros that we’re talking about isn’t being spent on weapons. So this isn’t the financial basis for arms support, but it’s going to prevent the collapse of the bankrupt Ukrainian state. Because Ukraine – the Ukrainian economy – has in essence collapsed. It’s on life support. If the Americans and we Europeans don’t send money, they’ll have to shut up shop. That would mean no pensions, no wages, no hospitals, nothing. In practice, the European Union is now paying the cost of running the Ukrainian state. The debate was about what to do about this. And there’s no doubt that Hungary would have wanted us to send money for the sake of peace. But this wasn’t possible, because the West still thinks that time is on our side: “The longer the war goes on, the better the military situation in Ukraine will be.” But I think that the opposite is true: I think that time is on the side of the Russians, and the longer the war goes on, the more people will die, and the power relations won’t change in Ukraine’s favour. So why are we continuing the war? But since it’s the Ukrainians’ decision, because it’s their country, their homeland, and they want to fight this war, our responsibility is to decide whether to support the Ukrainians with arms in a war situation which has such bad prospects. Our answer is no, we aren’t sending weapons, and Hungary will continue its policy of not sending weapons to Ukraine. There was the danger, however, that if we couldn’t reach an agreement, then the money needed for the functioning of the Ukrainian state would be agreed among the other twenty-six countries, and they’d take our money – which is due to us – and send it to Ukraine. So I had to negotiate in order to prevent that at all costs. The reason that the nighttime negotiation – or yesterday’s negotiation and the preparatory nighttime negotiation – was a success for me was that it was possible to agree with the big players that this wouldn’t happen. We agreed that Hungary will also take part in sending money needed for the functioning of the Ukrainian state; but we won’t send weapons, and the money that we’re owed will continue to go to Hungary. Our money won’t go to Ukraine. Now, that’s how I can sum up the negotiations. It wasn’t easy, the issues were difficult and opinions were very divided. But the hardest thing was that there were farmers’ demonstrations in Brussels, and where I was sleeping there were about two hundred tractors outside my window; they were sounding their horns all night, playing recordings of cattle bellowing, and so I woke up every ten minutes and went into the negotiations having effectively lost a night’s sleep. I told the German chancellor that I was in the same situation as the Hungarian football team was in 1954, when – as far as we know – a street party was organised in front of the Hungarian team’s hotel in Bern the night before the World Cup final. And we lost that final. It wasn’t a good omen.
We’ll talk about the farmers’ protests in a moment, because you were on the street among the farmers in Brussels. But let’s talk about the guarantees that are linked to yesterday’s agreement. You said that two guarantees were obtained: firstly that the money for Ukraine would be reviewed from time to time; and secondly that Hungarians’ money couldn’t be given to the Ukrainians. How strong are the guarantees in this respect?
They’re quite strong. In December, we already successfully fought to get the money we’re owed sent to Hungary. Now we’ve fought to ensure that this doesn’t stop and isn’t transferred to Ukraine. And I have received clear guarantees on that. I would be very surprised if this agreement isn’t honoured.
You mentioned, of course, that thinking about the outcome of the war is different in Brussels, and that Hungary and the Hungarian government thinks differently.
Sorry, more specifically, part of Hungary – because there are pro-war people in Hungary too. So the Left in Hungary is pro-war. Two years ago they were already saying that we should send weapons to Ukraine and that we should support Ukrainian military action – and perhaps they would even have given the Hungarians’ money to the Ukrainians. So the Left always wants to agree in Brussels on how Hungary should get involved in military actions, and how it should get closer and closer to war. I always reach agreements in Brussels on how to prevent this happening.
Yes, and in the meantime the fact that the two sides think differently is shown by the fact that, for example, when the war started, we remember that first of all the German government offered five thousand helmets. The primary objective was to stop Putin, for example through sanctions policy. By contrast, we’re now at the point at which, for example, the EU is sending weapons, for which it has a special support budget, and at which the Member States are even thinking about sending aircraft. So how, in just under two years, have we gone from five thousand helmets to F-16s?
This is the million-dollar question, and if I were a historian, I would choose this as the subject of study for my academic dissertation. Today no one knows the answer for sure. All I can tell you is what’s been noted by active observers, because I’ve been negotiating in Brussels since the beginning of the war. There’s a natural psychological process: you start to support something in a small way, and after a while you identify with those you’re supporting. And one day I noticed that they’d started talking about the war as “our war”, that they’d started talking – in a completely misconceived way, I think – about the Ukrainians fighting for us, and that if the Ukrainians don’t stop the Russians, they’ll march into Berlin. If you read the German press, there’s a world-war atmosphere, yet it’s obvious that at the moment the Russians can’t even defeat Ukraine – so how can they stand up to the whole of NATO? So what idiot … excuse me, under these circumstances, would anyone who cannot overcome a smaller opponent then take on NATO, the biggest boy on the block? So the arguments are absurd, but psychologically people want to identify in some way with what they’re doing. It’s hard for people to accept that they’ve started something which isn’t the right decision and which needs to change. We’re all human, and it isn’t an easy thing to do. This is, let’s say, the generous explanation. European Union countries’ relations with the United States are of varying degrees of intensity, and I’ve also noticed the increasing strength in the voice of pro-American governments which enjoy stronger relations with the US. So my conclusion is that there’s also increasing pressure from the United States on those countries on which America is able to exert such pressure. So here European and American perspectives are being conflated. And I often have the feeling that with one decision or another in Brussels it isn’t European interests that are being pursued, but American interests. Whatever the case may be, which is something historians will find out, one thing is certain: there will be peace when there’s change in Brussels.
You’ve already mentioned the pressure, and before the summit there was also a great deal of pressure on Hungary. For example, there was an article in The Financial Times about how economic and financial pressure can be put on Hungary if it continues to refuse to support sending aid to Ukraine. You called this article a blackmailer’s handbook. Is this conflict or this blackmail between Budapest and Brussels only about Ukraine, or is there something deeper in it?
This is a long love story, or rather a marriage story. There’s some of this and some of that. Right now it’s about Ukraine. Of course, when we’re discussing migration, we aren’t discussing Ukraine: we’re discussing the fact that we don’t want to share the fate already visited upon Western Europeans, with masses of illegal migrants arriving and changing the lives of native-born, indigenous Europeans. We don’t want anything like that. We also have this dispute. We have a dispute about gender. They send these sex activists with suspicious identities into schools to give instruction sessions to children. This raises my hackles. Hungarians certainly don’t want that, and there’s a huge debate about it, because others think that it’s a human rights issue, while we think it’s a child protection issue. So we have a number of disputes with Brussels. For example, they want to do away with the cuts in household utility bills, to make us change the subsidy system. Hungary has the cheapest electricity and gas prices in Europe. We, the Hungarians, pay the least for this. They don’t like this, and say it should be changed – obviously for the benefit of companies and the market. Or there’s the interest rate freeze, which reduces banks’ profits, which they also want to change. So there are a number of disputes. These debates were nicely brought together by the national consultation, in which we asked people to either change or confirm their previous opinions. They confirmed that they don’t want any of these [changes to current Hungarian policy]. But these aren’t the debates that we’re having now, which are purely the result of the debate around Ukraine. And the fact is that, as in all such debates, there are and have been tools in the hands of the Brusseleers – and of course there are tools in our hands too. It’s true that there are twenty-six of them and we’re on our own, and the scope of the tools is different; but it’s obvious that if there’s no agreement, they can of course do us damage, but the damage we can do to them won’t be pleasant either. This is something that everyone would like to avoid, because we aren’t on Earth to make one another’s lives more difficult, but to make one another’s lives easier – and this is true not only in everyday life, but also in politics. So it’s better to agree than to fight. And this is why at such times we look for the end-points up to which everyone is prepared to go. I went as far as was possible. So what I can say is that if this agreement hadn’t been reached and Hungary had continued to use its veto, the situation would have been that the other twenty-six leaders would have reached an agreement, they would have sent the money to Ukraine, I wouldn’t have been able to prevent that, and they would even have taken the money owed to the Hungarians and sent that over there too. Why would that have been good? At the same time, it’s also clear that if they’d felt compelled to do that, it could only have been done at the cost of huge conflicts. Everyone wanted to avoid that. And in the end we found a solution, an agreement, a good agreement: we won’t send weapons, we’ll get our money from Brussels, and we’ll contribute to the maintenance of Ukraine, to the maintenance of its civilian society.
You mentioned the farmers’ protests in Brussels. And indeed, if you look at the pictures, you can see that the Belgian farmers were very tough – even in relation to the European Parliament building. But we’ve seen similar things in France, in Germany, and in countless other countries. On Wednesday evening you were out on the street at the demonstration in Brussels, talking to the farmers. What did you find out? How close or how far apart are the views of Western elites and their societies?
I couldn’t have avoided meeting the farmers even if I’d wanted to, because they were blocking the entrance to the hotel. They didn’t go there because of us, but there’s a small square and they took up all the space, including there. So I immediately bumped into them. They weren’t against me: I’m a village boy, I understand what the farmers are talking about, and I appreciate the world of tractors – I was involved in enough of that as a child. So it was interesting to see... I met Spaniards, mostly. There were Belgians, but there were also Spanish farmers. It was an interesting conversation, one that reminded me of my childhood. They have the same complaints as Hungarian farmers. So their problem is that Brussels is making rules that make production increasingly expensive for them. This is also the case in Hungary. Certain substances can’t be used, animal welfare measures are introduced, and all of this costs money; so rules are being made that push up the cost of production for farmers. There are such things, and they’re not good. But in the meantime, farmers say – and this is their truth – agricultural products are being allowed into Europe from countries where the same standards don’t apply, so it’s cheaper to produce there. And the Spanish and Hungarian farmers are saying, “How can we compete if you impose huge costs on us, while letting in those who produce more cheaply? Well, you’re ruining us!” And that’s what’s happening. There was a big debate about that. So, apart from the Ukrainian issue, there was a big debate about this at the summit of prime ministers, and several spoke out angrily, telling the Commission to stop. This is absurd! The rules must be changed! Now, if I translate this into concrete terms, it means that Ukrainian agricultural products shouldn’t be allowed on the European market in the way that’s happening now. But the best thing would be to not allow it at all. Right now they’re letting chicken in. So the cost of producing a kilogram of chicken meat in Europe is completely different from the cost in Ukraine. And this isn’t fair! So that’s why the farmers are there. And they say that for years they’ve been saying that the rules that are being made are increasingly bad for them, making their lives ever harder; but nobody’s listening to them, they’re not being paid attention to, their interests aren’t being addressed. So they feel that the distance between them and the decision-makers in Brussels is measured in light years. And the only thing they can do to underline their problems is to make their voices heard, stand in the squares, sound their horns and clash with the police – if the pictures of central Brussels that I’ve seen are correct. They asked me to block what’s been happening: for the Poles, the Slovaks and the Hungarians to stop the Ukrainian shipments at the borders of Europe and not let them in. If the Brusseleers aren’t that clever, then at least our farmers should stand up and make it physically impossible.
Is there any other issue on which it’s typical for the Brussels elite to ignore the people? Because you mentioned the national consultation; in Hungary the Hungarians were asked eleven questions, and 98–99 per cent of respondents voted in favour of the Government’s position. What’s the situation in Western Europe in this respect?
It’s undoubtedly true that there’s a not unreasonable feeling that Brussels often represents someone else’s interests instead of the interests of the European people. And in fact exactly the same is true in the Hungarian parliament. So here with the Ukrainian arms issue, for example, it’s also the case that the Hungarian left is being financed from abroad – that’s as clear as day. And those giving them the money are all pro-war. And they’re giving the money in order to involve – through the Left – the whole of Hungary in the war. So it’s clear that the Left in Hungary doesn’t represent the interests of the Hungarian people, because it isn’t in a position to do so, because those who are giving them the money are calling the tune. This is often the case in Brussels too: it’s clear what the interests of the people are, but they represent the interests of the other side. There was a very interesting case when the Americans introduced punitive measures against the European car industry on the grounds of US national security interests. It has a nice name: the US Inflation Reduction Act. But in fact it’s a law against European industry. And we discussed how to react. There were some of us on the side of European interests, who said that we should immediately introduce the same measures: market protection measures. They’re called reactive measures. Let’s introduce them, then let’s start negotiating. But we’re in a minority, because the majority said “No, let’s try to reason with them first and then we’ll see.” Well, ever since then, it’s been “We’ll see...”
Where does this difference of opinion between the elites and the people of Western Europe lead in the long term – or even in the short term?
There are elections in June. There’s what’s called a “democratic deficit” in Western parlance: if in a democracy the distance between the electorate and their elected leaders is too great, then political change will occur. In other words, the leaders will be driven out. This is why elections are risky. If you don’t serve the interests of the electorate well, you can certainly be driven out, and sometimes you’ll be driven out. I think that will happen, that could very easily happen in the European Parliament elections in June. As we’re also taking part in this election, the Hungarians will also have the opportunity to play a part in this act of driving out.
Let’s talk about one more aspect of the situation in Ukraine, namely Hungarian-Ukrainian relations. In Uzhhorod/Ungvár earlier this week, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó met his Ukrainian counterpart and the head of the President’s Office. And after the meeting, the head of the Ukrainian foreign ministry said that, in his opinion, neither you nor Péter Szijjártó are pro-Russian, but pro-Hungarian. How do you assess this meeting overall?
In this respect I’m not interested in their opinion, because Hungary cannot sink to the point at which someone else tells us what the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Hungary are like. If they go so far as that – and that’s what happened here – then we’ll ignore it. This can’t happen! We’re a sovereign country, and we don’t need the Ukrainian stamp of approval to declare us “kosher”, so to speak, and to tell us what we are. Well, what are things coming to? When speaking about a Hungarian state which is a thousand years old, neighbouring Slavs won’t tell me who we are. We shall be the ones who decide that! So we ignored that. Perhaps they meant it as a friendly gesture, but you can’t say that to a self-respecting country – or if you do, don’t be surprised if we ignore it. Hungary, of course, belongs to the Hungarians. The Hungarian government represents the interests of the Hungarian people, and is pursuing a foreign policy towards Ukraine, Russia, America and Brussels as befits a sovereign state. That’s what we’re doing. The fact that we’re accused of this or that doesn’t affect us at all. But, because I knew that something like this would happen, I asked Péter – our Foreign Minister – not to be offended and not to react in the way that I’ve just articulated, but to be polite and say that we hope we can cooperate better in the future than we’ve done in the past. There’s a very big gap between the two countries on many issues. We don’t want to interfere in the war, because if Ukraine decides to take on all the consequences of a war it has the right to do so, because it’s a sovereign state. But of course it cannot ask – and certainly not morally demand – that we should be obliged to support their fight. We’re helping them anyway: we’re helping them not in war, but in peace. We’ve carried out the largest humanitarian operation, ensuring the entry to Hungary of more than one million people, and their stay here or transit. There are tens of thousands of Ukrainians in Hungary to whom we provide work. Hungary belongs to the Hungarians, but still we’re willing to give jobs to Ukrainians, because they’re in distress. There are more than a thousand Ukrainian children in Hungarian schools and kindergartens, and we’re teaching them for free. So simmer down, show more respect for the Hungarians! So this is our position. Another thing is that there are 150,000 indigenous Hungarians in Transcarpathia, in what is now Ukraine, and they’re living in a state of disenfranchisement. They live in disenfranchisement, a systemic disenfranchisement reminiscent of the old communist times. They’re denied full use of their language, and they’re disadvantaged because they’re Hungarians. This wasn’t always the case, because until 2015, for example, there was no disenfranchisement of Hungarians. So before then the Ukrainians didn’t take away the rights of Hungarians, they didn’t challenge them. Then in 2015 they took them away. And now they’re promising that they’ll restore them. But Hungarians say, “I’ll believe that when I see it.” This is where we are now.
And after Monday’s summit, is there any chance of this being resolved – either the issue of minorities, or relations between the two countries?
The way you put it, the exact phrase is this: there’s more of a chance, but it has to be delivered on. We’ll see. If there’s dialogue, negotiation, contact, it always gives us the chance to improve things. If there’s no negotiation, things tend to get worse. So that’s why I think – and not just I, but the Hungarian government and Hungary in general – that it’s in the interests of the Ukrainians and the Hungarians to have continuous talks on the problems.
In the last half hour I’ve been asking Prime Minister Viktor Orbán questions on subjects including yesterday’s EU summit, the farmers’ demonstrations, and Hungarian-Ukrainian relations.