Earlier this week Charles Michel, President of the European Council, held talks with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in preparation for the summit of heads of state and government in two weeks’ time. The meeting follows a letter from Viktor Orbán to Michel, in which the Hungarian prime minister asked for a strategic meeting on Ukraine because of the situation on the battlefield. My guest is Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Good morning.
In your letter, you’ve referenced three vetoes, one of which concerns the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine. At Monday’s meeting were you able to get a response to your concerns about Ukraine’s membership of the EU?
It’s rather early in the morning for a survey of philosophical issues, but your question means that I’ll have to start with this. So Hungary won’t use its veto. There’s no question of a veto: Hungary will block decisions, but it won’t veto. The Founding Treaty of the European Union doesn’t even recognise that word. So this seems like a philosophical question, but it has a significance for national independence. The EU’s rules or Founding Treaty says that there are certain topics, certain subjects, on which a decision can only be taken if all Member States agree. So it’s not that someone’s made a decision and then we veto it, but that without us there’s no decision. So we’re not against something, but because there’s no agreement between the Member States, there’s no common position; and because there’s no such position, no one can prevent one. At 7.30 in the morning this seems like a small thing, but it matters if we see the EU as a faraway place where decisions are taken, whether or not we agree with them. That’s a misconception. The fact is that we are the EU. The EU isn’t in Brussels – that’s just where the bureaucrats are. The EU is in Budapest and Warsaw and Paris and Berlin. So if we, the Member States, all agree on certain issues, then we have an EU position; if we disagree, we don’t have one. So we mustn’t allow ourselves to be forced into a situation in which we feel guilty for having prevented the implementation of decisions already taken by others. Such decisions don’t exist, and we have every right to only be involved in coming to a decision if it’s in the Hungarian national interest. Today there’s no need to do so with regard to Ukraine’s membership of the EU and the opening of negotiations on its accession, as this doesn’t coincide with Hungary’s national interests. Therefore we aren’t suggesting that we discuss it and then state that we disagree, but that we don’t even put it on the agenda. Doing so would fracture European unity, because one can see in advance that there won’t be any agreement. Unity can be defended by not putting issues on the agenda on which there’s no agreement: by not even starting to discuss them – for example at the summit of prime ministers – because you’re able to see in advance that there won’t be agreement. This is why I’ve proposed – and why I continue to propose – that negotiations on Ukraine’s membership of the European Union should not begin. Since it’s not possible to begin this, because we wouldn’t agree to it, let’s not put it on the agenda. Let’s put it on the agenda after we’ve taken it forward and have been able to reach agreement. So it’s a mistake for the Commission to force us – the prime ministers – to put this on the agenda. It hasn’t been prepared. Preparation doesn’t mean that I write something on a piece of paper and everyone reads it out. Preparation means that I talk to everyone, see who has what interests, and harmonise them. And if I can harmonise them, if there’s a chance of agreement, then I’ll submit a formal proposal. Today this isn’t the case, because the Commission has proposed that we should start negotiations on Ukraine’s membership. But this doesn’t coincide with the interests of many Member States – and certainly not the Hungarians. And we’re in a good enough condition to dare to say so – whatever pressure is put on us. So this matter shouldn’t be put on the agenda, and the Commission must understand that it is its responsibility that preparation for the meeting was bad. Take it back, prepare it properly and come back when you’ve managed to create a consensus.
What’s the main obstacle to Ukraine’s accession to the EU, or to the start of negotiations? How do you see this now?
Well, first of all, there are a number of questions that we don’t know the answers to. First of all, Ukraine is at war. When a country’s at war, its legal system and its political system work differently than in a country living in peace. So today we can’t say whether Ukraine is operating according to the constitutional, rule-of-law conditions that all the countries of the EU adhere to within a certain framework; we can’t say whether or not they’re within those limits. It’s impossible to establish that. Secondly, we can’t say how much of Ukraine’s territory we want to admit, because some of it – although undoubtedly part of Ukraine in a legal sense – is occupied by Russia, which has stationed its military forces there. The third aspect is that we don’t know what population we’re talking about, because people are continuously fleeing Ukraine. We don’t know whether or not the inclusion of Ukrainian agriculture in the [European] free market will be good for farmers in the countries that are already within it. Hungarian farmers are saying – and I’ve spoken to them, or their representatives – that the inclusion of Ukrainian agriculture in the European agricultural system will ruin hundreds of thousands of Hungarian farmers. So why should we support it? We also don’t know how much money would be needed to kickstart Ukraine’s development if it were to join. And where will we get that from? Are the current EU countries willing to pay more, or should we use the money we already have to support Ukraine? If it has to be managed from existing money, then some financial resources will be lost by the Central European countries, from the Baltic states down to Croatia – and including Hungary. So that means that we would lose development funds. Now, it’s not worth starting membership negotiations until these questions are answered. Because we can’t answer the question of what the consequences would be of Ukraine’s EU membership. And if we don’t know, then let’s not start negotiations. We’ve already made one such mistake: we started negotiating with the Turks, we promised them membership, we negotiated membership, this has been going on for twenty or thirty years, and we haven’t been able to get them in. Everyone’s frustrated, and it’s been a complete failure. Therefore, when we’re asked for our opinion, I’ll be in favour of the European Union initially concluding a strategic partnership agreement with Ukraine. This could take five to ten years. Let’s bring them closer, because now the distance is too great. Let’s bring them closer, let’s allow time for us to start working together. And when we see that we can work together, then let’s take up the question of membership. But that will only be possible after many, many years. That would be the Hungarian proposal, but no one’s ever asked our opinion. The Commission’s pushing a paper in front of us which says that we should support the proposal. Well, that won’t work.
There’s also another controversial issue in connection with Ukraine, and that’s the question of further funding. Brussels wants to ask for 50 billion euros for this, and this would be part of an additional payment of roughly 100 billion euros that the Member States would have to make. Is the Hungarian position the same here too: that this proposal shouldn’t be put on the agenda for the next EU summit?
Here several questions are layered on one another. The fundamental question is whether what we’re doing makes sense. If it makes sense, let’s continue; if not, let’s not. What are we doing now? What we’re doing now is that we’ve given a lot of money to the Ukrainians: more than 100 billion euros, partly in arms and partly in cash. If we hadn’t given it to them, but used it to develop Europe, today European economies would be in better shape. Today the European economies are in bad shape: there have been household utility price increases in many countries; there are countries – fortunately not Hungary – where unemployment is rising and investment has stopped or is falling. So Europe’s in economic trouble, and it’s throwing money around: sending arms and money to Ukraine by the wagonload. We’re sending this money to Ukraine so that the Ukrainian army, which is fighting Russia, can win on the front line. But it’s not winning! And it’s highly doubtful that it would win if we sent more money. I’m not at all convinced of that. I think that instead of war we need a ceasefire. So we shouldn’t fund the war, but the ceasefire and then the peace. If we want to spend money on Ukraine, let’s not spend it on war, but on peace and a ceasefire. That’s our position. This is the first layer of this debate – we could say the deepest philosophical or strategic layer. The second debate is this: If we do want to give money – even to continue the war, as the Commission is proposing, by the way – where will we get it from? Should the Member States pay it into the European Union budget, and should we then take it from that? Alternatively we should leave the European Union’s budget alone – it has enough problems as it is – and, if we want to give money to Ukraine, we should set up a separate intergovernmental agreement to create a financial fund: let everyone put what they want into that, and from there we’ll send the money to Ukraine. I’m in favour of the latter. So the situation today is still the same: the reason this issue has become such a hot potato – the reason it’s such a hot potato – is that so far the money sent to Ukraine has been from within the EU budget. This has put huge strains on the budget, because the support – the financial support – for a war and the operation of the budget occur at different tempos. The budget is about stability and predictability. But support for war needs to be increased or reduced as dictated by events on the front line. If I put the two together, I end up with financing for the war smashing the budget apart – which is the situation we’ve come to now. The reason the budget has to be amended, or should be amended – that can only be done unanimously, by the way, and here again we come into the picture – is that the money’s run out. At present we have a seven-year budget, we’re in the third year of it, and we’ve run out of money. So this isn’t going to work. Therefore the Hungarian proposal is that if we want to give money to Ukraine, it should definitely be outside the budget, and it should be transparent. In many countries today people oppose giving money to Ukraine, but their leaders hide from the people by saying, “We’re not really the ones giving it to Ukraine, it’s the EU.” But in fact, of course, we are the ones giving it to Ukraine, because we are the EU. But this is how they can shirk personal responsibility. Let them stand up in a transparent way and say: “Gentlemen, Honourable Hungarians, Ukraine’s in this situation. Let’s discuss whether we want to support them financially, and how much we can give them.” And then everyone should put this money on the table: the Dutch, the Belgians, the French and the Germans, all in the same way. In a democracy this is a fair procedure. But we’re hiding behind the EU, people can’t find their bearings, and they don’t understand exactly what’s happening. They just say, “Of course, let’s support the poor Ukrainians”, but it’s not clear to them that they’re the ones footing the bill. And the consequences of all this aren’t clear either. I don’t think this is acceptable in a democracy. This is why it’s good to have the national consultation, in which people will make it clear whether or not they agree with it.
Speaking of the national consultation, several politicians from the governing party have said that – in addition to seeking people’s views on eleven issues – the national consultation is also about defending Hungarian sovereignty. Can the national consultation be an effective instrument for defending sovereignty?
Everyone has to cook with the ingredients that are available to them. This is also true in an intellectual sense. When someone thinks, they use the crutches they’ve assembled over the course of their life. For me, a considerable segment of my crutches comes from sport. When you have a football team on the pitch, that’s eleven men. And there are times – not infrequently – when eleven men aren’t enough to win a match, and you need a twelfth man. And that’s the crowd, for whom we play. So if they support us we can win, as then there are twelve of us. If they don’t support us, it’s doubtful whether we can win. This is the situation today. I shall fight, and the Hungarian government shall fight. We’re in a difficult battle, and we need everyone: I need everyone who cares about Hungary’s independence and sovereignty, who cares about the country, who cares about their children, who cares about their grandchildren. I need everyone’s support, because in difficult negotiations this will give strength to Hungary and therefore to the Hungarian government – and ultimately to me. So I ask everyone to fill in the national consultation form, to devote a few minutes to your country.
Clearly a country only has independent room for manoeuvre in its foreign and domestic policy if it has as much sovereignty as possible. At the same time, however, it’s becoming increasingly clear from the facts that have come to light and the intelligence reports that have been made public that there are ongoing attempts at interference. Is Hungary capable of preserving and defending as much of its sovereignty as possible? What’s needed for this, beyond the national consultation?
We have a history, don’t we? This provides two lessons – or rather there are many lessons, but for the purposes of our discussion here, let’s settle for perhaps two. The first is that we’ve always been surrounded by empires larger than us. And empires larger than us have appetites larger than ours. And we never wanted to take a bite out of them, but they’ve always wanted to take a bite out of us. That’s the way it is: such is history, such is human nature, and such is the law of empires. The tactic that we’ve chosen is that of course empires will try to take a bite out of us, but our movements will enable us to attend the funeral of every one of them. We’ve been to the funeral of every one of them, and that’s our plan for the future. The first lesson is not to be afraid of empires; history shows us that bigger ones have fallen away, and we’re still here. The second very important lesson of Hungarian history is that we’ve been here for eleven centuries on the same territory. Of course, sometimes it’s smaller and sometimes it’s bigger, like the heart: it contracts and expands. Now we’re contracted, but our location is the same. And over the course of eleven centuries we’ve proved to ourselves and the world that we know how to organise life in this area – in other words, how to build it, create its culture, create its economy and develop its foreign policy according to the Hungarian way of thinking. This is our world, which can best be organised by us, drawing on the culture, instinct, will and desires of the people living here. Therefore we don’t need someone else to tell us how to live: we will decide that. This is the deepest meaning of sovereignty: that Hungarians have the historical ability to create a state and live within a state framework as they wish, with the assistance of the government of the day. But the starting point is not the Government, but in this respect the people and the culture. And since we have that capacity, we don’t want to allow others to interfere. If our wings had been clipped more, if we were less talented, if we didn’t have eleven centuries of history behind us and we were weaker, then of course we might need the help of others. But thank you, we don’t need it – we’ll manage this. This is Hungary – we’ve been able to manage it up to now, and we’ll be able to operate it in the future. Now, of course, there are always those here in Hungary who think that we should instead join an empire and accept the offers of empires – some of which are always personal offers, because money would of course go into their pockets. There are always those who are prepared to sell part or all of their country for money. So there’s also an internal struggle here. In fortunate times these people are unable to get close to power and government. In unlucky times they’re even able to govern – there was, after all, a Gyurcsány era! They saddled us with the IMF, took away people’s pensions and salaries, and introduced foreign currency loans – which turned out to be bad for the people but good for the banks. So you don’t have to go very far back in history to see periods when it was clear that the decisions, the government decisions, weren’t in the interests of ordinary Hungarians. This is a violation of sovereignty. Now, foreigners always exercise their influence in two ways in every country – so let’s not feel that we’re exceptional: all countries of similar size are in the same boat. One way is that there’s a government, the country’s functioning, and on a case-by-case basis they try to influence its decisions: economic decisions, foreign policy decisions. For example, here we have the Americans trying to force us into the war in Ukraine. But there are also economic lobbying interests: everyone remembers the dark ages of privatisation, and so on. The other way is that when the possibility of a change of government emerges, because there’s an election, they try to influence people to vote for a non-national government rather than a national government. This is what happened in the last parliamentary election – in black and white, with evidence. That was when Western, Brussels and Washington money – George Soros and so on – was pushed behind the Left: the “Dollar Left”. It was the “rolling dollars” affair: an attempt to prevent the formation of another national government in Hungary. Now the law punishes that. Well, the Hungarian is a talented breed, who looks for loopholes and slips in under the fence; so loopholes have been found, and now it’s a matter of debate as to whether or not the law has been broken. I think it has, but that’s not for me to say: that’s a matter for the law enforcement authorities. But it’s certainly in the interests of the country to have clear and unambiguous rules that can’t be sidestepped, so that the Hungarian people don’t again suddenly find themselves standing here after an election, learning that millions of dollars had been spent on trying to influence their decision through the left-wing parties. So this isn’t right, and in order to protect sovereignty Parliament must now take some decisions. And in the years ahead we must also take a much more serious approach to blocking the routes and paths of such attempts at intervention.
Obviously sovereignty also includes economic sovereignty. Speaking about the economy, you’ve made reducing inflation to below 10 per cent the year’s most important government objective. You achieved that in October. In the meantime, there’s also an important change in terms of wages: from today, those who earn the guaranteed wage minimum or the minimum wage will receive between 10 and 15 per cent more. So, all in all, could this be a good basis for everyone to take another step forward in 2024?
Well, the economy is a complex system, so I’ll try to keep it simple. Just because the economy is complicated doesn’t mean that simple statements can’t be true. So if we look at 2023, I see that it was the most dangerous year in many, many years: inflation, sanctions, and an energy crisis. Why have we been working in 2023? I’m not talking about the Government, although the Government’s worked too, but ordinary Hungarians. Why have they been working in 2023? In 2023 Hungarians have been working in order to make sure that things don’t get worse, so they can protect what they’ve already achieved. Looking ahead to 2024, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Why will we work, what will be the meaning of our work in 2024? Now 2024 is a year of hope. We’ll no longer be working to prevent things getting worse, but we’ll be working to make things better. And we can see the first signs that this year of hope isn’t just a pipe dream, but an achievable possibility. One of the examples you’ve mentioned, because raising the minimum wage is always good news, is that there’s a general consensus in Hungary that inflation will be somewhere between 5 and 6 per cent. We’ll definitely increase pensions by 6 per cent, even if inflation turns out to be only 5 per cent: accurate accounting, long friendship. Now we’ve promised 6 per cent, so we’ll stick to that even if inflation is only 5 per cent. And if inflation’s 5 per cent and wages rise by 10–15 per cent at the bottom end of the scale, the minimum wage and guaranteed wage minimum, this will pull public works wages up with it, and other wages too. So in Hungary there will be pay increases which outstrip price increases. Before I give ourselves a pat on the back, this wasn’t decided by the Government, but by the economic players in Hungary. An extremely positive aspect of Hungarian economic policy is that the level of the guaranteed wage isn’t decided by the Government. It’s true that I have to sign it and announce it, and in that sense it’s formally a government decision; but I never pressure the economic players into it. Whatever the trade unions, the employees and employers agree among themselves is usually what the Government accepts. We prefer to mediate, to arbitrate, but not to make the decisions. And the players in the Hungarian economy have agreed that Hungarian companies will be able to do this in 2024. So let’s go for it! Let’s hope it will happen, and that higher wages will come into force from today. But there are other encouraging signs. We’ve been able to announce the extension of the family home creation scheme (CSOK), we’ve made the Village CSOK even more attractive, and we’ve also launched a new programme for urban home creation, called “CSOK Plus”. We’ve also increased the baby loan. I’ll say this quietly: we rarely talk about results here, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing, because after all the exciting part of politics is not so much the success, but the trouble and the failure. But there’s an important piece of information here: the proportion of Hungarians under 40 who own their own homes has reached 75 per cent. This is very important, because there’s always a debate about whether the Hungarian home system should be focused more on rental properties or on owner-occupied homes. I always argue for home ownership, I always argue for property ownership. Ownership gives more security than renting, and I see people are receptive to that idea – because if 75 per cent of people under 40 already own their own home, I think that’s a major achievement. And another encouraging sign for 2024 is that there will be a 6 per cent pension increase in January, and in February we’ll be able to pay the now increased thirteenth month’s pension. This is why I say that 2024 will be – or looks like it will be – a year full of hope; and in 2024 we’ll work to make things better, and not just protect what we have, as we had to do in 2023.
We’re running short of time, but let’s talk about one more topic – because last week you were at an economic forum in Baku, where you talked about Hungary possibly being the bridge between East and West. And if we look at your meetings and travels in recent weeks and coming weeks we can see that this statement is also correct in a political sense, because you’ve been meeting and negotiating with both Western and Eastern leaders. The question is this: Is there a need for such political and economic bridges at a time when many in the West are more interested in burning existing bridges – or are urging for this to be done?
If we take ourselves as the starting point, we can see that in the last twenty or thirty years Hungary has taken its place in the Western world. Communism and the Soviet Union tore us out of this, our natural environment, which is why we look the way we do. We’d look a lot better if those forty years of communism had never happened and the Soviet Union had never set foot here. Let’s leave it at that, because it only makes one’s heart bitter. But the point is that in the last twenty or thirty years we’ve come out of the Soviet bloc and taken our place in the Western world. Much of the effort of Hungarian diplomacy has been in the service of this purpose. But we’ve moved beyond that. Our place is clear: we’re part of the West, we have NATO membership, European Union membership, and so on. Now we have to take a fundamentally economic approach. Our interest is to trade with all the countries of the world, to cooperate economically and to try to make a profit. For us, therefore, insularity or the formation of blocs – and, as you’ve said, there’s this tendency, indeed in the West – is against our interests. Hungary is a country of ten million people. If our market were a hundred million, we could perhaps afford to close ourselves off, because we’d have enough people, and the size of our economy would therefore be large enough to be able to independently produce and distribute a sufficient amount of wealth among the people, and people themselves would be able to obtain it. But there are only ten million of us. If a country of ten million wants to live at the standard we’re living at now – or even better, because we want to live even better – it has to be able to sell its products all over the world. Our economy isn’t the Hungarian economy: our economy is the whole world. And for this we need to be connected, we need to develop economic cooperation. A blind man can see that at the moment the most rapidly developing, most prosperous part of the world is to our east. Therefore economic cooperation with the East is in Hungary’s vital interest, and this is what must be served by the foreign policy activities of the government of the day – in this case our government. Perhaps I’m exaggerating a little, but this is why you see me running around like a March hare: one day in Switzerland, the next in Azerbaijan, next week in Argentina and then in Brussels. It’s because I’m trying to open up the space for Hungarian economic players to do business abroad as successfully as possible, and to bring Hungary as many benefits as possible.
In the last half hour I’ve asked Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about Ukraine’s accession to the EU, the protection of national sovereignty and economic issues.