Zsolt Törőcsik: Welcome from Brussels, and I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the Public Media Centre’s studio. Good morning.
Yesterday twenty-six heads of state and government decided that the EU would open accession negotiations with Ukraine. You weren’t in the room when this decision was taken, however. When we spoke in Budapest two weeks ago, you said that you’d propose that this issue be kept off the agenda. What is it that led you to allow this issue to be put on the agenda so that the EU could take a decision on it? What happened yesterday?
There was indeed a long and difficult debate. I spent eight hours trying to persuade them not to do it, not to put it on the agenda - or if we were to put it on the agenda, then to be clear that Ukraine isn’t ready to be a member of the EU. This decision is badly timed, and the situation isn’t ripe for it; let’s come back to it when Ukraine’s ready to negotiate. But it wasn’t possible to convince them. Once again, I struggled for eight hours to explain to them that helping in the wrong way is worse than not helping at all, and this is a bad form of helping. But it wasn’t possible to convince them. And they had a serious argument that I had to take note of - well, they had two serious arguments. The first was that there are twenty-six of them, I am on my own, and through this decision they wanted to give Ukraine the encouragement it needs to continue the war. And they asked me not to prevent them from doing so. But their decisive argument was that Hungary has nothing to lose by doing so, given that the final word on Ukraine’s membership must be given by the national parliaments - twenty-seven of them, including the Hungarian parliament. So if we don’t want Ukraine to become a member of the European Union, then the Hungarian parliament will vote it down. And in the meantime, before it reaches the parliaments, there will be a long, long process, and as they’ve calculated, and I’ve calculated, there will be about seventy-five occasions when the Hungarian government can stop this process. And they said that if during the process of negotiation something is seen to harm Hungary’s interests, then I should block it. But they wanted to go ahead anyway, and if they wanted to go ahead, then I shouldn’t stop them. Meanwhile I didn’t want such a bad decision to weigh on Hungary’s conscience. So I said that I didn’t want to take part - or Hungary didn’t want to take part - in this bad decision, so I told them to go ahead and do it on their own. And so I left the chamber.
Yes, it’s interesting, because it’s the European Union itself - of which Hungary’s a part - that’s starting the negotiations. So will Hungary also bear the consequences of the opening of negotiations? Because, for example, in Parliament on Wednesday you said that the inclusion of Ukraine would mean 190 billion euros in extra expenditure in the seven-year budget.
Among other things. But what happened after those eight hours, over I don’t know how many more hours, until half past two in the morning, was another related topic. Because they immediately wanted to give the Ukrainians 50 billion euros. So essentially they wanted to give Ukraine money from Hungarians - the money of the Member States, including the money of the Hungarians. And I said: “Well, this is a concrete violation of rights, so let’s stop, I must veto this.” In a legal sense, as we clarified the other day, it wasn’t a veto of course, but a decision requiring unanimity, which couldn’t be taken without us. Well, in layman’s terms it’s a veto, and so I had to veto the 50 billion and the related budget amendment. This went on into the night, but they had no choice, they had to accept that Hungary was vetoing it, and so there would be no money. We’ll come back to this, probably at a similar extraordinary summit, sometime in February.
We’ll talk more about that in a moment, but let’s stay with Ukraine’s accession to the EU and the decision on that. We know that no one else withdrew, and everyone else was 100 per cent in agreement with this decision, right? Because a variety of opinion polls show that the majority of society in Hungary and in other EU countries are not clearly in favour of Ukraine’s EU membership.
Well, yes, but I can only stand up for Hungary, or speak on behalf of Hungary. I also know what’s happening in the other Member States, but those countries have their own prime ministers here, and I can’t tell them that their people want something different from what they’re representing here, because that would be interfering in their affairs. So there remains the opportunity, which I’ve taken, to say that such a decision - the decision to open negotiations - is a bad decision. And it’s still a bad decision, even if in the end the Hungarian parliament can prevent it, and as it proceeds the Hungarian government will have seventy-five opportunities to prevent it being fulfilled. Despite that it’s a bad decision, and it could have negative consequences - as I’ve said in the Hungarian parliament. And I’ve made it clear that we won’t hesitate for a single moment: Hungarians won’t pay the financial and economic consequences of this bad decision; let them be paid by those who made it. So if, for example, there’s a situation in agriculture in which the interests of Hungarian farmers need to be protected, Hungary will pull the handbrake. So there should be no doubt about that.
Could the EU’s authority be affected now that accession negotiations have started? Because the Commission tabled a document upon which it made this proposal, but in that document it also stated that Ukraine hasn’t fulfilled all seven conditions required for accession. And despite that, this process was launched.
Well, this is why I say that this is a bad decision and we shouldn’t have set out in that direction. But when the German chancellor, the French president and the other twenty-four almost frantically want to move in that direction, the option open to Hungary is to warn them that it’s a bad decision, and that if we have to pay the consequences we won’t participate, but will pull the handbrake. It’s not unusual, so I’ve seen this before, because the EU has a habit of making bad decisions. They made a bad decision on the issue of migration, for example, and when the point came at which their bad decision would have had consequences for Hungary, we took preventive action: we built a fence, and we’re not giving money to the migrants, but to [Hungarian] families. Or a bad decision was made here in relation to the 2008 financial crisis. Most recently, for example, when it came to the sanctions and the war between Russia and Ukraine, the wrong decision was made not to move towards peace but towards war, and sanctions were introduced. It was the same situation when sanctions were introduced; because Hungary cannot veto proposals day and night, but when the sanctions had consequences that Hungarians would have to pay for, or we would have to suffer negative consequences, I always pulled the handbrake. So the current situation is very similar to what we’ve experienced with sanctions. One thing is for sure: it is a bad decision, but Hungary’s conscience is clear. We’ll be able to stop this process later, we’ll pull the handbrake if we have to, and the final decision will be taken by the Hungarian parliament.
So let’s talk about financial support for Ukraine, for which Brussels is asking for 50 billion euros. Part of this would be an additional payment by the Member States, and the other part would be a loan. And, as you’ve just mentioned, this isn’t something that Hungary supports. What’s the reason for Hungary’s objection? Is it basically that we’d need to pay more, or is it that the EU would be supporting Ukraine?
Well, I have a long list of reasons why this is a bad decision. The first is that they want to take out a joint loan again. So we tried that when we set up the recovery fund in the Covid period, which was set up by the twenty-seven Member States borrowing together. Now that some countries have access to this fund and others don’t, for example us, we’ve had to admit that this idea of jointly creating money and then not allowing everyone to have equal access to it is a bad decision, and so we shouldn’t do it again. So my firm position - and we’ll debate this in the Hungarian parliament - is that it’s not in Hungary’s interest for the EU to manage its finances by taking out loans. The way the EU is run is that we can spend as much money as we pay in. We made an exception once, we made a mistake, let’s not make that mistake again. That’s the first problem. The second problem - and let’s say it publicly - is that the situation in Ukraine is bad. So we shouldn’t send more money to the war, but we should stop the war: there should be a ceasefire and peace negotiations. Instead, they now want to give money to keep the war going. So there were many reasons for us to say: “No, not that, not the Hungarians’ money, because if we take out a loan together, it’s the Hungarians’ money too. You want to give money from Hungarians to continue the war, and that’s not acceptable.” And so, after long hours of discussion, and the customary sparring and persuasion, I said, to put it politely, “Now that’s going too far.” Starting negotiations on Ukraine’s membership doesn’t in itself harm Hungary’s interests, and we’ll have the opportunity to intervene on that later, but on this there’s immediate harm to our interests, so we can’t even start down this road.
Yes, and in connection with this two questions arise. The first is what the European Union would actually be giving this money for - because, as you’ve said, the situation on the battlefield isn’t very good. And the second is who they would actually be giving it to. And this question arises because this week the US Secretary of State said that 90 per cent of the aid that goes to Ukraine returns to US companies. And he didn’t stop there: he said that it’s boosting the US military industrial sector and therefore GDP over there.
This is the situation. So I can’t contradict the words of the US Secretary of State - that is indeed the case. Under these circumstances there’s even more justification for us not to give money.
Let’s talk about another financial issue related to the EU, one that was already prominent in the public debate before the summit; because Brussels has released one third of the funds owed to Hungary that it had been blocking. How do you assess this decision?
Well, better late than never. Hungary had met all the conditions well in advance. This money is due to us. It can be postponed, pushed around, put here, put there, with new conditions imposed; but in the end it has to be given to us, because it’s our money. This has now happened, or at least it’s happened on paper. We’ll see what the situation is in the next month or two, and we’ll get an idea of what’s happened when we next meet in February for the extraordinary summit that Hungary’s veto has now forced us to call.
How can this resource, this roughly 10 billion euros, contribute to wage increases and economic growth in the coming years?
Well, there are some lessons to be learned from the period we’ve just gone through. The first is that the Hungarian economy can function without EU funds. So there’s a myth - fed from here in Brussels, but we also find it in the Hungarian feeling of inferiority - that the country can’t survive without external help. Well, the past year has been really difficult, with high inflation, economic turmoil caused by sanctions and sky-high energy prices. Thankfully the Hungarian economy has survived this period, and in fact inflation is now expected to be around 5 to 6 per cent for the coming year, and unless we mishandle things our growth rate will be one of the highest in the European Union. But why should we mishandle things? So the Hungarian economy is functioning without EU money. Of course if you receive money there’s no need to run away from it - we can accept it, because it’s ours. The second lesson is that there must be change in Brussels. Because the fact that Hungary has been mistreated in this way - that the money we’re owed hasn’t been sent, that there’s been a delay and that there are new conditions - shows that there’s a tendency in Brussels to abuse its power. It likes the Member States to dance to the tune it whistles, but we don’t like to dance when others whistle. The way to resolve this conflict is by replacing them, and then there will be new leadership in Brussels. And the third lesson is that what’s due is due, and sooner or later it has to be given. Now, when the money actually appears - that’s to say when it’s not just verbal and on paper, but it’s in the safe - the Hungarian parliament will decide, within the framework of the Budget Act, how much of it should go to raising teachers’ salaries, supporting small businesses, modernising energy efficiency, and so on. So this money will go into the Hungarian economy.
You’ve said that what’s due is due, and it has to be given. Could this decision now give cause for optimism that the other two thirds of the frozen funds might be received?
Well, we have an extraordinary situation now, because the other countries want to amend the current seven-year budget - which I vetoed yesterday, preventing the decision from being taken. Now there will be two months, perhaps more, before we meet again and see what’s happened, and whether Hungary has really received the funds. What’s happening with the rest? We’ll discuss that later. I’ve always said that if someone wants to change the budget law, and they want to for a number of reasons, this is a good opportunity for Hungary to make it clear that it should get what’s due to it - not half or a quarter of it, but all of it. So we want to be treated fairly, and now is a good opportunity for that.
Going back to what happened this week, on Tuesday Parliament adopted elements of the national sovereignty protection package. Is this a way of preventing a case like the “rolling dollars”? Because there have probably been attempts at influence-peddling, and there probably will be - we hear about it before practically every election, everywhere in the world.
The Hungarian Constitution is a well-constructed system of protection. But constitutions are created by nations in order to define the framework of their own existence, and at the same time give themselves a guarantee that they’ll be able to defend their own independence. The greatest treasure of any country is its own independence, its sovereignty. This is what’s served by the constitutional system itself. And I think that the Hungarian system stands on good legs, on strong, muscular legs. What emerged in the 2022 election campaign, however, is that there’s still some space left between the legs, or next to the legs; and that’s where the mice sneak in or the dollars roll in. And although the Hungarian constitutional system prohibits parties from accepting money from abroad, the Left has nevertheless found a way to influence the election with foreign money - partly through the left-wing media and partly through the support of NGOs working for them and associated with the Left. We exposed this, or it emerged, and they also admitted it. And it was clear that Hungary had to do something to block this gap. And the law on the protection of sovereignty was passed to prevent this from happening again. So we have a constitutional system that basically works well. Now we’ve added a sovereignty protection law, which makes it clear that these loopholes are being closed, and that dollars can’t roll into the coffers of the Left, or into the Left’s media. It’s not fair for foreign money to be used to influence people’s political decisions, obviously in donors’ interests. We hope that this current law will put a stop to that.
At the same time, however, left-wing parties - and many international critics - argue that this makes it impossible for left-wing parties, for example. Or there are those who compare it to similar laws in other countries, citing this Hungarian law as bad practice.
It’s interesting, however, that quite a few people have spoken out. I’d encourage them to continue speaking out, because this amounts to a confession. So, of course, who’s speaking out now? Well, those speaking out are the ones who have been receiving this money! Those who are speaking out, those who are protesting, are those who have been living off it, those who have been - let’s put it bluntly - getting paid for their services. These are the protestations of mercenaries. It’s hard to imagine a finer confession than this - they’re betraying themselves. Anyone whose interests are harmed by the law, because they’ve been receiving money from abroad, obviously doesn’t like it. Our ambition wasn’t to please them, however, but to ensure that this legislation benefits the Hungarian nation; and I’m convinced that it protects Hungary’s interests.
In the meantime we see that the world’s moving towards the formation of blocs, and the question is this: In such a period, how much has sovereignty and room for independent action increased in value? Because obviously this also has an impact on how strong these attempts to gain influence will be or could be in the coming period.
Of course we Hungarians aren’t alone in the world, there are a few others, and there are those who are more numerous than us. And sovereignty doesn’t mean that a country closes itself off, isolates itself and separates itself from the rest of the world. That’s preposterous! So, on the contrary, Hungary must participate instead of disengaging, it must not assist in creating blocs, but must build relations. Great opportunities are offered to Hungary by the world economy, world trade, good integration into it and proper participation in it. This is how we can make money, because this is how we can sell our products; we can live better than our size would otherwise enable us to, because we’re producing not only for a market of ten million people, but for the entire world market, and we’re integrated into the system according to which the entire world economy operates. So the question of sovereignty isn’t about isolation or connectedness, but about the right kind of connectedness. We interpret sovereignty as being engaged in international life - including international politics and the international economy - in a good way that accords with Hungary’s interests.
Opinion polls show that society is united behind the Government’s position on the issues we’ve been talking about so far: the question of financing Ukraine, its EU membership and indeed the defence of sovereignty. Yet these issues are also being focused on in the national consultation. Why do we need the consultation? On these issues, why is it a stronger tool than, say, a poll?
The position of Hungarians isn’t united behind the Government, but people have a position, which the Government feels obliged to represent. So it’s not a question of the Government shaping public opinion. Hungarians have minds of their own, they have opinions on the world’s most important issues even without the Government. The Government’s task is simply to understand what people think and why they think it; and if they’re willing to talk to the Government, then let’s discuss it. That’s what the consultation is. So the consultation helps people to think about issues that they might rarely think about at home, but - because they’re important for the country - to nevertheless think about them once, to participate, and to express their opinions. And this certainly helps the Government. It also helped me yesterday. When I had to veto an attempt by twenty-six countries to distribute money, countries which wanted to borrow money and then distribute it, you can imagine that it’s not a simple operation: when debating here you need arguments and you need internal strength. And for me the greatest reserve of strength is knowing the country’s general opinion and knowing the will of the Hungarian people. So here I’m not representing the Prime Minister’s position, or even the Hungarian government’s position, but I’m representing Hungary’s position. Now it’s a given that on this issue, of course, the Left - acting mostly like mercenaries - aren’t pursuing the national interest. I can’t do anything about that, but in elections it’s clear to see that they belong to a minority within the Hungarian nation, the Hungarian people, and we know their opinion. But the majority opinion is very different. So the Government doesn’t shape public opinion; the Government engages with the people in a discussion, a debate, a negotiation, an exchange of ideas, at the end of which there will be a Hungarian position, which I can represent here. But in the end, of course, what counts isn’t what I represent and fight for here. I can ward off big problems, I can veto what needs to be vetoed, and I won’t allow there to be a situation in which Hungarians pay the price for bad decisions in Brussels. Yet the most important thing isn’t that, but that in the end it’s the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian people’s elected representatives who decide on all important matters in Hungary. This will also be the case for Ukraine’s accession to the European Union, and it will also be the case for many difficult issues that are being debated in Brussels. So the centre of our strength, the centre of our heart, is the Hungarian parliament, because that’s where the people elected by the Hungarian electorate for this task sit. So the Government is important, but the most important thing is the Parliament behind the Government and the whole of Hungary behind the Parliament.
Here in Brussels at the Public Media Centre I’ve been asking Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about subjects including Ukraine’s accession to the European Union and its financing, and the national sovereignty protection package.