Speech by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at a conference of speakers of parliaments of Southeast European countries and Italy

17 November 2023, Budapest

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am in a difficult situation. I think that the Commissioner for Enlargement has said all the important things, so in terms of importance – or perhaps in terms of interest – what I have to say cannot compete with what he has said. So, if you will allow me, I would like to talk about something that the Commissioner was obviously less able to talk about – or perhaps was prohibited from talking about. This is the wider context that surrounds the issue of growth policy in the whole of the Western Balkans. I am glad that our Italian friends are here. In English, they might say “upgrading”, which accords us higher value – because, after all, one of the European Union’s founding countries is our guest. And although Hungary can look back on a past within the European Union, the experience, depth and richness of that past is not on a par with that of our Italian friends. So thank you, Mr. Speaker, for coming and being here with us.

Europe is looking to your region at a difficult time. So far the European Union has not performed heroically in the field of enlargement. There is more cause to speak in tones of criticism rather than praise. This is not the fault of the Commissioner, but rather that the EU itself cannot really decide how to think about the Southeast European region. It is an unpleasant task: something needs to be done with these countries; does it see them as a kind of difficulty, a problem – or an opportunity? For those of us who joined the EU later, we have always seen enlargement as an opportunity for the EU as well. Of course, today there is a school of thought among the old Member States, according to which the reason that things are not going as well in the EU as they used to is that we have taken in these people from the post-Soviet world. So there is a line of thinking that sees enlargement in a rather negative context. We think differently. We say that we should look at the economic achievements of the last five years and subtract what has been added to the collective performance of Europe by the countries that have been admitted as a result of enlargement. Let us subtract the economic growth of Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states and look at the growth in Europe over the last five years. And then what we see is almost nothing. Dynamism, growth, energy and strength are in fact still coming from the economies of the more recently admitted countries. It is not my place to delve into the reasons for this, but I just wanted to make you understand that our countries, the countries of the V4, the Central Europeans – now from within the EU – see enlargement towards the Balkans as a source of energy, a resource and an opportunity. For us, therefore, enlargement is – as the English say – a “must”: it must happen.

Another factor is that we Central Europeans also have a historical sensitivity. We look at the map – it is a favourite pastime here in Central Europe to look at old and new maps – and we see that there is a geopolitical hole between Greece and Hungary. Greece is a member of the EU, Hungary is a member of the EU, and what lies between them is not. And in politics there are some laws that are similar to those in physics. One is that there is no such thing as a vacuum: if we do not integrate this space, then others will have plans for it. I am not passing judgement or giving an opinion, but simply giving a descriptive account, a description. I too am just getting used to the new situation in which the Hungarian-Serbian border has suddenly become the meeting point and borderline of the Chinese free trade area and the European Union’s single market. After all, Serbia has concluded a free trade agreement with China. Over the next five years, more than 10,000 tariff items will be withdrawn. This would obviously be incompatible with membership of the European Union, but as we have not included Serbia, others have entered the race. And the Serbs would do well to have more irons in the fire – if there is no other way to get Europe to take action, then that is the way it has to be. So I would like to point out to you that thinking about the whole region and having a positive view of enlargement is not apparent in the European Union today; but this must be fought for by us, with whom the EU has already been enlarged, and the Commissioner – who, as a member of the Commission, is responsible for this portfolio. So this is the first reason for the uncertainty about you in the European Union.

Now, in the last two years a new reason has emerged, which has confused everything. And this is the war between Russia and Ukraine, which is having an impact on you by increasing the European Union’s uncertainty. I regularly criticise the intellectual performance of the European Union, but I never say that its level is zero. But even this current European Union – which is in a bad way, a bad way intellectually – had a strategy for how it wanted to advance, how it wanted to succeed in the world. This strategy had a security leg and an economic leg. The security leg was that there should be a pan-European security architecture, stabilized by all kinds of international treaties, arms limitation treaties and other treaties of a military nature. And since threats often come from the East, Russia was part of it. Since the war, this has ceased. In practice this security architecture has collapsed; it has not been replaced by another one, but has simply collapsed. And today there is no clear answer as to what kind of security treaty system and architecture we want in order to guarantee Europe’s long-term security. We do not know. Another uncertainty.

We see the same strategic uncertainty on the economy. There used to be a simple formula for European economic success. We made a deal with the Russians – by which we mean that the Germans made a deal with the Russians: they imported cheap energy, we imported cheap energy from Russia, we imported cheap raw materials from Russia. We combined this with world-leading European high technology, engineering, chemicals, nanotechnology, space technology: cutting-edge things. And the combination of the two created European economic success. And we also collected the so-called “peace dividend”, which meant that we did not have to maintain the army that guaranteed Europe’s security, and we were able to redirect resources from military spending more towards the economy. In parenthesis, this is often a controversial topic in discussions between the French and the Germans, when it comes to who really has a budget deficit. The point is that February 2022 saw the collapse of this strategy: the strategy of cheap energy and raw materials from the East, advanced technology, good universities, fantastic research institutes from the West, and the interconnection of all this with resulting European competitiveness and prosperity. Sanctions have made this essentially impossible. And we have no new strategy, we have no answer to the question of what will make us competitive and successful other than this economic strategy. So there are three uncertainties about the Southeast European region: a historical uncertainty, a security uncertainty and an economic uncertainty. How can a Europe that is so unsteady on its legs embark on enlargement? 

If we want to honestly face the position of the Southeast European region in Europe and its position in European minds, then I can honestly give you the description that I have just given you. The war in Ukraine – or Russia’s war against Ukraine – creates another difficulty for you. And now I am not talking about the evident fact – which obviously has already been mentioned by those before me – that we have an old enlargement task, that we have not even completed it, and that we are about to embark on a new one. This is a problem in itself. But that is not what I am talking about. We have a bigger problem than that. The bigger problem is the kind of subtle European cunning that I see every day at prime ministerial summits, in small and large groups, and it can be described in the following way. The following is a narrative: “Since we now have ten applicants for EU membership, which means that the number of Member States will increase from twenty-seven to thirty-seven, and the decision-making structure is already cumbersome, it obviously could not function with thirty-seven countries; and so enlargement will require thorough internal reforms. First the big internal reforms and then enlargement.” This is openly advocated by several major large European countries. I have just attended a meeting where the Germans made this clear, and there have been European Union summits where the French have also made it clear: “First internal reform, then enlargement.” Now, if you have already seen EU internal reform, it is safe to say that this means no enlargement. So if we want to reform the EU system first and then enlarge it, we cannot talk about 2030 – and we cannot even talk about 2040. Because every internal reform requires amendment of the Founding Treaty. Now, if another amendment to the Founding Treaty is forced through in the EU, a convention is called, a compromise is reached, and then it is put before twenty-seven national parliaments – and in some countries it has to be put to a referendum. Nothing will come of it. So if the narrative is that the EU must be reformed first, and only then can be enlarged, then the prospects for this region will be significantly restricted. So the first thing we need to do – I’m thinking of the Commissioner, the new Member States, the candidates from the Member States – is to convince the European decision-makers that this is a bad idea. It is not necessary to carry out internal reforms in order to bring into the EU at least the best prepared countries.

I will now say something in parenthesis which may not concern you yet, but which will give you an idea of the ordeal you will face once you are inside – because life inside is not a bed of roses either. Of course, the parties within the EU that are in dispute with one another will use internal reforms for their own purposes. And today, on the subject of internal reforms there are two camps, two schools of thought within the EU. One of them – to which we belong – wants to take back some of the slices of sovereignty that it believes have been stealthily taken from it over the last decade, playing fast and loose with the provisions of the EU’s Founding Treaty. So it wants to transfer powers from Brussels back to the Member States, and we want to abolish the instruments that the Brussels bureaucracy is using for this centralisation: the “rule of law” and “conditionality”. The other school wants to use the debate on internal reforms to increase centralisation and take powers away from the Member States. The most striking example of this is the German proposal to convert unanimous decision-making into majority decision-making with what is called QMV [qualified majority voting]. So they are saying that we should convert unanimous decision-making into majority decision-making. To digress even further, these two schools, these two ways of thinking, are both European. Those of you who want to come in should know that Europe has always had two traditions: two traditions in conflict. One is the tradition of the Roman Empire: a great unified European power, with a sophisticated legal system, a strong army, superb infrastructure, and a capability to even lead the world. And the other tradition is that of the nation states that developed after the fall of the Roman Empire from the territories occupied by the various tribes, seeking nation-state sovereignty for themselves. These two traditions are part of the European debates. Usually these two traditions tended to be in balance. In the past six years, since the British left the EU, this has changed. Putting this complicated historical reasoning into the language of concrete facts, it seems that the French and the Germans have always wanted to centralise. Meanwhile the V4, the Central Europeans, together with the British, have not wanted to do so, and have wanted to strengthen sovereign, nation-state sovereignty. The two used to be in balance, because the British and the V4 were able to prevent any attempt at centralisation. This is why the rule of law procedure or conditionality could not even be on the table as long as the British were members; because we – the British, together with the V4 – always had a blocking minority. But when the British left that fell away, and now we do not have a blocking minority. So at the moment the centralisation drive is moving forward at a faster pace than ever. They are circumventing the law, they are playing fast and loose with the Founding Treaty, and what we saw under communism is being repeated in Brussels: as we used to say, the law is becoming the handmaid of politics. So there is no rule of law in Brussels – it is only a requirement imposed on the Member States. They do not abide by them, they bypass their own rules and reinterpret them as they please. When the rule of law procedure was created by the European Council, I was involved in the intellectually very exciting debate on whether it was permissible to use as an internal political instrument a category that is not defined in the Founding Treaty. It does not say what the rule of law is, it just throws this term around, states that it is there, but does not define it. It is not defined in any lower legislation either. And from that point on, the rule of law is an elastic concept, which can contain whatever you want to put into it politically. And that’s what they do. Now, for example, one of the most recent rule of law objections against Hungary is that one of the judicial bodies, or whatever, has less than the required square metres of office space. This is a “rule of law problem”, which is being used as a basis for Hungary not getting the resources that it is entitled to. Well, a blind man can see that this is not a legal issue, but simply a political issue. So I would like to return to the point that the debate about you – about enlargement – is also part of this larger debate about the future of Europe: about whether it should be centralised or decentralised, and what kind of battles are being waged between groups of countries representing these positions – even on the pretext of enlargement.

This being the situation, I suppose I have not been invited here to give you all kinds of bad news; but if we are being honest, this is the case. We have to look for answers to the question of what can be done sensibly in a situation like this. And I am afraid that here the Commissioner has probably stolen my thunder, and has left very little meat on the bone for me; because I think that in such a situation you have to do what he is doing and what he proposes. What he is proposing is that legal integration is important, that we should not renounce it, and that we should push for it. But he says that there is such a thing as real integration, which he represents, and he says that of course we should have these debates in the world of high politics, but let us take account of the concrete – essentially economic – benefits of membership, and share these economic benefits with those who are not yet in the EU, but are already on their way towards entering it. I think that this is the right response to this situation. In such an uncertain situation, we need to be as firm and specific as possible in setting targets. So Hungary supports the Commission’s proposal; because now we are not only talking about the Commissioner’s opinion, but the Commission has a document which says that the candidate countries should be allowed to share in the benefits of membership as soon as possible – even before they have joined as members.

I could go on at length here about what instruments are available, and I think Commissioner Várhelyi has already done so. One can open up the market even to those who are not yet members: even if you are not a member you can start the free movement of goods, you can start the free movement of services and labour, and you can access the Single Euro Payments Area. Road transport can be made easier, the energy markets of the Member States can be integrated into the large single European energy market, and we should offer accession to the Digital Single Market. These things can be done irrespective of membership, and these countries should also be integrated into the industrial supply chains. Real integration should be pursued, while of course continuing to push and fight for political and legal integration. I think that this is the right response to this situation. We knew this earlier, because the Commissioner has been working on this package for years, and now we are at a more serious stage than simply an idea, because there is already a Commission document that allocates financial resources to this idea. It is less than I would have liked, but for a country that is waiting for accession, a few billion euros is not something that can be simply passed over. I remember when Hungary was not yet a member, and these sums were serious money. So I support the Commission’s proposal to give the candidate countries 2 billion euros in grant aid and 4 billion euros in credit on favourable terms as a growth support instrument for the period between 2024 and 2027. And if this runs out, because you can use it well, then we will double it. Let’s go for it. Let’s get it going. And if it turns out that it works, then feed it, put more money into it. It is true that there is a big debate about how to find the financial resources, because they are not in the budget. They can be created by means of budget reallocations, but it would be simpler to allocate funds in a clear, dedicated way by means of a budget amendment. This means paying more, and we will also have to pay more; but Hungary is happy to pay in and take on the financial burden, the national financial burden, for such an instrument in the interests of your integration. I cannot say the same about Ukraine, for which we do not want to take on any burden – nor will we. But in the interests of integrating the Balkans we are willing to pay more into the European Union budget, or we are willing to redirect some of the money we already have there to you; because this integration – the integration of the countries of Southeast Europe – could be a realistic political operation that is historically necessary and that produces additional energy overall. Therefore it has my full support.

Despite the fact that there are many doubts at the moment, and there will be bloody, sometimes perhaps ill-tempered, heated debates in the next month and a half, on behalf of the Hungarian government I just want to say that that you can count on us: we shall stand by the European integration of the Southeast European region, the Western Balkans. We shall support mobilisation of the resources needed for this, and we shall play our part. And we shall stand by the fact that not only historical truth, not only common sense, but also far-sighted economic thinking demands that the region of Southeast Europe should become a full member of the European Union as soon as possible.

Thank you for your kind attention.