Emmanuel Berretta, Charles Sapin
All eyes are on you. The next European Council offers an opportunity to send a political message to Ukraine by approving significant financial aid for it and opening accession negotiations by March. What are the reasons for your veto on this?
Legally speaking it’s not exactly a veto. Let’s just say that I’m not contributing to what I think is a bad decision. The conception I have of Europe is that if not everyone agrees, then there’s no decision. Ukraine is in difficulty, it’s been invaded by Russia, and we’ve decided to support it. It’s therefore right for the whole European Council to send Ukraine the right signals. I’m in agreement with that. But there are other types of signal that can be sent instead of the opening of negotiations for membership of the European Union. We shouldn’t be doing that.
For two reasons. Firstly, because they’re not ready to negotiate. Secondly, because we Europeans aren’t ready to accept them as full members. Hungary is a neighbour of Ukraine. Whatever people think in Paris, Brussels and The Hague, we know exactly what’s going on in Ukraine. The European Commission’s report that four out of seven preconditions have already been met is simply not true. Ukraine is known as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. This is a joke! So we can’t take the decision to start a negotiation process on accession.
And the second reason?
The second reason concerns us in particular. I don’t know if the French are aware of what Ukraine’s membership would mean for France in economic terms. Every year you’d have to pay an extra 3.5 billion euros into the EU’s common budget. Is this accepted here? Is there public debate on it? Let’s approach the question from a different angle. Ukraine is a large country, with an important agricultural sector. If you let this agriculture enter the European agricultural system, it will destroy it the very next day. We can’t let them in unless we transform our system of agricultural subsidies. The consequences would be appalling. There hasn’t been any preparation for Ukraine to become a member of the European Union in a well-structured way, for it to bring in more than it would cost us. So it’s best not to start negotiations. Let’s not repeat the mistakes we made with Türkiye. What I propose is to conclude a strategic partnership treaty with the Ukrainians, including an agreement on various subjects such as agriculture, customs and security. I’m in favour of increasing our level of cooperation, but that doesn’t mean membership. We’ll look at that after we’ve managed to live alongside one another, after – in several years’ time – we’ve brought Ukraine closer to Europe. I’d like to convince your president on this point.
Aren’t you going to talk about the question of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine?
Human rights and minority rights cannot be a matter for negotiation. They cannot be considered preconditions for membership. Ukrainians must respect them – not because they would like to join the European Union, but because they’re necessary simply to maintain relations with Europe. If they don’t, sooner or later we’ll have to slow down our relations. As your president put it so well a few years ago, human rights, the rule of law and the rights of minorities are basic principles; this is an existential issue.
Will you remain totally inflexible on the question of Ukraine’s accession? Even if the Commission decides to pay you the 10 billion euros in European funds which up until now it has frozen?
I’m not naive. My conception of politics is a combination of ideas, principles and pragmatism. Of course Hungary is always ready to make good agreements, but we must classify problems correctly. When a dilemma arises, I usually classify it into one of three categories: historical, strategic or tactical. The Ukrainian question is one in the historical category, one of monumental importance. The financial question, however, is a tactical one. My experience from over forty years in politics has taught me that you must never link technical issues such as money to historical challenges. If you do, you risk total chaos. This is why I don’t want to strike a deal on the Ukrainian question, but remain perfectly willing to do so on other issues.
Is there any chance of Emmanuel Macron persuading you to change your mind?
My idea is to try to convince him to listen to my arguments. I’m very interested in his opinion on what is making France act in this way. Why is it good for the French to start negotiating now? I’d like to present him with my own ideas on what should be done instead of starting to negotiate. Obviously I can’t abandon my position. In Hungary, more than two-thirds of the public are opposed to opening any negotiations. Parliament is totally against it. Hungarians wouldn’t want that to happen. It falls within the sovereign rights of every Member State to have its own stance.
You’ve always maintained that the sanctions against Russia are “stupid”. Yet you’ve voted in favour of all the sanctions packages. How do you explain this contradiction?
I’ve never supported any sanctions. In fact, it’s hard to find a single example in the history of Europe when sanctions have actually achieved the desired result. They’re very rarely useful. Sanctions are, by their very nature, bad policies. In this case, we’re faced with two problems. The first is that both the design and implementation of sanctions have been poor – sometimes to the point of hurting EU members more than Russia. Secondly, we’re being deceived. How do you explain the fact that, on the one hand, Russia is subject to sanctions, while on the other, the Americans are doubling their purchases of nuclear fuel? While we’re talking about sanctions, others – particularly the United States – are avoiding them and managing to do good business. If we want to do something, we have to take it seriously. Now, I can’t “veto”, as you say, every time. I have to find the right balance. I only prevent decisions – sanctions – that are against Hungary’s fundamental interests. Like those on energy. That is out of the question.
Many Member States criticize you for your closeness to Vladimir Putin. You shook hands with him in China. Do you feel closer to his values than to those of the European Union?
Russia belongs to a different kind of civilization. There’s no comparison with the European Union or the continent of Europe, the cardinal value of which is freedom. Freedom is the ultimate reason that each and every one of us in Europe is involved in politics. The aim is to offer our citizens the greatest possible freedom. This isn’t the case in Russia, where the main issue is not freedom, but maintaining the unity of an immense territory that’s almost impossible to hold together. It’s an illusion to expect Russia to resemble Europe. It just can’t happen. Historically, politically, geographically and in its traditions it’s a different country. The important question is whether our differences are a reason not to cooperate. My answer is “no” – if only because the majority of the world is also different from Europe. Following such logic would lead to us rejecting cooperation with two-thirds of the globe. That’s unreasonable. I’m in favour of rational discussions on how we can have relations with Russia. Because it is there, and it is strong. Of course, there are disagreements between EU Member States on this subject. Some leaders claim that what the European Union is doing now is rational and will lead to something positive. Others, by contrast, believe that the main result will be the military, financial and political collapse of Ukraine. My position is the latter. We should have a Plan B, and launch a new strategy.
When you look at the various current conflicts in the world, like those in Armenia, Israel and Ukraine, they all give the impression of being one and the same conflict: the West against the rest of the world. Which side are you on?
I was born in a communist country. I spent twenty-six years of my life in a political and economic world organised according to the logic of blocs: the West on one side, and the Soviet Union on the other. It was terrible. I don’t want the world to go back to a situation in which, instead of looking for interconnections and cooperation across the globe, we see the rest of the world as being against us. The creation of division is not good policy. In reality it’s an American disease.
What do you mean by that?
Americans believe that there are universal values that must be understood in the same way everywhere in the world. I don’t like that approach. Our experience is different. There’s a cultural basis, and it’s on this basis that people can decide what kind of values and political institutions are right for them. So we can’t ask non-Westerners to behave like us, to have the same institutions as us. That’s an American universalist approach which, in my opinion, doesn’t hold water, and which creates many conflicts in the world. So we shouldn’t go down that road. We are Europeans. We understand culture. We understand our partners better. We should not follow the American approach, but rather discuss the rational policies of China, Japan, India, Indonesia and Russia. This is why my approach is not to accept the formation of separate blocs, but rather to advocate trade “interconnectivity”.
You often say that the West is in decline, and that the influence of leftists and liberals – as well as mass immigration – is weakening the European cultural model. Do you think modern-day France is collapsing?
Fortunately, it’s not my job to answer that question. I can’t be a better expert on French politics than Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen, François Fillon or Nicolas Sarkozy… You have exceptional politicians and they’ll find an answer. What I can say to that question is that we Hungarians wouldn’t want to follow what you’re doing. It’s probably good for you, but it wouldn’t be good for Hungary. For example, on migration. If you think that accepting migrants will lead to something agreeable, to a new society, to something morally higher than traditional society, then do it. That’s your choice. But we Hungarians think it’s too risky. There’s no guarantee that by letting migrants in and mixing cultures, we’ll end up with something better than our traditional society. It’s too risky. Whether we’re talking about terrorism, public safety, or the economic consequences, we wouldn’t want to be part of that adventure. If you want to do it, do it. But don’t force us to follow you. That’s all I’m asking.
How do you read the dynamics of the different nationalist forces across the continent? Could this affect the balance of the future European Parliament?
I see two aspects: one historical, the other democratic. Let’s start with the second: democracy. In many European countries we’re witnessing a kind of democratic deficit. People perceive politics as something unchanging, carried out by the same elites with just some slight modifications. The voice of the people is neither heard nor respected. So people tend to turn to forces outside the elite, because they hope that these new personalities will take the voice of the people seriously. This democratic problem is present in many countries. This hegemonic approach of the elite to public opinion is rejected by many people. They would like to speak differently, with different ideas. They even use different words when talking about gender, about migration, about the European Union. But in many countries the general perception is that this is not allowed. They’re not listened to, their voice is ignored. This gives parties that are not part of the liberal elite – if I may put it that way – a chance to gain increasing support.
You mentioned a second aspect…
The second aspect is national sovereignty. I think this concept should be taken more seriously in Europe than it has been up to now. In Europe we have two traditions of national sovereignty. On the one hand, there’s the tradition of the Roman Empire, which is still highly respected in France and Germany. This translates into a centralist approach to organizing the political life of our EU. This is the Roman tradition. But there’s also another tradition. Because after the collapse of the Roman Empire, no other empire was created; nation states were created by various types of tribes – as in Spain, for example. This is the opposite of the imperialist approach. So, within the European Union, we find these two dynamics: the centralist approach and the national sovereigntist approach. When they’re in balance, the European Union functions well. But when the balance is upset, problems arise. This balance worked rather well when the British were present in the EU. Together with the Central European countries, they provided a counterweight to the Roman tradition of France and Germany. The British and Central Europeans weren’t in the majority, but they did constitute a blocking minority. With Brexit, the balance of the system was upset.
And since Brexit?
As soon as the British left, the centralist countries introduced new instruments that they can use against national sovereigntist countries. I’m thinking of the rule of law procedure, or budget conditionality related to the rule of law. If the British were still in the EU, these ideas wouldn’t even be mentioned! The blocking minority would never have let it happen. The departure of the British has weakened Central Europe. The Brussels bureaucrats, as they say, and the countries that follow the tradition of the Roman Empire want to force us to accept a more centralist way of life. This is something we don’t like. So we’re resisting. This is the other reason that national sovereigntist forces – sometimes extremist – are rising. In my opinion, these are the two reasons that national parties of the Right are on the rise in Europe.
You’re fighting against the European definition of the rule of law. What’s your definition of the rule of law?
First of all, let me be clear about this: the Founding Treaty of the European Union contains no definition of the rule of law. The rule of law is mentioned, but nothing defines it exactly. We should, however, have a common understanding of it. This is not what is happening. The rule of law has become a political instrument in the hands of those who want a more centralised European Union. This concept is being used against us because we’re not appreciated. When Hungary, or Fidesz, Hungary’s ruling party, left the EPP [Christian Democrats – Editor, Le Point], the rule of law procedure was instituted immediately. This is because we’re no longer within the European Union’s dominant party structure. We’re innocent, but we’re also vulnerable. And they’re attacking us. That’s all there is to it. The rule of law has been erected as a politically-motivated instrument. The rule of law should be taken more seriously, and not used as a political tool. If you read the Hungarian constitution, you’ll see that one of the first things it says is that Hungary is a country governed by the rule of law. And we must respect the rule of law.
But how do you define it? Freedom of the media, independence of the judiciary, checks and balances?
Yes, the separation and balance of powers, religious freedom, community freedom. These are all fully respected in the Hungarian constitution. These are very traditional conservative values, I think.
You say that the problem began when Fidesz left the EPP group in the European Parliament. We’ve been informed that your Fidesz party is about to join the European Conservatives and Reformists [ECR] group. Is this correct?
It’s true that negotiations are underway. We have great respect for the Italian prime minister [Giorgia Meloni], who heads the ECR. We respect Poland, which is the ECR’s other major party. We’d be happy to join the ECR. The question is when: before or after the European elections? It’s a very pragmatic question.
What’s your preference?
As we want to join them, we don’t want to cause them any inconvenience. So, if they think the sooner the better, so much the better. If they prefer it to be after the elections, we’re prepared to accept that. The only problem is that there’s another faction in the European Parliament that brings together many of the parties that are close to us. This is the ID [Identity and Democracy] group, of which Marine Le Pen is a member. She’s also close to us. It’s rather unfortunate that these two blocs, ID and ECR, have so far failed to find a way to cooperate. After the European elections we’ll probably see how the parties which belong to one group or the other fare at the ballot box. And then we’ll think about how we can cooperate. Because we’ll never have a majority if the non-traditional political parties of the Right aren’t prepared to cooperate.
You’ve just said that you’re close to Mrs. Meloni. But why won’t you help her deal with the migrants arriving in Italy? Why do you refuse to reform asylum and migration? You could help her by doing so.
I’m trying to be as helpful as possible. But the path we’re taking with the new migration pact is simply the wrong one. I’ve acquired a certain expertise on migration issues. I’m the only one to have built a fence. We’ve stopped the migrants. There are no migrants in Hungary, and I’m proud of that. Sometimes a few manage to get through, but sooner or later we push them back.
The Slovaks and Austrians differ somewhat on that. They see migrants arriving from Hungary.
It’s not easy to block everything on a border that’s, let’s say, three or four hundred kilometres long – even if it’s a tightly sealed fence. You know, it’s a constant struggle. Our objective is very simple: no one should be able to enter Hungarian territory without Hungary’s authorisation. This goal should be followed by all Europeans! And yet they don’t. So I’d like to support Mrs. Meloni and the other leaders. Hungarian regulations stipulate that if someone wishes to travel to Hungary, they must hand over their papers to the Hungarian authorities, but wait outside Hungary – in Serbia, for example. And they can enter when they get a positive answer. This is the only good solution to migration. This asylum reform being discussed in Europe may be better than the previous one, but it’s not a solution. The ultimate solution is that no one should be able to enter European territory without having obtained permission from an authority based on a procedure. Migrants must wait outside, otherwise it won’t work. That’s my personal experience. It’s not a theory: I’ve been fighting migration for over eight years, and I know that this is the only way. If you let migrants in, you’ll never be able to deport them, no matter what legal refinements you use, like the “fiction of non-entry into the EU” that’s in the reform. That won’t matter, because you’ll have flesh-and-blood beings, real people, who will have entered; and you won’t be able to send them back. They’ll represent their own culture, their own understanding of society and their own values. They won’t behave in the way that intellectuals want them to behave.
Suppose Mrs. Meloni calls you and says, “Could you lend me a plane? I’d like to send some migrants back to Africa.” Would you help her?
I’ve suggested it hundreds of times.
But in that case you’re already applying the European asylum reform! Because that’s a possibility in the reform.
The problem with the reform is that there are two other points. The first is that if the Commission declares that if we’re in a migration crisis, it can allocate migrants to Hungary. This is known as the “security clause”. The second point is that if I don’t accept those migrants I’ll have to pay.
There’s a third possibility: aid in kind to a state overwhelmed by migration flows, as we’ve just mentioned with the plane lent to Mrs. Meloni.
Well, okay, I’m even willing to pay if the European Union underwrites at least 30 per cent of my border defence costs. Because I spend over 2 billion euros defending the border, with soldiers and fences – and I get nothing. We can manage this point if Brussels takes into consideration my contribution as a defender of the border.
That would be a good negotiation…
Absolutely. I’m very positive about it.
In six months’ time we’ll have very important elections: the European Parliament elections. Do you think we’re on the eve of a turning point for the European Union? Do you think that there could be a nationalist majority?
We have a good chance of winning, because, as I’ve said, the fundamental objectives behind the creation of the European Union aren’t being followed by the elite: the liberal elite, the dominant elite, the Brussels bureaucrats. The European Union is the promise of peace and prosperity through a higher standard of living. Now we have neither peace nor improved prosperity. So this is a good time for non-mainstream parties to say, “Thanks, guys, but it’s up to us newcomers to take power and run the EU in order to restore peace, restore security and improve prosperity.” This is a good time for non-traditional parties of the Right. We need to get the job done. The opportunity is here. So I think it’s reasonable to hope that after the elections change will be brought by the newcomers.
Russian tanks were in Budapest in 1956. Don’t you fear that one day history will repeat itself? As you know, Donald Trump wants NATO to die. Don’t you think the situation also seems risky for Hungary?
NATO is a good thing, and we need it. Today we’re in a safe position, because NATO is much stronger than Russia. Russia hasn’t even been able to defeat the Ukrainians. So NATO is essential. But we run the risk of the Americans leaving Europe. We Europeans should take responsibility for defending ourselves. Therefore I am the strongest advocate for increased defence spending. Within the framework of a common European military industry, you, the French, should play a very important role in increasing our military capabilities and finding a way – on a European basis – to cooperate, just as we do within NATO. Europe must be capable of defending itself with its own forces. Otherwise we’ll always be in the shadow of the Americans. That’s the reality.
But that will take years…
It depends on us. In Hungary, we started modernising the army four years ago, and we’re now achieving spending of over 2 per cent of GDP. We have a new industry. We have a new army. When you have the will, you can achieve results. Let’s do it! I’m a fervent supporter of a common European defence policy. I don’t like the centralist approach of the European Union, but in the field of security we should be more centralized than we are.