Interviews / Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the French weekly “Le Point”

Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the French weekly “Le Point”

Emmanuel Berretta and Charles Sapin

Every Friday Viktor Orbán tries to break from the routine of exercising power and meet different people, listen to different opinions and gain different kinds of experience. This Friday, 24 May, in front of the Carmelite Monastery (the Prime Minister’s office), he is accompanying a tall man called Evander Holyfield to his car. “A former American boxer. Remember him? He’s the one whose ear was half bitten off by Mike Tyson” he says, mimicking the former heavyweight champion. Two weeks before the European Parliament elections, Viktor Orbán is also preparing to don his boxing gloves: first, to knock out Péter Magyar, his new opponent in Hungary; then to poleaxe Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, who is seeking a second term; and finally to provide the rotating presidency of the European Council for six months. Above all, he hopes to create a political “supergroup” of nationalists and sovereigntists that will have sufficient weight in the European Parliament. 

From 1 July Hungary will hold the rotating presidency of the European Union. What will its priorities be? 

Let’s start by reassuring those in Europe who fear this prospect. Having already held the rotating presidency, we shouldn’t overestimate the importance of this role. It’s the role of an honest broker, not a real leader. The priorities of the Hungarian Presidency should set an agenda for all of us. I’d highlight five of them. The first of these is the migration issue. We don’t agree with the current migration pact, because we want to stop more migrants than the pact allows for. Secondly, we want to have a rational debate about our involvement in the war between Ukraine and Russia. It’s not enough to say “Vladimir Putin mustn’t win.” We need an estimate of what this involvement is costing us, and we need to clarify our objectives. Thirdly, the European Union has long reassured us that going green won’t compromise European competitiveness, but that on the contrary, it will enable it to be enhanced. But it’s clear that the opposite is true. We need to rethink the green transition before it destroys our industry. The fourth point is that we need to improve Europe’s defence capabilities. If our security is mainly provided by the Americans, we’ll never have real strategic autonomy. Finally, and lastly, European countries must share their good practices – excluding immigration – in dealing with the demographic crisis. We should remind ourselves that the main cause of our demographic problems is war. [Although it is far from the only cause – ed.] If it hadn’t been for the two world wars and the deaths of millions of young European Christians in those wars, there wouldn’t be a demographic crisis in Europe.

Opinion polls indicate a breakthrough for nationalist forces across the European continent. What do you think will change in the current European Parliament elections? 

These elections are of historic importance. In ten years’ time, we’ll probably look back on them as having decided whether Europe experienced peace or war. Neither the First nor the Second World War was immediately seen as a world war. The 1914–18 war was initially seen as the Third Balkan War, and the 1939–45 war was initially seen as a German–Polish war. Apart from how many seats this or that party wins, in my opinion the most important thing will be how many MEPs will be prepared to go further into the war in Ukraine, and how many will be in favour of ending the war. In addition to the victory of peace-supporting MEPs, I also hope that there will be more sovereigntist MEPs than at present, who will support a Europe of nations. I don’t know whether a breakthrough will be achieved – that’s for the people to decide. I do know, however, that today the future of the European sovereigntist camp – like that of the Right in general – is in the hands of two women. Everything depends on the ability of the French Marine Le Pen and the Italian Giorgia Meloni to work together. If they can find a way to work together within a single grouping, or in coalition with each other, they’ll become a European force. The attractiveness of their cooperation will be very high. This could be enough to transform the European political Right – and even to eclipse the European People’s Party [the EPP, which is now the strongest group in the European Parliament – ed.], which the Germans have completely taken control of, making it effectively a German faction.

Will the elected members of your party, Fidesz, join the ECR, Giorgia Meloni’s party group, as you announced in Le Point last December? 

Yes, this is still on the agenda. But history, which is being made as we speak, can rewrite everything. So far the main obstacle to cooperation between the ECR group and Marine Le Pen’s Identity and Democracy (ID) group has been the presence of the German extremists AfD. This obstacle has now been removed, following the expulsion of AfD from the group. I hope that Giorgia Meloni and Marine Le Pen will find a way to negotiate with each other immediately after the elections. We will, of course, also use the strength, energy and drive of the elected Fidesz representatives in order to find the right form of cooperation. We’d like Fidesz to join the ECR, but we should also know what its relationship will be with the French National Rally [Rassemblement National] on the one hand, and the EPP on the other. We need the Right to reflect and gather the views of right-wing voters, so that we don’t have a situation in which the EPP continues to gather right-wing voters around itself, but then deceives them by working with the Left. These issues must be clarified after the European elections.

What do you think of Giorgia Meloni’s volte-face on the European Union? Is it inspiring for you, or do you find it regrettable? 

Her task has been very difficult. Immediately after her election she was accused of being an extremist, and of not respecting EU values – somewhat like us here, or the previous Polish government. A series of political attacks were launched against her, the aim of which was to kill her politically. But she survived, and clarified Italy’s positions. Today everyone respects her government of the Right, which is based on Christian values, is a believer in democracy, and fights for European values. This is a great challenge for the Left. The fame she has earned in Italy and in the European Union by creating a new Right gives me great respect for her.

Do you think that Vladimir Putin represents the greatest threat to Europe, or do you think – like Marine Le Pen – that the greatest threat would be the creation of a “European superstate”, led by the Commission? 

NATO is very strong, Europe isn’t in danger militarily. The biggest threat, in my view, remains the ideological control of the European Union. In Brussels and in many other Member States, there’s a widespread idea that serving certain principles or certain political values is more important than serving the people. This is strange. For me, the primary task is to serve the interests of our nations. But other EU leaders see this as populism. They prefer to defend the “open society”: the notion that national values or identity – traditional family values, not to mention Christian values – are unacceptable. This is the ideology of George Soros. I hope that these European elections will allow us to escape this trap – thanks in particular to the coalition that will be formed between the Italian-dominated ECR group and the French-dominated ID group.

What would you highlight from Emmanuel Macron’s recent speech at the Sorbonne? 

The French president is an unclassifiable politician. I try to build a relationship with him in in-depth debates – especially on philosophical issues. He believes in a progressive and liberal future for Europe – something which isn’t true for me. On the contrary, I see that as a threat: I believe that the only stable basis for the future of Europe is a return to Christian values. This is why my views and those of Macron are diametrically opposed. At the same time, he has great insight into the historical dimensions of things – which is something that can be said of very few European leaders. This allows us to discuss our differences and identify some issues on which we agree – such as nuclear energy, Europe’s competitiveness and our strategic autonomy. It’s just that it takes twice as long as it does with other European leaders. [Laughter]

Conservative MEPs in the EPP are proposing the creation of an integrated European force that would operate on land, sea, air and cyberspace. Do you think this is a good idea?

Of course, this is in the category of good ideas. I support the idea of enhancing our European defence capabilities. But we need to be realistic and move forward gradually. Setting over-ambitious targets will jeopardise the realisation of a good idea. The first step is to establish military-industrial cooperation. Then we must decide whether we want a separate European pillar within NATO. The financing of these defence capabilities is also key, but national budgets are under great pressure from the European Commission. Better cooperation between national armies can be considered, leaving out the Americans. But that will take time. 

Do you support Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for joint borrowing to finance the defence effort?

We’re not at all keen on the idea of joint debt. In Hungary we stand ready to finance our military investments from our own resources. Debt creates a dangerous dependency. The problem with European politics is that many leaders have developed a dependency on joint borrowing. Debt means spending more money than we earn. This is a socialist idea. Many people imagine that European debt is weightless, and that it will only have to be repaid by distant, future generations. But money doesn’t grow on trees. I’m not a socialist, and I’m not a communist: when I talk about money, I actually put money on the table.

In this you agree with Chancellor Scholz, a socialist leader, and not with Emmanuel Macron.

Chancellor Scholz was also Finance Minister, and he knows that it’s about money. He doesn’t fudge.

In the current European campaign in France, Valérie Hayer, the list leader representing President Macron, has said this: “Viktor Orbán is Europe’s biggest blackmailer.” She’s talking about your use of the veto, especially on Ukraine. What’s your response? 

I hope there are more talented politicians in France, who can understand that European politics isn’t a matter of blackmail. It’s simply a question of each Member State having the right to defend its own interests. When Hungary exercises this legal option, it’s exercising a right that’s at the heart of the European Union. On Ukraine, I must remind you that in 2015 the Ukrainian leaders abolished the rules on minorities. This decision has had a very negative impact on those who have lived in that area for thousands of years. They’re not migrants. There’s no doubt that the Ukrainian authorities were mainly targeting the Russian minority with their measures, but all minorities have suffered from this decision. We’ve asked for a change in the way that European minorities – including the Hungarian minority – are treated in Ukraine. We want the 2015 situation to be fully restored, and we’re asking for nothing more and nothing less. The Ukrainian authorities have rejected our request. 

Will you finally approve the actual opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine?

The first question is whether, given the ravages of war, Ukraine will continue to function as a viable state. Our moral responsibility is that we’ve dragged Ukraine into this conflict by promising them support without a clear vision. If we continue in this way, Ukraine will rush to its doom. Under these conditions, it’s too early to negotiate accession. First we need to clarify where Ukraine’s borders are, and how big its population is.                                                    

Hungary, unlike many other countries, sees enlargement in the Balkans not as a burden but as an opportunity. What reforms are needed for the accession of the Western Balkans, including Serbia?                                                                                                                                          

We need to integrate them economically as soon as possible, involve them in major projects and negotiate their accession to the Schengen Area. Institutional difficulties can be solved at the end of the process, not at the beginning. We know Serbia well: a country of seven million hard-working people who want to modernise, as we have done. Their integration is in the interest of us all.                                                                                                                     

Who would you like to see as the President of the European Commission?

I assume you’d like to hear names from me, but unfortunately it’s too early to mention names.

The Italian Mario Draghi, for example, who was President of the European Central Bank?

He’s a highly respected man. What we need to do is get rid of the current leadership, which has been the worst Commission I’ve ever seen. They haven’t kept a single promise, on competitiveness, sanctions, immigration, enlargement, etc. In a democratic system, if we haven’t kept our promises, we leave. It’s too early to name names, but the next President should be someone who’s been a prime minister for several years, with solid experience enabling them to tackle weighty, high-profile issues such as war, competitiveness and immigration. 

Do you agree with the nomination of Mark Rutte of the Netherlands as NATO Secretary General?                                                                                                                                  

Negotiations are still ongoing, but Mark Rutte has made some statements that have been problematic for us. He once said that Hungary should leave the EU, and also that we should be brought to our knees. This isn’t the best way to win our support.

China is a very big investor in Hungary, catching up with Germany. If Europe’s causing you so many problems, why not join BRICS?

We’re staying in the EU, because 75 per cent of our exports go to the single market. This is vital for our open economy of ten million people. We’re part of the West, even if we come from the East. Nevertheless, we have an original strategy to develop cooperation between cutting-edge technologies from the East and the West – for example between a Chinese battery factory and a BMW factory on the same site. Hungary has the unique potential to form a bridge between East and West.

You have a new opponent in Péter Magyar, who came from Fidesz, from your party. He’s attacked your right-hand man, Antal Rogán, accusing him of pulling the strings in the background. Opinion polls show that 24–26 per cent of voters are ready to cast their vote for Péter Magyar, even though nobody knew him at the beginning of the year. Do you fear this new opponent, this new challenger from within your own ranks? 

The story is always the same. I’ve been in politics for over thirty years, and I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. So much so that I can’t even remember the names of all the opponents I’ve faced. Let’s wait, and let the Hungarians vote and decide the future.

Could you have imagined that the divorce of Judit Varga, your former justice minister, and her husband, Péter Magyar, would cause such a stir in Hungarian politics? 

You know, it’s always awkward when it comes to the private life of a public figure. In this particular case, it’s about a former justice minister who’s one of the most talented female politicians I’ve ever known. It’s hard to imagine that Hungarians would trust someone who recorded a conversation with his wife without her knowledge, and then used the recording for political purposes. I cannot imagine that, because Hungary is a serious country.


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