Gábor Gönczi: I welcome Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, to the “Tények” studio. Thank you for joining us.
A year ago, around January, you said that we’d entered an age of danger. At that time, one tried to be optimistic that the end might be in sight for the war that had made us say that; but the situation hasn’t improved – and in fact in our neighbourhood there isn’t one less war, but one more war. How do you see the situation now?
As I see it, we have three problems at the same time, and the world and our lives are more dangerous than they were a year ago. We’re afflicted by the war between Russia and Ukraine. Terrorist acts in Israel have spilled over into Europe, so there’s a growing terrorist threat in Europe. And at the same time the scale of the migration pressure from the South has increased. So there are three sources of danger that directly threaten Hungary. In the coming year we need to stay alert.
The war in Ukraine, this Russo-Ukrainian conflict, is almost two years old. Practically the day after the conflict broke out, you said that there had to be an immediate ceasefire and that there had to be negotiations. Since then the world has refused to listen to this, and has been trying to find a completely different way of resolving the situation. Why?
We’re neighbours to this. And so in defence of those who don’t want to understand what we’re saying, we can perhaps say that since we live here on the border, our nerve endings are more sensitive. Our danger reflexes are also better than those of, say, the French or the Belgians, who are sitting over there on the shores of the North Sea or the Atlantic. From there the world looks different than it does from Budapest or, say, Nyíregyháza. At the same time, we have an insight into this Slavic world. So from the very beginning we felt that this wasn’t our war. Although there’s a great deal of propaganda that would have us believe that this is the whole world’s war, in which everyone must take a stand, I’ve never thought of it in that way. My thinking has been that there are different peoples in the world. For example, there are these Slavic peoples, side by side. This is an internal issue that they have to settle among themselves. It all springs from the fact that the Soviet Union fell apart and the final threads related to the division of that time still haven’t been sewn up. And we’re suffering the consequences of that. But I’ve always thought that if this was going to turn into a war, we had to keep it at bay. It needed to be isolated. So it’s good for the world if this war doesn’t become one that engulfs the whole world, but is one that we localise, as we tend to say. This wasn’t a completely unusual idea on the part of Hungary, because that’s what we did when there was the crisis in Crimea, if you remember – in 2014, perhaps. But Europe was stronger back then. The French and the Germans got a mandate from us, from the other European prime ministers: they sat down to negotiate, and they concluded the Minsk Agreement. And so the conflict remained isolated. This hasn’t been achieved now. And now this conflict is slowly engulfing, if not the whole world, at least half of it.
But how many families, how many hundreds of thousands of people, how many millions of people who have been displaced could have been saved? If there were no sanctions, if there were no arms supplies. How can this still not be seen?
If, as you’re suggesting, we don’t look through the glasses of politics but take them off, we can put on another pair and look at the human aspect of things. Our starting point needs to be that no one’s telling the truth. In our profession there’s a joke that there are three occasions when people tell a big lie: before an election, after a fishing trip, and during a war. So we can’t believe the figures, but probably I’m not wrong if I say that the number of people who have either died or suffered permanent injuries is now somewhere in the hundreds of thousands. This means at least as many widows, mothers who have lost children, and orphans. So in this war, which we may have started talking about too coldly and politically, there’s a hot, bloody dimension in which human lives are being lost – hundreds and thousands of them every day. And for a healthy human being – among whom we can perhaps include ourselves – there can be no other aspiration than to say “Let’s put an end to this. There are certainly political issues here, but let’s try to resolve them through negotiation, without losing hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Yes, so I think there’s no excuse for that – for what’s happening now.
Ceasefire and negotiations: the first step a ceasefire, and after the ceasefire peace negotiations. This is where we should be heading. And indeed, as you say, outside of Hungary no one else in Europe is taking this position openly and loudly.
No one’s saying it. Last week, of course, was quite a fiery one in Brussels. It wasn’t possible to convince the twenty-six Member States that the admission of Ukraine to the EU is premature at the moment, and it would also be a rather incomprehensible step on the part of the EU. Why do you say that?
We’ve never done this before. So we’ve taken in countries as members. Hungary’s not only familiar with this process because we were ourselves admitted, but also because we’ve been involved in such an admission procedure as a host – for example with the Croats, when we were already on the other side of the table. So we know this process, we know what it’s like when a new member joins. We not only know about what happened with us, but also with others. But we’ve never been in a situation in which there’s a country that’s at war, and we start negotiations with that country at war. Because in the simplest of contexts issues are raised that everyone can easily see make it absurd and unreasonable to start negotiations. For example, how big a country are we talking about? Do we include the part of Ukraine that’s currently occupied by the Russians? And how many people are we talking about? So to start negotiations without even knowing the basic parameters of a country is tempting God. This is quite apart from the fact that, since we’re talking about a large country, the effects of its accession can be assessed with engineering precision; because we haven’t even taken it in yet, but the farmers of Central Europe are already in trouble. So agriculture could be wiped out by the accession of Ukraine. And the same goes for our hauliers. You can see that those who make their living from freight transport – not only Hungarians, but also Poles and Slovaks – are in trouble because we’ve allowed the Ukrainians to enter our markets. We need answers to these questions. Before we sit down, we should clarify whether we know all the risks of accession – and, if we know all the risks, whether we want to support it, whether we want to commit to it. And if we, as prime ministers, do want it, then do the people want it? After all, we live in democracies, and we need to know what the people think. It’s no coincidence that the Hungarian government is putting the Ukrainian issue at the centre of the current national consultation, because I think it’s important to know what the people of Europe and Hungary think about this. But apart from us, apart from Hungary, no one else wants to – cannot or doesn’t dare to – ask the opinion of their own citizens.
By the way, is there a calculation of how much this would cost the EU and Hungary if it were to happen?
It would be good if we had a figure that had been discussed and negotiated – in other words if we’d received a thorough study from Brussels that took all these costs into account. Then at the end we could, let’s say, discuss it on the basis of an objective analysis. But we haven’t received one. There are estimates. For example, The Financial Times, the British, have done such a calculation; and there’s the Ministry of European Affairs, where we ourselves have done calculations. So it’s safe to say that, if it really wanted to take in Ukraine, the extra amount that the European Union would have to generate from somewhere would be between 150 billion and 190 billion euros.
That would be a significant part of the total budget, of the seven-year budget, I think.
What’s certain is that if we were to admit Ukraine now, all the countries that have received support from the EU so far – and Hungary was and is one of them – would be excluded from the list of countries receiving support; and all the money that has so far gone to Central Europe would be transferred to Ukraine. But this is also the case with agricultural subsidies. After all, we’re talking about a huge country, with millions of hectares. One million hectares of large farms – the majority of which, moreover, are American-owned, so we’re talking about huge American farms – entering a European market dominated by small farms would have unforeseeable consequences for people who have been making a living from agricultural work. So here I feel that we’re rushing ahead on an issue on which we should have stopped, thought, calculated and even negotiated with one another about whether to launch ourselves into this adventure. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t stop them, because Hungary can’t stop twenty-six fiery-eyed countries. That’s perhaps understandable. That wasn’t the danger: the danger was that they’d impose their position on us, and that we’d have to give our assent alongside theirs. And Hungary had to be exempted from this – or I had to exempt Hungary from this, because Hungary thinks it’s a bad decision, and we don’t want to share in that responsibility. It’s a decision from which many bad things will follow. And it won’t weigh on the conscience of Hungarians. So instead the difficult task was how to stay out of this while staying alive. But as you see, here we are. We’ve resolved it.
Yes, well, it worked… Yes, and it also worked that the 50 billion euros won’t be given to Ukraine to continue the war.
That’s the next big question. That’s the very complicated and difficult question. The question is, where will the 50 billion euros come from? So where will this money come from? Because if you’re talking about giving it out of the budget, as the current plan says, then that means that we’ll suddenly be giving Ukraine 50 billion out of the budget that we’ve created for other countries – in other words, we’ll also be giving Hungarians’ money. We don’t want to consent to that. So we have to negotiate here. So if we want to give Ukraine aid, then we must discuss how much we want to give, for how long, from what sources and with what mechanism. The Hungarian position is that we should resolve this issue outside the budget. Let’s not confuse it with the budget, because then the Member States – including Hungary – will end up being the victims of the fact that we’ve helped Ukraine.
The next EU summit is in February. What can we expect then?
A thunderstorm, an earthquake. Yes, yes…
You can expect sulphurous lightning. It will be difficult. We’re preparing, we’re negotiating, we’re trying to prepare. By the time we arrive in Brussels we’d like to see a situation in which the background negotiations have already resolved most of the tensions, and after this the only thing we really have to do in Brussels is to formally agree, because a solution that’s satisfactory to everyone has already been found.
To what extent can the Government rely on the Hungarian left? To what extent can it rely on the Left in this battle in Brussels?
In general… So the situation is that it would be good if we could count on them, because there are… After all, politics is about struggle. So I’m not demanding that if a party or alliance of parties – such as Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party – has won an election, then the next day we should get the support of parties whose ideas about the future are different from ours. That would be neither fair nor realistic. But perhaps we could think that there are some issues that are national issues, on which we shouldn’t fight each other, but rather support each other. And as the Government is negotiating, at least the Government shouldn’t be put in a difficult position. But what I see is that the Left always speaks out against Hungary when issues come up in Brussels – for example student scholarships, which is called Erasmus, and teachers’ salaries, the increase of which I’m trying to raise money for. So the situation is that in Brussels the Left is openly – perhaps even proudly – talking about how it’s working to ensure that Hungarians don’t receive the money that’s due to them from the budget. I think this goes outside the sphere of sensible and normal political duels.
To bring us a little into domestic waters, last week the law on the protection of national sovereignty was passed. Why was this important?
Earlier, starting sometime in 2011, we thought that we’d created a constitutional system – with a new constitution and the lower-level legislation based on it – which was a legal system, a system of protection, capable of guaranteeing Hungary’s security and freedom and always ensuring the implementation in this country of what the people decide and designate with their votes in elections. But in the last election it turned out that this wasn’t the case, that this system was failing – or that there were holes in that cheese. And there the dollars rolled in, or somehow dollars came in from abroad and rolled into the coffers of the left-wing parties running in the elections.
Why is this dangerous, by the way?
I don’t know if you’ve ever given money to anyone. So if you give money to someone – and not as a loan – it’s not because…
…not out of kindness…
There are homeless people, of course, and there are… But when you give money to a political figure, you give it because you expect something in return. The one who gives the money calls the tune, because they’re paying for it. So when political parties receive money from abroad, we can be sure that there’s an expectation behind it, and they’ll be forced into compliance. So this wasn’t an innocent fundraising operation that went wrong, but treason – in the sense that the Left knew full well that it would receive money from abroad, and that in return, if it won, it would have to meet expectations from abroad. And this is completely contrary to the interests of Hungary, contrary to the ideals, the values and the thousand-year history in the spirit of which we want to live. This is the Hungarians’ country, and we want to be the ones who decide – for better or for worse, however it turns out – what should happen in this country. We don’t want foreigners influencing our decisions with money. This is why we had to create another law that somehow plugged this gap, this hole in the cheese.
Do you think Hungarians understand this context? So clearly the national consultation is being held in order to see whether they understand.
Yes – from what I know about Hungarians. Let’s leave a little uncertainty, as we may not know our own country 100 per cent; but from what I know about Hungarians, if there’s something they understand, it’s this. Because we’ve learned this throughout our history. It’s a fact running through Hungarian history that there are patriots who fight for their country, there are soldiers who sometimes give their lives for it, and there are not only statesmen but also ordinary citizens who will give their blood for freedom if necessary. And there are also always those who will betray their country. So this is a familiar pattern in Hungary, only this time there’s no war – only a political war, in which money is given, not blood. Everyone in this country understands this.
This year was a big one in the fight against inflation. It was a big battle. Where are we now in this battle? Which side’s winning – inflation or the Hungarian economy?
I thought it would be a bold target if we could get inflation below 10 per cent by the end of the year, to be in single digits. I thought this because energy prices have gone through the roof and unfortunately the sanctions that have been imposed by Brussels have made matters worse. And I saw 10 per cent as being a major feat. But now I don’t rule out the possibility that at the end of December, when they give us the December figures in January, we might be at around 7 per cent. And for next year we’ve planned the budget – pension increases, for example – assuming 6 per cent. But today it seems more likely that it will be less – this doesn’t affect pensions, of course, but next year inflation could be 5 per cent, rather than 6. Even by European standards, this is a remarkable achievement. So I feel that we’re on the right track.
With this we can be proud of the economy’s performance.
Well, we can be proud because we’re still alive. How shall I put it? For Hungary, historical ambitions can be summed up by the fact that those larger than us aren’t crushing us, that we can arrange our own lives according to our own intentions, and that we aren’t carried off by disease, war or economic woes. Now we’ve pinned down inflation, but this isn’t enough, because it’s just one less piece of bad news – which isn’t the same as good news. The good news will be when economic growth starts. There are signs of this, with the third quarter not looking bad. It’s still a bit early to celebrate, but a realistic target for 2024 is an upswing in economic growth. If I translate this into everyday language, it means that in 2023 we fought to prevent things getting worse, while in 2024 we can work to make things better. This is a different prospect. So from this perspective 2024 looks a much more hopeful year than 2023 was.
What else in 2023 can we be very proud of? So there’s good news in the economy every day…
In the economy too, but life’s richer, wider and more colourful than that. I’d put the Nobel Prizes first. And not just because the Nobel Prize is a big thing, but also because there’s a message in the fact that the Nobel Prize in Biology was awarded to someone who was born somewhere in the Jászság-Kunság region into a family in which the father was, I think, a master butcher. And our other Nobel laureate – whom I also know – comes from Mór, from a family in which his mother raised the children at home and his father supported the family as a manual labourer. So someone comes from there, and goes to school in Hungary – in the first place you’re grateful to your parents, then to your teachers who taught you to read and write. You go through the Hungarian school system, go abroad, get the opportunity to do research and get everything you need, a laboratory and expert colleagues. And two Nobel Prizes emerge from there: from the Hungarian hinterland, from Mór and Jászság. I don’t think we can imagine anything more inspiring than that.
Yes, we can say that this can be seen from the moon, can’t we?
Meanwhile we qualified for the European Football Championship.
Yes, but that’s more of a must.
That’s more of a must. We did what we had to do. How excited were you? Because our hearts were pounding.
Of course, but we’re such a nation, and we must never forget it. The fact that we had two or three bad decades mustn’t lead us to underrate ourselves. So we need to know who we are. And we’re not just anyone: we’re Hungarians. We’ve been in two World Cup finals. There aren’t many such countries in the world. So this is our benchmark. And a Hungarian team representing a country that’s been in two World Cup finals should be expected to qualify for a European Championship. This is the angle from which I look at the performance. It’s a big thing, but you have to understand that it’s almost obligatory.
Prime Minister, I think up to now we’ve been working. Why don’t we take a little break from work now? We’re only a few days away from Christmas, and the aroma of [the Hungarian Christmas pastry] bejgli is probably starting to waft through Hungarian households. What’s Christmas like in your household? What are the indispensable ingredients for an Orbán family Christmas? Do you have any rituals or traditions specific to the evening celebration?
There are such things, and my wife keeps them strictly, or enforces them. Christmas, like all holidays in Hungary, revolves around women. So without the women there’s no Christmas, no Easter, nothing. And my wife knows all these customs, when to do what, how to decorate the tree…
What are your tasks?
I mostly have to heat up the brick oven into which I can put the grilled carp that my wife prepares for our Christmas Eve dinner. For this I have to heat up the oven at dawn. Or the decoration for the top of the tree, for example…
That’s yours. My little boy has asked me to ask how you and your grandchildren correspond with Baby Jesus. Now that you have six grandchildren, there’s obviously a lot of correspondence.
We don’t write much correspondence; we talk to the children about what they want from BabyJesus, and then – if they’re lucky and we have enough time and attention – those presents arrive. They wait outside, and then inside the bell rings – it’s usually me undercover – to signal that Baby Jesus has arrived; and then the grandchildren come and take over the Christmas tree.
And perhaps this moment contains the most important meaning of life.
It’s why we do it all, isn’t it?
It’s why we do it all. Prime Minister, right now there are something like 700–800,000 people watching us. We’ve had a difficult year, but you always believe in the Hungarian people, you always believe in Hungarian spirituality, and that we have some special ability that somehow helps us through our troubles. What can we cling to? What are these abilities? And what can be the main message for Hungarian families on Christmas Eve?
There are scholars dealing with this who despise the theoretical basis of these ideas, but I disagree with them. At the age of sixty, I simply have experience. And I say to myself – and I can say to all Hungarians, and to all you too – that whatever difficulties there may be, things will turn out well in the end if you commit yourself to a good cause, you don’t give up, but do it and persist. And I think Hungarians know this; they just have to persevere.
Thank you very much for joining us. I wish you and your family a Blessed Christmas!
I wish you a Blessed Christmas and New Year!