Zsolt Törőcsik: Two weeks ago in Sopron I had Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as my guest, and I welcome him here to this studio for the first time since then. Good morning!
Since then you’ve given a speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad, which has provoked very strong reactions from some neighbouring countries. What are the implications for relations with these countries? It was Romania and Slovakia that particularly criticised points made in the speech.
And then, perhaps in violation of the rules, even the Czechs came in from the side with a sliding tackle to take out our supporting leg. For the national side Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad is an iconic place. What makes it so interesting is that the genre is undefinable: in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad we don’t know exactly what’s taking place. Because in politics there are categories of style – there’s the speech, and so on. And there we’re at a free university. It’s not really a speech, and it’s not really a lecture, because it’s a free university, which means that it’s not as formal as a normal university. But I’d say it’s more of a lecture, or in terms of its intention I think it’s a collective reflection. So this is how I always use this opportunity, because I’m often invited there to offer a collective reflection. So now what’s usually more exciting than the message itself are the reactions: how people react to a call for collective reflection. Now it’s not only foreign politics that’s interesting, but also Hungary’s domestic politics; because for years now I’ve seen that the, let’s say, left-wing or liberal parties have become provincial. So I see that they don’t read, they don’t follow events, they’ve lost their freshness and they don’t accept new things, but they just stick with the same old mantra – always, always, always the same. So although it’s not my business, I think that if we look for an answer to the question of why the political competition isn’t sharper, why our challenger, the Hungarian left, isn’t stronger, then I think we’ll find the answer somewhere around the term “provincialism”. So many new things are happening in the world. Some of them are dangerous, some inspiring, but they’re all stimulating. So in modern politics there’s actually a spirit, an intellectual spirit. And this isn’t apparent in, let’s say, the reactions of the Hungarian left. Now, as far as issues beyond the borders are concerned, I’ve met the Romanian prime minister, and I’d very much like us to have a good relationship. The new prime minister is a young, strong and agile leader, and I think we can do serious things together with him. So I have high hopes, and I trust that this will remain the case after Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad. The Slovak issue is a more difficult one. First of all, there will be an election there in September. At such times everyone’s nerve endings are more sensitive, it’s as if one has no skin on one’s fingertips, and one reacts more excitably to everything. There’s an issue there, an issue that we’re not really going to be able to come to an agreement on, so it’s better to leave it to the historians. And that issue is the whole question of successor states: are we talking about severed territories or are we talking about successor states? Or what are we talking about? And the Slovak approach is completely different from the Hungarian approach. The Hungarians don’t draw such boundaries between periods. Right now young people are in Esztergom at another Hungarian free university, and so I could also say that we Hungarians have been in a state of “flow” for eleven centuries. For us this isn’t something that’s been broken up and fragmented, but a story in which there were chapters before us, that we’re now living through in the present, and that our children will continue. Here we don’t think of this in terms of predecessors and successors, and for us it’s not divided up along those lines. But we’re making a mistake if we allow this issue to become part of the central area of Slovak-Hungarian relations. We have to leave that to the historians, and we have to focus on the future; because we’ve also seen great potential in our cooperation with the Slovaks. Now there have been more turbulent times there, with a rapid succession of several governments. Now there will be an election, and if a stable situation is created there, I think that Slovaks and Hungarians could do many fine things together in the coming period. The Czechs still seem to be more occupied with arguing among themselves. I have to take at face value what’s been said by the Minister for European Affairs, who said that they support a United States of Europe. This is the position of federalism, as opposed to the Hungarian sovereign and Polish concept of sovereignty. I think that there’s nothing we can do about that, but in the next few years the debate will come to a resolution, as the fate of the European Union is decided.
In Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad you also spoke about economic matters. For example, you said that in three years the Hungarian economy has collided with two meteorites, COVID and the war, and that the latter has deflected Hungary from its designated path. And, as you said, the country’s now struggling to get back on track – which won’t happen until around July 2024 at the earliest. For this to succeed, how much effort will be required from society and the Government?
We encountered two different meteorites. From the outside you can’t really distinguish between meteorites, but you can see the difference when you collide with them. With COVID the first thing was that many people died, so there was that pain: it was a very painful year and a half for Hungary. There, lives had to be fought for, and the impact on the economy involved job losses and temporary closures. So there, in addition to saving lives, we had to deal with an economic disaster in which jobs – the possibility to work, the basis of everything – had to be protected. Now, the war is different, because at the moment the war isn’t endangering jobs. This isn’t only the case in Hungary: I look at the situation in European countries, and I see that the war hasn’t made much difference to unemployment, to the level of unemployment. Before the war Hungary had full employment. We came out of COVID, we returned to full employment, and even the war didn’t knock us out of that situation. What’s happening instead is that the increase in energy prices and the sanctions from Brussels mean that the war is squeezing and strangling Hungarians through inflation. And there’s only one thing we can do, and that’s try to protect Hungarian families through reductions in household energy bills. That’s the most important thing today. By maintaining household utility subsidies, we’re offering relief to families amounting to around 181,000 forints per month. I’m looking at these figures too, and I see that Hungarian families pay the lowest utility bills in the whole of Europe. I think this is a huge achievement – not from the Government, but I’d say from the whole country. It’s a great achievement for the Hungarian economy. I repeat: Hungarian families pay the lowest utility bills. Our job here is to break the back of inflation: price freezes, interest rate freezes, a price monitoring system, mandatory price reductions. Now you can buy groceries in the shops with SZÉP cards [originally designed for paying for recreational activities], so we’re pulling out all the stops. And I think that the inflation figures for June and July will confirm that the process of what we call “disinflation” has started, and that we can achieve the target of bringing inflation below 10 per cent by the end of the year. There’s one phenomenon, however, that doesn’t allow us to sit back. We need to be sharp here, because while the whole country’s fighting inflation, especially rising food prices, there are unfortunately some who aren’t pulling their weight – and are even taking advantage of this situation. I find this outrageous. The large food chains, let’s say the multinationals, are behaving like price speculators. So they’re raising prices even in circumstances where there’s absolutely no justification. What’s more, they’re also raising the price of imported foodstuffs. At least part of the increase in the price of Hungarian products goes back to Hungarian farmers; but in my view raising the price of imported foodstuffs is unjustified and unacceptable. Well, I don’t like to use words which have a communist flavour, but this is simply profiteering. So they’re taking advantage of the fact that energy prices are high, using this as a pretext, and they’re continuing to try to raise prices when there’s no longer any justification for doing so. And we’re standing up to them and have introduced all sorts of rules: we’re cutting off their right flank, we’re pressing them from the left, and they’re running off to Brussels to report on us. And Brussels is trying to shift us off the path of protecting the public. They’re colluding: these price speculating multinationals are colliding with the Brussels bureaucrats. We’ve already been fined 3 billion forints for not allowing any cartels or artificial price increases, and our offices – the competition authority and consumer protection bureau – are coming down hard on them. I think that the number of such actions has to be increased, they have to be sustained, and there has to be constant pressure, pressure, pressure. So we cannot accept that, just because we’re living in such a period of higher inflation, that there’s unjustified price speculation on food. This is outrageous, it’s wrong, and we must take action against it.
There was a government meeting this week and, as we’ve talked about, one of the causes of the inflationary situation is the war and the sanctions policy. And it was reported that the government meeting reviewed the diplomatic steps to be taken for peace and a ceasefire. While the United States continues announcing arms shipments of several hundred billion forints on a practically weekly basis, and while the EU is planning to spend 20 billion euros – from the European Peace Facility, incidentally – on supporting EU countries that send arms to Ukraine, is there any point in talking about a ceasefire and peace?
There always is. If there’s war, then it makes sense to talk about peace. The war has already deprived hundreds of thousands of people of their lives, or through injuries and wounds is putting them in situations that will make it very difficult for hundreds of thousands of people to live full lives – not to mention family members, orphaned children and widows. So, as long as the war continues, we must – we can and must – always talk about peace. If we don’t talk about peace, there will be no peace. If the voice of peace isn’t strong enough, then the prevailing attitude among politicians will be that in such a situation war is the only solution. But the truth is the opposite: there will be no solution to this war, to this situation, on the battlefield. This situation can only be resolved through diplomacy and negotiation. And the first step in that direction is an immediate ceasefire. So that’s something that Hungary thinks is worth urging for. If they throw us out the window, we’ll come back in through the door. If they push us out the door, we’ll be back through the window. So what’s needed here is persistence. You’re right that this war has long ceased to be the Ukrainians’ war, although of course they’re the ones who are suffering the most. But we all know that Ukraine’s sovereignty has in practice ended. Well, a country is not sovereign if it has no financial revenue of its own and cannot even run its own civilian life, let alone finance the war. Now, the truth is that war is very expensive. This is also how it used to be in the past. It’s an old truth that war requires three things: money, money and money. Thus is even truer in the modern world, as weapons have become more modern, and thus more expensive. So to commit to a war is also a very heavy economic burden. And the Ukrainians have expended all their strength. Today the only thing keeping Ukraine alive and keeping the Ukrainian army operational is Western money. There are two questions here. The first is how the President of the United States decides he wants to approach the US presidential election in the fall of 2024: with America still occupied with and involved in such a proxy war, spending unaccounted billions here in Eastern Europe; or going to the polls with a ceasefire and peace. We can’t influence that, we can’t answer that question, it’s the Americans’ decision. The other question is how long Europe can hold out. Because the Americans have a world currency, the dollar, and so with all kinds of financial manipulations and operations the Americans can generate a lot of money which can be used for war. But the euro, that’s another story – it’s not comparable. The euro isn’t suited to that. So we can’t produce money as easily as the Americans do. The European Union can only make money by the Member States throwing their money into the collective pot. The question is how long we can last. While the European economy is in trouble, the end of the war isn’t in sight. We’ve given more than 70 billion euros and we don’t know where it’s gone – no accounts are kept. And now, halfway through the EU’s seven-year budget period, the Commission comes along and says, “We’ve run out of money, give us a total of 100 billion euros, 50 billion for the Ukrainians, and 20 billion to pay the higher interest on loans we took out earlier. And we’d like to increase our salaries, and we’d also like to have a little something in reserve.” And then they simply push their demand in front of us for us to give them 100 billion euros. And on top of that there’s the 20 billion you’re talking about. So we’re talking about huge sums of money. Meanwhile the EU is unable to meet its obligations to its Member States – including Hungary. This is the situation with Hungary. The EU owes us money. We pay everything into it, because membership of the EU comes with an obligation to pay. Your listeners may not be aware of this, but every year every EU Member State has to pay a sum into the EU’s common budget. We pay it. So we fulfil our obligation, but from there they aren’t giving us the money that’s due to us. So they owe us. As I understand it, they owe us a lot of money for border defence costs. This is in the region of 2 billion euros, for border defence and building fences. They owe the teachers, because they promised to help Hungary to raise teachers’ salaries more rapidly – that’s a good HUF 800 billion. And they also owe us the resources of the recovery fund that we set up – also with Hungarian contributions, by the way – to facilitate rapid economic recovery after the COVID pandemic. COVID has vanished, we’ve paid what we had to pay, and meanwhile we’re not getting the money that we should have. It’s not without reason that we ask this question: Isn’t it the case that we’re still owed this money because it’s already been spent on something else – on Ukraine, for example? And so far there’s been no answer to that question.
Does this also mean that Hungary won’t consent to amendment of the EU budget until we receive these funds?
Such a statement would be very unfriendly. Moreover, in the European Union there’s a rule – which I think is a clever one – which says that Member States are expected to show loyal cooperation. This is a very vague wish, but if I translate it into more comprehensible language, it means something to the effect that it’s not appropriate and not allowed for people to link unrelated matters. We have to be very careful when we talk about when, what and under what conditions we’re willing to do such a thing, because it’s not nice, it’s not right and it’s also on the edge of legality for anyone to link unrelated things together. But there’s a concurrence in time. Last time also, it so happened that decisions requiring unanimity coincided with decisions on money related to Hungary. Well, if that’s how the negotiations go, then of course the concurrence will have to be dealt with.
Let’s go back a little to the point you mentioned earlier, the question of how long Europe can finance Ukraine. But the question could also be whether Europe can in any way bear the burden of, say, being left alone on this. Because, as you’ve pointed out, there’s a growing debate in the United States of America about support for Ukraine, and this conflict is in the European Union’s neighbourhood. So is it conceivable that in the long term Europe will be left alone with this conflict in its neighbourhood?
Well, it is conceivable. But since we’re at the limits of our capacity, both the European Union and the Member States individually, if that were to happen Europe would immediately become a peacemaker. So I think that would be impossible while public opinion is increasingly questioning the justification for financing the war, while it’s increasingly bound up in its own internal problems, while it has increasing doubts over this war resulting in victory, and over the wisdom of funding war rather than peace and negotiation. Because if victory’s becoming ever more distant, why not take the path of negotiation and ceasefire? So I think public opinion is moving in that direction. Meanwhile the politicians are sticking to their previous decision, and in fact they’re going in the opposite direction. In a democracy – and the European Union is one of the world’s largest areas of democracy – the will of the people and the movement of countries’ leaders cannot oppose each other so sharply over the long term. Sooner or later something has to give; and since the people cannot be replaced, governments are replaced. So the democratically elected leaders of Europe don’t have much time left to take account of and adapt to changing public opinion.
And, of course, it’s not only society that’s moving its position, but that’s also true for reports from the war. Referring to a Bundeswehr report, the German daily Bild has reported that the situation related to the Ukrainian counteroffensive is tragic. And in the US the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Western officials knew that the Ukrainians didn’t have enough weapons and soldiers for a successful counteroffensive, but trusted in what they expressed as the enthusiasm of the soldiers. Beyond the political aspect, aren’t there moral concerns here? So can a great power rely on the soldiers of another country being enthusiastic enough to defeat a military opponent?
There are many issues like the one you’re raising, but the problem, the stumbling block, the fallacy, is at the starting point. So when the Russians attacked Ukraine, Europe – or let’s say the West – had two options. One was to try to localise the conflict, as was the case for Crimea – and that’s what happened there. It was to say that we’re talking about a conflict between two countries, in which clearly one attacked the other. It was also clear that the threat of war had emerged here in our neighbourhood. If we were not careful it could even have turned into a world war, and events at the time didn’t preclude that possibility at all. There was cause for concern, and we tried to localise the conflict. That’s what Chancellor Merkel did: she didn’t allow the conflict to be imposed on European or Western politics. This isn’t what the leaders have chosen to do now. That’s what we proposed, by the way. So when the conflict broke out, we said that of course there were many moral, legal and other concerns, but we said we should try to localise the conflict. Being involved in this conflict, as the West is now, is admittedly only half-hearted: of course they won’t send soldiers, because dying for Donetsk might be too much, but they’ll send weapons and money and let the Ukrainians fight. As they say, the West will fight to the last Ukrainian soldier. So if you choose this solution, you’ll take the whole conflict to a global level: to a Western, European, and then world level. This is what has happened. And this has very serious consequences. Now, beyond the fate of the hundreds of thousands who have died in the war, the whole Ukrainian-Russian war is now weighing down on the world economy. In recent times the greatest virtue of the global economy – and Hungary has been a beneficiary of this – has been free trade, the fact that we’re interconnected. For thirty years Hungary exercised and trained in the gym, so that it could participate not at the lowest level but at a higher level in this global competition for trade and production. We’ve finally conditioned ourselves: we are the size we are, but our muscles are in good condition. We’re competitive. This is true for other countries as well. And then along comes a war like this, which, instead of isolating, we’ve allowed to become a cloud over economic relations across the entire world, and a justification for cutting off the links on which the well-being of countries and tens of millions of people depends – cutting off, for example, Russian energy from the European economy, the huge cost and damage from which we’re seeing and paying for. But now it’s spreading, and when thinking about the whole world economy there’s an approach which says that it’s not necessarily good for everyone to be so freely connected to everyone else. And then we see decoupling and risk reduction; and instead of interconnection, cooperation, division of labour and production, and economic growth, there’s a kind of seclusion, isolation, and a form of ghettoisation. So the whole thing was mismanaged from the first moment. What we’re seeing now is the delayed emergence of a constellation of side-effects from a therapy that was mismanaged from the first moment. This is what we’re seeing now, and this is what we’re all reaping. In such cases you have to do what Ferenc Deák said: if the waistcoat is buttoned wrongly, you have to unbutton it, go back to the beginning and rebutton the whole thing. You have to go from war back to the negotiating table.
There’s another waistcoat that the European Union is now at least trying to rebutton, and that’s the migration waistcoat. And in the EU’s attitude there’s an interesting dichotomy: after an initiative by Italy, Brussels is trying to conclude agreements with third countries in order to curb migration; but on the other hand it’s pushing for a migrant quota, which experts say is an invitation letter to precisely those migrants it’s trying to keep in their home countries. Is there any way to resolve this contradiction?
We’ve just talked here about a concurrence of issues related to EU money. So as not to cast doubt on anyone’s good faith, I could say that here, too, there’s an unexpected concurrence. Italy, which for a long time was opposed to mandatory quotas and the creation of migrant ghettos, has changed its position and has accepted them. Then, a few weeks later, it received 19 billion euros from the COVID recovery fund – from which we haven’t received anything. Here again, this is obviously a coincidence, and just an accident of timing. So, how shall I put it? There are complicated games going on in the background. I’m not a believer in these games. I think that, as shown by our historical experience, migration isn’t a tactical issue, or even a strategic issue, but a historical issue. It has to be seen on that plane. If you let migrants in, if you lose control over who you let in and who you don’t let in, then you’ll have people in your country who you know little or nothing about, who you didn’t invite in, who you didn’t choose, and who were simply pushed on you by the people smugglers; and you let them in, with all the risks which that entails – especially security risks. And the numbers are growing. The number of people coming in is increasing, and they’re coming from countries with cultures in which families are stronger than they are here in the Christian world. So the number of incomers who maintain their cultural identity, who don’t renounce it, is also increasing – because of the influx, and also because of the high number of children. And, looking at the issue of migration in historical time, suddenly you see that there are more and more of them. And then you start to feel like an aboriginal in your own country, and you find that all of a sudden this is happening without anyone asking you, without you having the right to decide, and without you being able to say that you don’t want it. And I think this can destroy a country. For the sake of the pro-migrant Western European countries I’d like to be wrong, as in the end it’s their decision and their fate. It’s my wish that this migrant policy doesn’t have very serious consequences for them. But all we Hungarians can say is that we consider the risk of the country’s ruin to be so high that we don’t want to participate in such an experiment. We don’t want either a migrant quota or migrant ghettos; and if we don’t want them, we won’t have them.
In the last half hour I’ve been asking Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about his Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad speech, inflation, the Russo-Ukrainian war and migration.