Prime Minister Viktor Orbán compares Brussels to the central committee of Moscow, warns of the dangers of a fearful economic policy and explains what has led to a collision with German Conservatives.
Never before was such an amount at stake: EUR 1.8 trillion. Viktor Orbán used to threaten to block EU funds equalling this amount. At stake were a recovery fund of historic propositions and the EU budget for the coming years. The Hungarian Prime Minister, together with the Poles, had in this way made a firewall against the new mechanism designed for the protection of the rule of law. In the event of a breach, Brussels would have imposed financial sanctions. Hungary has finally given its consent, the funds have been unlocked, but the rule of law mechanism will be more permissive than planned. An interview by Viktor Orbán via video conference from his government headquarters.
Welt am Sonntag: Mr. Orbán, what was your latest conversation with Angela Merkel like? Is it true that the Chancellor raised her voice to you?
No, the Chancellor has never raised her voice to me. Angela Merkel is a strong woman. Raising one’s voice is a sign of weakness.
After the EU summit, people applauded Mrs. Merkel, because she had pushed through the rule of law mechanism that you had opposed. Brussels can now impose financial sanctions. Despite this, in your country you’ve presented yourself as the winner. How can this be?
The question is who was fighting with whom? The vote in the European Parliament had linked – without any objective criteria – the rule of law mechanism to the EUR 750 billion package of the recovery fund. In our view this was unreasonable. Why should we add a political dimension to this issue, just as we’re going through a difficult crisis? We can continue negotiations on the rule of law mechanism at a later stage – with the clear aim of binding, objective criteria for all 27 EU Member States. The current solution makes this possible, and so it’s a victory for common sense.
Did the crisis caused by the coronavirus crisis contribute to the agreement?
The concept of the German presidency of the European Council was that the Coronavirus Recovery Fund and the new seven-year EU budget could be managed together. This was supported by the Member States, including us. But then, wildly overrating its own role, the European Parliament intervened. The European Parliament believes that it has greater legitimacy than national parliaments. This is a complete misunderstanding of reality. This added a further element to the negotiations, which sought to exert pressure on us. This is why we were forced to use our veto.
A survey has shown that 77 per cent of Hungarians support stricter supervision of the rule of law, including in relation to corruption. Haven’t you miscalculated on the subject of the veto?
Although this seems to be a purely technical detail, it’s actually about the sovereignty of all EU Member States. The rule of law is already defined in the European Treaties. The European Parliament tried to circumvent this in an illegal manner, but Angela Merkel’s proposal for a decision was brilliant: she made it clear that there could only be a new mechanism if it is subordinated to the EU Treaties – and in order to protect the EU’s budgetary interests. In addition, sanctions must first be reviewed by the Court of Justice of the European Union. The citizens of Hungary fully agree with this.
It’s particularly the governments of the former communist states that are accusing Brussels of interference. Why is this?
Our sensitivity to that has historical roots. Hungary was never part of the Soviet Union, it was part of the Soviet empire – together with Poland, the Czech Republic and so on. We know what it’s like when decisions aren’t made in our own capitals. We can see that the European Parliament and some heads of government want to transfer ever more national powers to Brussels. Based on our historical experience, we reject this. We want to be part of a strong alliance of states upholding the treaties.
Are you comparing Brussels to Moscow?
We are close to that. Back in the day, the Central Committee in Moscow used to decide what the ideological line was. Anyone who didn’t follow it was put under pressure. EU Commissioner Věra Jourová wanted to introduce a similar supervisory authority with a rule of law mechanism lacking clear legal definition or objective, universally applicable criteria. By threatening financial sanctions, they want to force Member States to implement ideologically defined policies.
But the text of the rule of law mechanism deals with the separation of powers and the independence of judges: matters that were requirements for EU accession.
All this is part of our Constitution! We completely agree with that. We Hungarians fought for these values thirty-one years ago. This debate with the EU is about family policy, migration policy, cultural issues…
But the agreement doesn’t mention all that…
Then read it again. (laughs) It’s not just us who have come up with this. The first version of the European Parliament’s decision stated that the mechanism could apply to any other subject. We’ve received a lot of documents from Brussels which, for example, state that the rule of law mechanism is also about the admission of refugees. But we don’t want migration. The scope is arbitrarily decided; tomorrow the issue will be family policy.
Your relationship with Manfred Weber was considered a close one up until a year ago. You have now accused the German parliamentary group leader of the conservative European People’s Party [EPP] of considering the Hungarians to be “fools”. When did your relationship go sour?
Manfred Weber visited me in Budapest two years ago. We agreed that I would support him in the election for President of the Commission. Only two days later, Weber openly stated that he didn’t want to become President with the help of Hungarian votes. Everyone here asked what kind of person he could be. Does he think we’re second-class Europeans? The issue wasn’t about me, but about insulting the Hungarian people. We lost trust in him.
A year ago the EPP, which also includes the German CDU, suspended the membership of your party, Fidesz, accusing you of restricting democracy and freedom of the press. Don’t you find this situation unfair?
These accusations don’t concern me; they’re ridiculous. More than half of our media outlets are extremely critical of the Government: all objective studies show that the market share of media outlets which are critical of the Government is above 50 per cent. There is a problem with the EPP: parliamentary group leader Manfred Weber wants to form the same coalition in Brussels as there is in Berlin, where the Christian Democrats govern together with the Social Democrats. But soon it will be impossible to distinguish between conservatives and socialists. We are not leaving the EPP; they are leaving us. That is why I say that the EPP must preserve its Christian democratic character.
Britain will leave the EU at the end of the year. Has Europe made too many mistakes?
Brexit is a disaster. And yes, the European Union has made many mistakes. The problem is that Brussels has ignored the views and needs of the British for years – even when the British opposed the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the Commission. The British are rational, they want free markets and reduced government intervention, and they appreciate performance. The withdrawal of the British has tipped Europe out of balance. The European Union has become ever more ideologically-driven: higher taxes, more state intervention, less competitiveness. Germany and France, as influential powers, are making economic policy socialist, with a greater emphasis on redistribution and less on performance and modernisation.
Do you consider Germany to be a leading force in this?
We are experiencing a redistribution of power across the world. Ten years ago the European Union produced 25 per cent of world GDP. Today the figure is barely above 15 per cent. Europe is losing the strength derived from competitiveness. The response from Brussels, however, is not to improve performance and competitiveness, but rather to promote protectionism. We’re protecting ourselves because we’re getting ever weaker, and this is not a good direction to be going in.
In adopting a EUR 750 billion rescue package, the European Union is taking on a historic level of debt. Hungary’s national debt is much lower than Italy’s. Would you like to belong to the “Frugal Four”, who are opposed to sharing the burden of debt?
It would be politically logical. From the beginning we’ve made it clear that we’re critical of the recovery fund. But since many Southern states would collapse without support, we’ve agreed to it out of solidarity.
The “Frugal Four” – the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Denmark – would hardly let you join them. They are fierce critics of the corruption situation in Hungary.
The fact that we agree with some countries on certain issues doesn’t mean that their company is attractive to us. We’ve no desire whatsoever to join the Frugals. Hungary has a different perspective on many things. As for corruption, it’s no more widespread in Hungary than in Austria, France or Germany.
If we look at OLAF’s annual report, we see that the European anti-corruption authority uncovers far more cases of corruption than national authorities you are mentioning do. But there’s a huge difference especially as regards Hungary. Why might this be?
The opposite is true: in Hungary a particularly high number of proceedings are launched after OLAF warnings – more than in other European states. In Hungary the Prosecutor’s Office is not under the supervision of the Government, but Parliament – unlike in Germany, where the Minister of Justice can give instructions on conducting proceedings.
You’re governing with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The parties in Germany can only dream of this.
It’s true that we have broad support. We cannot be criticised for that, but I wish the same for Germany. It’s important that the public agrees on the most important issues.
In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, however, a controversial state of emergency was introduced. You were thus able to introduce measures directly, without parliamentary scrutiny. In contrast with Germany, citizens cannot even go to court to oppose the consequences of closures. Why?
We need to be able to deal rapidly with everything. It is true that extraordinary measures are in force. There is currently a curfew in effect from 8 o’clock every evening. Not all our citizens like this, and Parliament will address it retrospectively. But there’s much less resistance to the measures here than there is in Germany – if only because we held a large-scale national consultation. In this way we’ve gained broad democratic support. Let’s not forget the two principles of ancient Greek democracy: in addition to elections and representation, democracy is also about good governance. This is what we’re doing in Hungary.