Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is opposed to the growth of Islam in Hungary, and curtails the rights of sexual minorities. He wants to remain within the EU, but does not let anyone influence him.
An interview with Europe’s most controversial head of government, Viktor Orbán.
By Dominik Stawski and Jan Boris Wintzenburg. Photo by Ákos Stiller
[Viktor Orbán’s seat of government is in a place where kings were once enthroned. In Buda Castle in Budapest one finds a former monastery which the Prime Minister has had converted into wonderful government headquarters, at a cost of many millions of euros. Those who meet him are accompanied by protocol personnel and taken up the hill in official cars, then led through long corridors to a wood-panelled library. In this room is an oversized globe depicting the world before World War I, when Hungary was of a size that it has never been since. Back then the country’s territory extended well beyond the current borders of Romania, Slovakia, Croatia and Serbia. The message that Mr. Orbán is communicating to everyone with this globe is this: “Look at who we really are.” Yet this power was reduced to nothing with the end of World War I. The Treaty of Trianon awarded two thirds of the kingdom to other countries. For many Hungarians this was a trauma. Another shock was Communist rule, from which the people freed themselves in 1989. For Orbán’s government, history has an important message: “Never again must we be under the influence of others.” All this, however, runs counter to the conception of Europe embraced by most EU Member States. The EU has long been more than merely a common economic area. Nowadays the conception of Europe also extends to the fair distribution of refugees arriving in the EU. Orbán, however, strongly opposes this, going so far as to call refugees “Muslim invaders”, because he sees them as a threat to Europe’s Christian culture. This interview was conducted at a time when relations between Hungary and Germany could not be worse. There has been an escalation in the war of words over Hungary’s commitment to the EU’s fundamental values related to the rule of law. Hungarian politicians have been making accusations of Nazism, while Germans have called Orbán to account over dictatorial measures. We agreed that our interview would be one hour long, as Orbán said that a Cabinet meeting was scheduled to follow it. But he added with a laugh that he is the Prime Minister, and if he is late, the others will wait for him. The Prime Minister then sat down, with an interpreter beside him.]
Stern: Prime Minister, what do you think is the definition of a good European?
In Hungary we say this: you can only be a good European if you are a good Hungarian.
What does that mean?
It means that in our view Europe is made up of sovereign nations. This is why we’re confident that EU membership will strengthen our cultural specificities, and not weaken them. Some countries in the EU, however, are seeking to further strengthen the European institutions and transfer as many powers as possible to Brussels. This attempt at centralisation fills us with fear – all this fills us with a profound existential fear, based on our historical experience.
What kind of fear are you thinking of?
There is a thread running through Hungarian history, and that thread is the struggle against “empires”: the Ottoman, Habsburg, German and Soviet empires ruled Hungary as occupiers. We don’t want to once again surrender the sovereignty and rule of law for which we fought in Central and Eastern Europe 31 years ago.
The European Union isn’t an empire, but a community of states, to which legitimacy is given by the citizens of the Union in the European elections.
The Hungarian parliament is directly elected by the Hungarian people, and for us its legitimacy is stronger than that of the European Parliament – and this conception features in all the EU Treaties.
Youve launched campaigns with the slogan “Stop Brussels!” Why not opt for the simple solution and leave the European Union, as Britain is doing now?
The British are fortunate, because one can be sure what surrounds an island: water. It is water that protects them. But what would surround us? So it’s better for us to be inside the Union. And apart from that, Brexit is a major error which should have been prevented.
What do you expect to gain from EU membership – apart from money?
First of all, we expect the Union to maintain the centuries-old European tradition of culturally diverse, sovereign nations. We want a cultural environment in which we feel comfortable. Secondly, we want to be able to access and exchange state-of-the-art knowledge and technologies. The third thing we expect from the Union is geopolitical stability and security. Germany is in the interior of the continent, while Hungary is on the edge. Our geographical location places us at the intersection of East and West, and it’s important for us to be members of a strong alliance. Our security needs are different from those of Germany. In 1990 we Hungarians were still under occupation. It’s important for us to belong to an alliance that also represents military security.
[At the beginning of the interview Orbán took a fountain pen in his hand, and since then he has been continuously drawing circles on a piece of paper, as an aid to concentration.]
What about the European values referred to in Article 2 of the Treaty of Lisbon – such as human dignity, equality between the sexes, minority rights, pluralism, non-discrimination and tolerance? Do you completely agree with these values?
Of course! These values appear verbatim in the Hungarian constitution, upon which I have sworn my oath of office. It would be inconceivable for us to have to provide armed security for any building in Budapest used by the Jewish community. Budapest is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, and for us it is a self-evident societal task to ensure that Jewish people can live their lives to the full. In the 1980s we lived under a dictatorship, with a military occupation. The current Hungarian government has its origins in the anti-communist rule of law movement. I always say the following to my Western partners who doubt our stance on the rule of law: “My dear friends, where did you fight for the rule of law? I fought for it on the streets of Budapest.”
Yet a large majority of Europe’s leading politicians believe that you and your party are a threat to the rule of law in Hungary.
I find it absurd that I’m asked questions about the rule of law. And I consider it unfair, especially because these accusations have never been linked to clear, objective criteria.
Let’s take media rights, for example: Reporters Without Borders now ranks Hungary in 89th place, below Albania. What do you think about this?
To Hungary it’s not clear whether they’re intending this to be serious or a joke. When a Hungarian looks at news portals on the internet, most are fiercely critical of the Government. Then they turn on the television, and the channel with the highest audience is the one which is also most critical of the Government: RTL, which belongs to Bertelsmann. All objective analyses show that in Hungary the market share of media highly critical of the Government is well over 50 per cent, and this is thanks to the Opposition.
Workers at the public service radio station have been replaced, and there have been several changes of ownership in the privately-owned media. Businesspeople close to the Government have stepped in.
There have been a number of changes in the Hungarian media recently. Investment has come equally from left-wing and conservative businesspeople. The Hungarian government does not intervene in this.
We’d like to know what specific values you represent. What if one of your children turned to you and admitted to being homosexual?
It would be a major test, but so far the Good Lord has spared us that. Of course my wife and I would always love our children, completely regardless of their inclinations.
What would happen if that same child of yours also wanted to adopt a child? With your recent constitutional amendment, this is something that your party – Fidesz – has sought to prevent same-sex couples doing.
Whatever the circumstance, naturally my wife and I always think about how we can help our children. We are Christians, and everything is in God’s hands: judgment, punishment and grace.
Would all this change what you think about politics and the law?
I have sworn an oath to the Constitution, which states that a family consists of a woman and a man. There’s nothing intolerant in that, incidentally. I have a particular point of view, and another person has a different position that I don’t agree with. And because we have to live side by side, we try to find common ground. This is tolerance.
Recently a politician from the far-right Hungarian party “Mi Hazánk” [Our Homeland] attracted a great deal of publicity by feeding a children’s book into a shredding machine in the presence of the media. This was simply because the book featured minorities such as homosexuals. Then, addressing homosexual people, you said, “Leave our children alone.” What do you mean by that?
Informing children on this is the responsibility of parents. In order for their selves and their sexual identity to be able to develop freely and without interference, children in kindergartens and in the lower grades of elementary school should not be exposed to sexual propaganda.
Why is it sexual propaganda to show the existence of minorities?
But this book doesn’t show the existence of a minority: it presents tales containing sexual propaganda, with which the authors want to influence the development of children’s personalities. What other intention could they have? In Hungary there really are limits, and most people agree with what I’ve said. We are tolerant, but our children need to be left to develop in peace.
Do you think that the destruction of a book is a good symbol?
That right-wing party is in opposition, and of course I reject their symbolism. In general, no symbol can be good if it takes us back to the world of fascism or communism. A strong protest, however, is completely justified.
Let’s move on to another European value: religious freedom. What would happen if one of your daughters suddenly visited you with a Muslim boyfriend?
I’ve raised my children to independently make important decisions about their own lives. I’ve tried to equip them with the knowledge and education that will enable them to make the right decisions for themselves. I’d probably ask her if she’d fully considered the matter. And if she said that she had, I’d leave it at that. But parents cannot live their children’s lives for them. I’d probably think that God had made the decision. One loves one’s children, whatever path they choose.
You once said the following: “We do not want there to be minorities among us whose cultural background is completely different from ours. We want to keep Hungary for the Hungarians.”
This was referring to Muslims. In Hungary there are Muslims from Syria and Turkey, and there are more than 5,000 Muslim university students whose Hungarian scholarships we pay for. So we have Muslims living here. But their numbers have not exceeded a certain level. We don’t want numbers coming to Hungary that would be large enough to bring cultural change in our lives. The state has the right and responsibility to assert this. Those who are here have been admitted by us ourselves. They accept that they live in a country with Judaeo-Christian roots, and they abide by our laws. This doesn’t only apply to Muslims: we have extremely good relations with the Chinese, but we wouldn’t want 5 million Chinese people to arrive here tomorrow.
The Court of Justice of the European Union has condemned Hungary for placing refugees in inhumane conditions. That doesn’t sound too tolerant either.
We are fundamentally opposed to illegal immigration. The asylum seekers were accommodated properly; the only problem was that, until there were decisions on their asylum applications, they wouldn’t be able to move freely outside the reception centres. Then we proposed transit zones, already a well-established feature at airports, so that those who wanted to leave could go to a safe country such as Serbia or Croatia, but couldn’t come to Hungary without a residence permit. No one was locked up.
The court also condemned this.
Yes, unfortunately the EU didn’t accept this either, which is why we’ve closed the transit zones. As the neighbouring countries through which asylum seekers arrive here are safe third countries, now if they want to enter Hungary they’ll have to apply for asylum at the relevant Hungarian embassy. These applications are processed quickly, and people seeking entry await a decision in that safe third country. This approach hasn’t been accepted by the Commission either, and now we’re awaiting the next court ruling. This is a game of cat and mouse.
Is all this compatible with your Christian views? After all, refugees are coming from war zones, from situations of extreme danger.
I believe that it is: I oppose any policy that seeks to convince those around the world who are in need that the solution to their problems is to come here. If that happens, everyone will set out on extremely perilous and arduous journeys to Europe. Hungarians insist on the regulation provided by international treaties, according to which a refugee fleeing for legitimate reasons must be received in a safe country. But there is no international law that allows people in that situation to choose their country of destination themselves.
Do you want to deter refugees?
Instead of bringing problems here, we choose to provide help in their home countries. We don’t want people smugglers driving asylum seekers to their deaths in the Mediterranean. This is why we’ve created Hungary Helps: an aid organisation of extraordinary scale compared to our country’s size, which improves people’s living conditions by building schools and hospitals. I think Europe should create a kind of Marshall Plan for the countries of Africa and the Middle East, where immigrants are coming from, in order to make life there liveable again.
Hungary Helps assists persecuted Christian. Currently, however, refugees of another faith are also suffering in Syria’s Idlib Governorate and elsewhere, because they’re unable to leave. The aid is not enough. Does this move you as a Christian?
Naturally this affects me as a human, and it’s obvious that war refugees must be helped in accordance with the UN Convention – which is why we had to assist Turkey. With its ideas on admitting asylum seekers, however, the European Union goes far beyond the rights enshrined in the Geneva Convention. Unfortunately this approach has become the political benchmark, and anyone who doesn’t pursue that policy immediately becomes a black sheep – as we have become. One is ostracised.
There’s practically no immigration in Hungary. Why is this topic so important to you?
The Hungarian position is as follows: there must be no illegal immigration. In Hungary at present there isn’t, and we must ensure that this remains the case. This is why it’s a priority for us.
The proportion of foreigners in Hungary is around 1 or 2 per cent. In effect, no one wants to come to Hungary.
And that’s fine as it is! We don’t want illegal immigration, so we’re keeping our “green borders” – those away from official crossings – closed. We’re encountering an average of 100 to 150 migrants a day. Neither do we accept illegal immigrants – sometimes in the tens of thousands – coming via other routes from the West. In Brussels one of the most important topics for debate at the moment is not allowing migrants to be sent to Hungary from the West.
Youve been talking about the refugee crisis since 2015. Years have gone by. Aren’t you just using this topic as a domestic policy tool to paint a picture of an enemy, and thus secure public support?
Just look at the new reality: in the foreseeable future there will be Western European countries where immigration results in non-Christian minorities forming a significant percentage of the total population. Hungary is fortunate in that it never had colonies. In this regard the former colonial powers in Western Europe cannot be so strict; but we can more easily afford to be. I believe that migration will be a major issue for the future of Europe over the next twenty years, and the decision on this is in the hands of national parliaments.
Don’t you see any positive consequences coming from diversity of religion and skin colour?
We interpret diversity differently: as a colourful Europe inhabited by nations with different cultural focuses. We are also a culturally diverse country, and in terms of religion we’re a country with Judaeo-Christian roots, in which different denominations and worldviews coexist, sharing a high degree of consensus. We love the diversity of our own culture, but as we are a small country, we treat everything coming from outside with great caution. This former monastery in which we’re sitting was used as a mosque by the Ottomans for 150 years.
[Barely an hour has passed before one of the Prime Minister’s employees quietly opens the library door and signals to him that members of the Cabinet are ready for the next meeting. Orbán nods to his assistant, but gives no indication of ending the interview.]
Let’s talk about another group that you find rather problematic: the Germans.
This is a very complex issue: we are the two European peoples who, in a thousand years, have almost never waged war on each other. German-Hungarian friendship is close and lively.
Do you fear Germany?
Of course not. Fear isn’t typical of Hungarians. But I can imagine how hard it might be for a sceptic to watch as a football stadium turns into a sea of German flags. One cannot erase the past. It’s very important for a nation to feel patriotism and to be able to develop a common vision for the future. You Germans have solved this problem by identifying a new task: Europe. This is the best thing that can happen to Europe. This is good for the other Member States of the European Union, and my wish is that it will also be good for the Germans.
Several times during the Brussels talks you used militaristic terms such as “D-Day” or “the Wolf’s Lair”. Why do you use this wartime rhetoric, which is obviously aimed against the Germans?
One really could be a little more relaxed about this. This isn’t aimed against the Germans. We Hungarians have a sharp-edged language. Sometimes translations go awry, and despite our best intentions our extraordinary language often sounds aggressive.
But even Hungarians in Germany found it aggressive.
I’m not elected by the Germans, but the Hungarians. For this reason I don’t address the Germans, but the Hungarians.
All of this seemed like another provocation, and so relations between Germany and Hungary are now quite bad. Are you hoping for better relations?
The mode of expression could be better. For example, European Parliament Vice-President Katarina Barley said that the Hungarians and Poles “must be financially starved”. Mr. Maas, the German foreign minister, spoke about “painful measures against Hungary and Poland”. All this has been brutal. There’s a need for rhetorical disarmament. Europe is under global pressure, and this is creating tensions between us. Up until 2015 German-Hungarian relations were a refreshing exception to this, even though we always followed our own path. During the 2015 migrant crisis it became clear that Germany believes in a post-Christian, post-national Europe. We Hungarians do not believe in that. We need to be tolerant of one another and say: “You think that and we think this, but we can still be friends.” But according to the Germans we need to adapt and think about migration the way the majority of Germans do. That is not what we want, and that is why the tension is growing. This is how the Hungarians see the past five years.
Youve just complained about the coarsening of rhetoric. Tamás Deutsch, the leader of your parliamentary group in Brussels, has accused Manfred Weber, the CSU politician and leader of the EPP group in the European Parliament, of using the methods of the Gestapo. Was that acceptable rhetoric?
To be precise, he said “the Gestapo and the ÁVH”. The ÁVH was the Hungarian communist sister organisation of the German Stasi – but no one understood that. Tamás Deutsch was crystal clear in what he said, and he was right, as Manfred Weber used the harsh language of a typically dictatorial secret police officer: “Obey the law, and you won’t be harmed.” Tamás Deutsch even expressed himself in friendly terms, because he also referred to the Hungarian communist secret service. But in this tense atmosphere, such a statement can do a lot of damage, so it should have been avoided.
What do you think of Manfred Weber?
Manfred Weber made a mistake. He reached an agreement with us to support his appointment as President of the European Commission; and then two days later he said that he didn’t want to become President with the votes of the Hungarians. He can insult me if he likes; but in saying that he classified the Hungarian people – whose votes he rejected – as second-class Europeans. He failed in his attempt, and rightly so.
And what do you think of Angela Merkel?
She’s a strong woman, who has two crosses to bear: that of German politics, and that of European politics. And still she’s unbowed, so let’s give her respect for that! I think that sometimes this is insufficiently recognised in Europe.
It sounds as if you pity her.
In no way is this pity. Whoever carries two crosses earns our respect, because we know that they’re accomplishing something great. And that is at least as much a privilege as it is a burden.
You’re also familiar with AfD. Fidesz members are in repeated contact with AfD members. What do you have to say about that?
It’s in Hungary’s interest to maintain good relations with the German federal government of the day. A formal relationship between a Central European ruling party and AfD would place a strain on German-Hungarian relations, which is something we don’t want – that’s part of politics 101.
Nevertheless, a few days ago your Foreign Minister visited Geert Wilders, the leader of a Dutch party with similar views to AfD.
He was perfectly right to do so. Our aim is for Christian democratic parties in Europe like ours to not always make contact with those to their left, but also with those to their right. Of course the parties to the right of the CDU are very diverse. This must be approached with great deal of sensitivity and caution.
Breaking away from the EPP would also strain your relations with other European governments. This is a serious risk for Hungary – your country is currently the second largest net beneficiary of EU funds, immediately after Poland. The figure in 2019 was 5.1 billion euros.
But only if we look solely at the EU budget. I calculate it differently, however – as do many executives at large corporations. Every year 6 billion euros in profits and various payments flow into Western companies – mainly into those in Germany. The net winners in this system are the Germans. Although the Germans are always presented as net contributors, we see this differently. Part of these huge profits are passed on to others in the form of the EU budget – from which we, according to our own calculations, receive only 4 billion. What we gain is the creation of modern jobs here, with future-oriented technology coming to us and a kind of knowledge transfer. So this is a situation we can live with.
If, on the other hand, you deduct the profits flowing back from the Hungarian subsidiaries to the German companies, you must also take into account their billions which flow into investment in Hungary.
This is why we don’t see these companies as colonisers, but as welcome partners. But neither of us needs to be especially grateful to the other.
[This is a very important topic for Orbán. His voice grows louder. His economic policy has indeed been very independent and successful. After the 2009 financial crisis, Orbán focused on the labour market rather than on casino capitalism like other countries. He did not cooperate with the International Monetary Fund, whose activities were considered to be interventionist. The power of foreign banks was curbed, and higher taxes were levied on the profits of German energy companies. Before the pandemic struck, Hungary’s public debt was actually falling, and wages were rising. Nevertheless, growth was even stronger in some Balkan countries. The biggest problem is emigration – especially of young, often well-educated Hungarians. Many doctors, for example, have long been attracted to Germany or Switzerland.]
According to the latest UN forecasts, in the years ahead Hungary’s population will continue to decline.
I think that the reverse will be true. It takes at least ten years to build an attractive country out of a run-down, financially ruined country like the one I inherited from the Socialists ten years ago. But we’re catching up: our gross domestic product is rising fast, and we’ve brought unemployment down from what was then 12 per cent to a level approaching full employment. Hungary is an economic success story.
Can you imagine your stances placing you at the head of a movement extending beyond Hungary: a counter-revolution against Western European governments? Are you considering a European role?
Europe is moving in the wrong direction, as one can see from just looking at the figures: while ten years ago the EU’s economic performance was still close to 25 per cent of the global figure, it has since fallen to 15 per cent. In all modesty we’d add that, in our view, what’s needed is a shift towards a modern work- and family-oriented social market economy, combined with ecological responsibility and an increase in the EU’s competitiveness. But we’re sorry to see that the path being taken by the EU is towards increasing distribution. The prime minister of a country of around ten million people doesn’t have the power to change that direction, however.
[After almost three hours, Viktor Orbán jumps up: “I have to go” The Prime Minister has been keeping his cabinet waiting for more than an hour.]