An Interview with Balázs Orbán

Deputy Minister of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office


European Conservative: In March, Budapest played host to a ‘Summit on Migration’ with speakers from all around the world. Were you surprised by any of the arguments or data that were presented?

Deputy Minister Orbán: The ‘Summit on Migration’ proved perfectly that, just as Chancellor Konrad Adenauer once said, “We all live under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizon.” It was wonderful to see all the different perspectives and solutions for tackling the issue of illegal migration across the globe. But the Summit also showed that despite our differences, our core problems and the answers given to these problems, are very similar. Accordingly, I was convinced once again that there are more areas that connect us than divide us.

This was the main point of the conference: to show that despite our differences it is still possible and desirable to build an international conservative network. The Left has already done this, which is why they have a comparative advantage over us. At least since the ‘60s, they have built an international network quite successfully — a network which consists of various academics, politicians, and NGOs which disseminate their ideas throughout the globe.

The Budapest Summit has, without any doubt, proved that it is possible, and, in fact, much needed to build a platform for conservatives as well. We seriously hope that Hungary and Budapest can become an intellectual hub in the near future — a kind of a conservative ‘safe place’ for all across the world. The Summit was one of the first steps to achieve this goal.

I’ve always been struck by the fact that conservative groups in Europe don’t know each other and don’t work together. Thankfully, this is changing. This seems to be the only way that we will triumph over the international Left, which has been using its own networks for decades, as you pointed out.

In this regard, the migration crisis was a very important turning point. The threat of mass illegal migration was a ‘wake-up call’ for conservatives because it was a problem to which all of them could relate to. The answers given to this crisis have shown that despite their differences, the core beliefs of conservatives all around the globe are the same. These unfortunate series of events have allowed us to come together and think about conservative answers to all the other global questions and problems which have long been dominated by the Left.

Back in time, as a law student I learned about and was very much impressed by the success of the conservative legal movement in the United States. Just as the Federalist Society regained the right to have a clear voice, I firmly believe that it is also possible for us to build an international conservative network, which can take the right back from the Left to formulate conservative answers to global questions.

But it was a ‘long war’ for the Federalist Society …

Yes indeed, it was more like a long, ‘Cold War’ than a short, quick Blitzkrieg.

It was certainly interesting to have so many different perspectives represented at the Summit, a reminder that each country is unique — geographically, historically, culturally — and should not necessarily have the same policies. Each one needs its own solutions. So, what is your outlook for Hungary and Europe in general?

This is one of the main advantages of conservatism. It is not an ideology or a doctrine per se; it sees differences as values and not as something that should be eradicated. It is completely normal that countries with different geographical situations, history or culture, have different opinions and will accordingly give different answers to problems. This ‘common sense’ attitude is what makes conservatism so successful.

And this ‘common sense’ attitude was also what made the European Union successful back in the 20th century in the first place. If we look at the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the European Union, we can see that some of them were almost extremely pro-European federalist; but others were staunch believers of the importance of nation states. Still, all of them understood that to ensure the success of the cooperation they all had to compromise. It was common sense to think it impossible to make decisions without the consent of the people and to unilaterally decide which direction the European Union — European Communities at that time — should take.

But this ‘ancient knowledge’ has since disappeared. Most of the elites in Brussels today — guided by a doctrine called ‘progressive ideology’ — believe that the only legitimate answer to our current problems is ‘more Europe’. They are no longer interested in what the people think or in the idea of compromise. This is what lies behind the constant attacks against Hungary. The success of Hungary especially in tackling illegal migration clearly show that there are more legitimate answers to the problems of our times — just not the ones Brussels puts on its flag.

So, for the European Union to be successful again it has to return to the principle of common sense and compromise making. By the way, this attitude is backed also by the Christian intellectual heritage of Europe — just think about the principle of subsidiarity. We have to understand that to be successful we do not need a European superstate — which, as history has shown, is only achievable by force. We instead need strong nation-states, which voluntarily cooperate closely together. We simply have to find those areas where we can cooperate together as equal nations and we have to forget those other areas where our interests are too divided.

In reference to the idea of the nation-state and the emergence of nationalism worldwide, the media and the international Left continue to make alarmist claims that nationalism is necessarily a ‘precursor’ to fascism. How might you respond to such criticisms?

Indeed, the current concept of liberal democracy seems to dismiss the idea of the nation state without properly assessing the consequences of this suppression. But as Yoram Hazony argues also quite clearly in his very timely book The Virtue of Nationalism, only the nation-state is able to provide the necessary framework for the people to rule themselves. So, without nation-states we can’t have democracy either.

Deputy Minister Balázs Orbán, author Yoram Hazony, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Photo courtesy of the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister.

It is especially important to understand this in the context of European integration. The famous German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, once said, that he “has always found the word ‘Europe’ on the lips of those who wanted something from others which they dared not demand in their own names!” Those who speak about an ‘even stronger union’ or a ‘United States of Europe’ want to tear down the sovereignty of nation-states and impose an imperial administration upon them.

Unfortunately, there is nothing new under the sun. European history is a tale of constant battles between imperialism and localism-nationalism. Even the tools are similar: Napoleon built his empire by forcing the ‘Code Napoléon’ on the conquered territories, while today the force of the EU bureaucracy also grows through the harmonisation of EU law.

The ‘imperialism’ we see today is really the imperialism of the multilateral structures and international bureaucracies. They act like imperialists: imposing their will and taking away our freedom.

After the horrors of the Second World War, it was quite understandable that a lot of people developed an aversion towards politics. There was a general, popular idea that politics is ‘bad’, so we need instead some kind of ‘deep state’. This idea, however, led to technocratic governments and to an EU which instead of politics is driven by an undemocratic bureaucracy — a kind of ‘deep state or, perhaps more correctly, an ‘administrative state’.

These bureaucracies use institutions and international law to smother all dissent. They frown at democracy and politics. But in the long run, they will also have to face the will of the electorate. This hostile attitude from the elites towards politics and democracy has led to the success of today’s left- and right-wing populist movements.

Instead of technocratic answers and the administrative state, we need politics and democracy. We need to listen to the will of the people.

How do we win those arguments? What are the tools in our arsenal? What would you advise conservatives to do?

We have a great advantage over the ‘deep state’ — namely, that we possess democratic legitimacy that they do not. Here in Hungary, conservatives are in an especially good position, as the majority of the electorate shares our political values and views. This firm support is fundamental to achieve our goals.

Of course, it can often be heard from liberal and left-wing politicians, that conservative policies are ‘undemocratic’. With these accusations they attempt to present their own concept of democracy — the so-called ‘liberal democracy’ — as the sole, ‘true’ form of government — even if it is against the will of the people. This is a paradoxical situation as they try to defend democracy from democracy in the name of democracy. The truth, however, is that the policies carried out by the Hungarian government are deeply rooted in the Hungarian constitutional tradition.

Deputy Minister Balázs Orbán.

But this kind of reinterpretation and appropriation will not be successful in Hungary. Let me give just one example. A few weeks ago, I was at an international conference in Hungary and I was listening to a very famous international lawyer arguing why the only approach to democracy is liberal democracy. During the lecture, an elderly professor sitting next to me, pointed out very aptly, that that the word ‘liberal democracy’ rings familiar to Hungarian ears, as it is almost the same as the oft-repeated phrase, ‘socialist democracy’, during the communist era. So, this older gentleman had experienced a kind of déjà vu because he could have been sitting in exactly the same room 40 years ago and listening to someone else arguing that the only ‘legitimate’ approach to democracy was a communist people’s democracy.

The average, ordinary, working person — whether in Europe or in the Americas — seems to have conservative instincts. They have families; they work; they pay taxes; and they struggle. They don’t typically have any grand, theoretical ideas like Leftist intellectuals. They just live their lives. Are these not the very people who tend to support conservative or ‘right-wing’ parties, the ‘deplorables’ who voted for Trump?

This phenomenon is perhaps even more true in East-Central Europe. The Soviet occupation and the communist regimes oppressed conservative views for decades. Oddly enough, this also helped to conserve the basic principles of right-wing politics. The meaning of 1968, for example, is completely different in our region than it is in Western Europe. For us, it means the struggle for the freedom of our nations and not the absolutism of personal freedom.

This explains why our societies tend to be more resilient against liberal ideas, the power of the ‘deep state’, or any kind of imperial endeavour. Our people only want to live their lives as they want (and like) to. They want to preserve their beliefs and the community they grew up in. It is by no means accidental that we Hungarian conservatives like to use the slogan “God, Nation, Family” to describe our belief system.

“God, Nation, Family”: These are precisely the reasons why Hungary is attacked — by the secular, international Left; by those who want a globalized, borderless world; and by those who want to destroy the traditional family as the basis of civilization. In defending these very things, hasn’t Hungary become an enemy of all these groups?

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Photograph courtesy of the Government of Hungary.

Hungary’s position is very clear about these values. These values are our guiding principle and we are determined to preserve them at all costs. On the other hand, however, this struggle of Hungary is almost against all odds. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said at the Budapest Summit, that we are aware of our own European ‘weight’. Hungary is not a large country with a big economy or a large military budget. Our role in the European institutions is also quite limited due to the relatively small proportion of the Hungarian population in Europe. These are the circumstances we must face.

But these unfavourable odds are by no means unique in Hungarian history. Our ancestors, for example, fought a 300-year-long war with the more capable Ottoman Empire. We didn’t once give up, even when the Empire captured the half of our country. Our great-grandfathers and grandfathers also grasped their guns and fought against the terror of the Soviet tanks during the 1956 anti-Soviet revolution. We might have lost in the short term, but in the long run we regained our freedom, and the Soviet Union is fortunately now only a very bad memory.

Furthermore, our odds seem to be much better now than in the past. Day by day, more and more Europeans start to realize that they don’t need and a don’t want a European Empire. They don’t want the liberal elites to change their way of life and reshape the face of the continent. Also, conferences such as the Budapest Summit convince us all that we have allies, conservative allies in Europe and in the entire world. Without them, our odds would be far worse.

What is your understanding of ‘conservatism’?

It may surprise you, but the world ‘conservative’ in Hungary is not so well known and not used frequently. This is mainly because Hungarian people have a special distaste for ‘-isms’. Still, according to my own experiences, and also according to different opinion polls, the people of Hungary are indeed very much conservative.

A pastel portrait of Mihály Babits (1883-1941) by József Rippl-Rónai (1861-1927) located in the Hungarian National Gallery.

One of the most influential Hungarian poets of the 20th century, Babits Mihály, wrote that the Hungarian people have two main characteristics. The first is a belief in the importance of independence and personal freedom. There is a famous proverb which is very popular in Hungary that says: “my house is my castle”. This means that no one should be able to tell me how to run my own private life. I think this attitude is the one of the most important cornerstones of Hungarian conservativism.

The second trait that Babits highlighted — which is another cornerstone of Hungarian conservatism — is the need for law and order. This need is based on a recognition that personal freedom cannot be guaranteed without a solid legal framework based on common sense, which is the only thing that can provide freedom to every single person.

This seemingly paradoxical longing for both personal liberty and law and order means that Hungarians most importantly would like to have a strong, sovereign government which both maintains security and also preserves liberty. According to the historical experiences of the Hungarian people, these two pillars only can be preserved when the Hungarian state manages to keep its sovereignty.

Russell Kirk (1918-1994) at his typewriter.

Every time a foreign power took control in Hungary, neither personal freedom nor law and order could continue to flourish. In this sense, the claim for sovereignty is a third pillar of the Hungarian conservative tradition.

I think this is the best way I can describe what conservatism means for us Hungarians. In the sense, it is very similar to what Russell Kirk wrote in The Politics of Prudence: “The conservative thinks of political policies as intended to preserve order, justice, and freedom.”

The European elections are later this week. Looking ahead, what is your outlook?

I sincerely believe that in an ideal world, a political party of any nation, no matter whether it is in government or in opposition, should put its nation’s interest first. In Hungary, unfortunately we cannot meet this criterion. Although the governing party is a pro-nation party, the entire opposition is multi-nationalist. They prefer the idea of a ‘European Empire’ because they expect the EU to weaken the position of the Hungarian government. They apply the old logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. This is a very dangerous policy for the interests of the nation. Fortunately, it seems that the majority of Hungarian voters also share this sentiment with me — and will vote for FideszKDNP in the elections.

On the European level, however, it is very hard to make a valid prognosis as increasingly it would seem that there is no longer any significant distinction or divide between the traditional ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ parties …

It’s all the same.  They are all statist bureaucrats.

Exactly. And during the European elections, the only real division will be between those who believe in a ‘European empire’ and those who believe in the original idea of a European union of nations. This will be the most important question — and not the increasingly artificial divide between ‘right’ and ‘left’, between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’, or between the EPP and the S&D.

That is the reason why the question of immigration became a top issue in current European politics. There are politicians from the left and right who support it, and also politicians from both sides who oppose it. Immigration is the main issue that divides federalists from those who support the idea of a Europe of nations.

I sincerely believe that this election will be an important turning point. I can only hope that the forces which are on the side of Europe — that is, those who are supportive of a Europe based on free and equal nation states — will do well. If so, I think the future of Europe will be successful.

Thank you for your time.