During his recent visit to Berlin, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gave an extensive interview to Jan Mainka from the Budapester Zeitung. Their discussion, which lasted for more than an hour and covered topics including German-Hungarian relations, the war in Ukraine, withheld EU funds, and books, is published here in English.
What were your main impressions from your visit to Berlin?
I travel to Germany on working visits every two years, so I see changes on an ongoing basis. Germany is shifting ever further towards the Left. This time I had some surprising experiences that illustrate this shift. In Berlin, I met a member of the Hungarian national soccer team, which became a political issue. Before a panel discussion I participated in, someone raised the question of whether or not the prime minister of an EU member state could take part in that discussion with representatives from the media. The German media was criticised for inviting me. Another thing that surprised me was the large number of armed security guards standing outside synagogues.
From my meetings I received further confirmation that Germany has become a multicultural society. This is no longer a question of political agendas, but of fact. That situation is very different from the world in which we Hungarians live, and in which we want to continue to live. Great efforts will be needed to bridge the differences between our two countries in ever more areas. Therefore continuation of German-Hungarian cooperation—which has traditionally been good—will demand hard work. Political leaders have much to do to ensure that. Despite this, good cooperation between Germany and Hungary continues.
What did you talk with Chancellor Scholz about?
Germany strongly supports abolition of the principle of unanimity on foreign-policy issues, and in its place is calling for majority decision-making. We don’t agree with this because, no matter what we do, we’re unable to create a blocking minority. If this proposal goes through, the new practice would result in Germany and France pushing their foreign policy through—even in the face of opposition from smaller countries.
This would ultimately result in us surrendering a significant chunk of our sovereignty. I don’t think it’s particularly encouraging for the Germans, of all people, to be so enthusiastic about this idea: their influence in the EU is already powerful enough as it is. I made it clear to Chancellor Scholz that Hungary cannot support this move.
Do you see any hope for improvement in German-Hungarian relations?
Of course, there are good foundations. For example, Germans living in Hungary are doing well. Here they can learn and study in the German language, from kindergarten to university. In Hungary, there’s no antipathy towards Germans. In Central Europe, it’s rare to find a country where the feeling towards Germans is more positive than negative. However, Hungarians still hold Germans in high esteem. Germans living in Hungary are valued citizens. So diplomacy between our peoples is fine.
Economic cooperation is also excellent. The expectations of German companies operating in Hungary are fulfilled perfectly. This is a beneficial situation for all concerned: they earn good money here, and through them Hungary gains know-how. In addition, their taxes contribute to Hungary’s public-spending burden.
The only area in which we need to do a lot of work is in politics. Before my trip, I studied the federal government’s programme, and it’s a world apart from ours! The two governments must find areas where, despite our obvious differences, we can work together. This is a major task. We Hungarians mustn’t feel resentful when politicians from German’s governing parties attack us in the European Parliament. The SPD [Social Democratic Party], of which the chancellor is also a member, is today the most anti-Hungarian party in Europe. In these circumstances, cultivating German-Hungarian relations naturally demands great effort.
Why wasn’t there a press conference after your meeting with Chancellor Scholz?
That’s always up to the host. I had no problem with that. This is why I spoke to the German media later: I took part in a panel discussion, gave an interview, and was also involved in a podcast. I wanted to leave no doubt about the fact that Hungary is a transparent country. We do many things differently from Germany, but we’re open. You can ask us questions. We’re happy to answer anything, and we’re happy to explain how we live in Hungary.
In this you can help us a lot, because you’re a German who’s lived in Hungary for a long time and speaks our language. You can give an authentic account of what life’s really like here in Hungary. Unfortunately most Germans have no idea. They don’t speak our language and they don’t know our country, so they believe everything written about us in the newspapers. A lot of work is needed in order for us to present a true picture of Hungary to the outside world.
Your party is very reserved towards the AfD [Alternative for Germany], despite the fact that there’s much more overlap between Fidesz and AfD than between Fidesz and the CDU [Christian Democratic Union]. Is this perhaps due to some kind of loyalty to your former major ally, the CDU/CSU [Christian Social Union in Bavaria]?
Our policy towards AfD has nothing to do with the CDU. Hungary has a strong interest in maintaining good relations with any serving federal government, be that the CDU or the SPD. Under no circumstances can party relations be allowed to undermine relations between our governments. It’s a feature of German democracy that if we were to take action related to the AfD, it would affect intergovernmental relations. This is the case in the Federal Republic, and we cannot change it. We therefore need to set priorities. For us relations between governments are more important than relations between parties. So we’re forced to sacrifice relations with the AfD on the altar of the best possible intergovernmental relations.
Do you still see any hope that the left-leaning CDU will return to being a sane, conservative CDU in the mould of Helmut Kohl?
No, we hold out no hope of that. The CDU is following its own path, which isn’t our path. From a Hungarian perspective, it is now a left-wing party.
What do you think of the EPP [European People’s Party]?
It is a left-wing family of parties. The problem is that it’s also left-wing in its doctrines. The only way it can imagine working with others is by having all its doors open to the Left and closed on the Right. This is a very short-sighted policy. A centrist party—which the European People’s Party seeks to continue to be—must keep its doors open in both directions. But the EPP isn’t doing that. This is what I fought against, and this is the battle that I lost within the EPP. I was unable to prevent the domination of those factions who say that the doors should only be open to the Left. Fidesz fought a losing battle within the EPP, and in the end, we were forced to retreat. We no longer have any hopes for the EPP.
And what about the CSU?
Exactly the same. We used to have excellent relations with the CSU. After all, it was the party closest to Hungary, partially due to the special relations between Hungary and Bavaria. But in Bavaria today the situation is no longer so clear cut, which is something that’s difficult for us to understand.
That’s a harsh verdict on these three parties!
We have to approach the situation realistically. We can only cook with the ingredients we have.
Politically motivated physical violence has become an unfortunate part of everyday life in Germany. Much of what certain Germans mistakenly claim is happening in Hungary is actually happening in Germany. There are ever more attacks on those with dissenting opinions and on their property. The same applies to Jewish citizens and members of sexual minorities. If a media outlet deviates from the mainstream, pressure is put on its bank and its advertisers. Even the Hungarian publisher of Budapester Zeitung recently received a ‘taste’ of this. Have you heard of these anti-democratic tendencies?
Yes, I’m fully aware of them.
Then why not use this knowledge to fight back the next time a German federal politician slanders Hungary?
I respect Germany. This is why I’m now withholding criticism. That’s all I’d like to say on that point. Compared to Germany, Hungary is now an island of peace and freedom. Germany today is subject to the rule of liberal hegemony. In public discourse there’s only room for one narrative, and those who deviate from it are excluded from the public square. In Hungary, by contrast, public discourse has a pluralist structure: there are liberals and conservatives, and through the media these enjoy almost equal representation in public discourse. Hungarian society is much more pluralist, free, and peaceful than German society.
As far as physical violence against dissenters is concerned, we Hungarians have bad memories of communism; we’ve learnt that politics must remain peaceful, and that in political debate the use of violence must be avoided at all costs.
But, for the sake of change, wouldn’t it make sense to step out of the perpetual defensive position and—to use two recurring clichés made by Germans who criticise Hungary—be “concerned about” the state of democracy and freedom of the press in Germany, and “observe it more closely”?
In Germany, and in Western Europe in general, double standards are employed; this is something which we Hungarians will not tolerate under any circumstances. Of course we don’t believe that we are without faults, but we must be measured by the same yardstick as any other country. Unfortunately, German politicians see things differently. But I try to avoid these debates, because I see no point in adding to the political tension between our two countries. I think cooperation is more important.
So, unlike German policy, you don’t consider it important to interfere in the internal affairs of another country?
We firmly believe that German problems should be solved by Germans. We’d be happy if Germans also understood that solving Hungarian problems is primarily the responsibility of Hungarians. Nowadays German interference in Hungary’s internal affairs—either directly or through EU institutions—has reached extraordinary proportions. In Hungary, this creates serious negative reactions. We are freedom-loving people, and we don’t like outsiders telling us how to live.
The fight against external interference in our internal affairs is a leitmotif throughout Hungarian history. When we were part of the Ottoman Empire, they wanted to tell us how to live. Then the Habsburgs came along and told us what they thought a good Catholic was. The Nazis, on the other hand, wanted to tell us who we should live with and who we shouldn’t live with—Jews, for example. Then the Soviets came along and wanted to transform us into ‘Homo sovieticus.’
Time and again, outside powers came and tried to tell us how to live. When something like that happens, Hungarians instinctively resist. Today the German Left—through the European Parliament—is once again trying to tell us how to live and what to think about migration, gender, the nation, the family, and so on. But that’s none of their business. It’s our business. In Hungary, by the way, defamatory caricatures of a European head of state couldn’t appear on state television. Hungarians wouldn’t go along with that: we wouldn’t sink to that level.
An increasing number of Germans think that their future lies in Hungary. They’re leaving their German homeland; not least because of the growing repression of dissenters, the deterioration of internal security, concern for their children, and the increasingly unpleasant intellectual climate in general. Recently, I’ve been receiving daily indications of this at Budapester Zeitung, as well as direct enquiries. Is the government aware of this migration? Are you worried that it might increase property prices in some parts of Hungary, or change the ethnic composition of villages to the detriment of the Hungarian population living there? Is the Hungarian government planning any counter measures? Quotas or other bureaucratic obstacles?
Quite the opposite! We’re aware of this development, and we’re encouraging Germans and other Western Europeans to come to us. In the next ten to twenty years, more and more Western Europeans will move, because Hungary is a safe, Christian country, which is proud of its traditions. We don’t see this as a bad thing, but rather as a welcome thing. Western Europeans who want to live in freedom should continue to feel free to move here. We welcome them with open arms. We’re happy to welcome foreigners who like the way we think.
Throughout European history, host countries have always greatly benefited from immigrants arriving from the West—whether they were French Huguenots in Germany or centuries of German arrivals in Hungary. We are confident that there will be no parallel societies in Hungary. Over time we will find the basis for a shared life. Newcomers will gradually learn our language. Their children certainly will. Hungarian may not be easy, but it’s a superb language. Once someone has learnt it, they’re happy to use it. In short, citizens who treat us and our traditions with respect will continue to be welcome in Hungary.
So can we say “refugees welcome”?
Yes, exactly. But from the West! Western refugees welcome!
Turning to the north, how can the war in Ukraine be brought to an end?
First of all, I want to make it clear that Russia is seeking to change the status quo in Ukraine by force and in defiance of international law. The Ukrainians are defending themselves against this, defending their country and its sovereignty. There is no doubt that Europe sides with the Ukrainians on moral grounds, because we attach importance to Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence.
But this is not only a moral issue; it is also in Europe’s interest that there should be an area between Europe and Russia that separates the two zones of interest. From a security perspective, this is very necessary given that Europe has not created its own common military. In terms of objectives, there isn’t much divergence between European countries. It’s in our shared interest for Russia to be unable to pose a threat to the continent. For this reason, a sovereign Ukraine between the EU’s eastern border and Russia is important.
But today, now that Russia has launched a war, there are debates about the means to achieve this. The Ukrainians, who are fighting heroically, are managing to hold their own against Russia mainly because they’re receiving huge support from Europe. But currently the way that Europe is supporting Ukraine means that the continent is being forced down an escalatory spiral. The danger of the war spreading to EU countries is growing by the day. It started with sanctions, it continued with arms supplies, and now we’re training Ukrainian soldiers. This is an extremely dangerous spiral. Small steps are taking us ever closer to direct involvement in the war. If we don’t stop this process, we’ll end up in the war ourselves—although so far we’ve sought to avoid this.
On this issue, incidentally, NATO is more cautious than the EU. NATO has made it clear that, as an organisation, it doesn’t want to get involved in the war. This is why it isn’t supplying weapons; NATO member countries are—but not NATO itself. It’s staying out of the conflict. The EU, on the other hand, isn’t leaving it up to the member countries to decide how they want to proceed, but has, for example, set up a common European fund to support Ukraine. It is now even planning joint-training measures. Therefore NATO is being much more cautious and restrained than the EU; this is surprising, because the EU is exposed to much greater dangers.
So how can we end the war?
If we look at the war from a geopolitical point of view, we’ll do well to align ourselves with Klaus von Dohnanyi’s point of view. While Dohnanyi is essentially a friend of the United States, as is obvious from his recent book Nationale Interessen (National Interests), he also makes it clear that friendship demands frankness. And he makes the forceful argument that American and European interests aren’t always identical. There are very clear differences, and these need to be clearly addressed. But this isn’t what’s happening at the moment. At present, the EU is uncritically adopting America’s position wholesale, with U.S. interests simply being presented as identical to European interests. At the moment, I don’t see EU countries striving for sovereignty. Not even the EU institutions are doing so. This is precisely why today Europe is one of the losers in this war and the U.S. is one of the winners.
What should Europe do?
We’re in a difficult situation. Germany has always played a special role in conflict resolution. In politics, however, what counts are the years one has been in power. They confer prestige and influence. Yet Chancellor Scholz has been in office for less than a year. He’s undoubtedly a head of government with democratic legitimacy, and obviously his competence is enhanced by the fact that he was previously the finance minister. But he’s been in office for less than a year. It’s a great misfortune for Europe that Chancellor Angela Merkel left office just as the situation in Ukraine was escalating again. No other politician on Germany’s side with sixteen years’ experience in government could step forward.
Another problem is that the United States has a president who is much weaker than his predecessor. Wars can be started by weak statesmen, but it takes strong ones to initiate peace processes and bring wars to an end. I hope that the new German federal government will sooner or later come to play the role that Germany really should play, given its weight in Europe. I also hope that Trump will return and that the United States will once again have a strong government. I’m also hopeful in relation to the Israeli election. If Benjamin Netanyahu also manages to return, we’ll have another strong head of state. I consider him to be one of the most respected and experienced statesmen in the Western world.
Who knows if we’ll have enough time to wait for strong Western politicians!
We’re in a dangerous escalation spiral. For us in Hungary this is a particularly big problem, as our country is in the immediate vicinity of the Ukrainian theatre of war. Through the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, we’ve long been directly involved in the war. It has already claimed 200 victims among our people, and there are still around 150,000-200,000 Hungarians living in Western Ukraine. From among them, young men are being conscripted into the army, who then have to risk their lives for Ukraine. Germany and other EU countries further afield also need to understand the dangerous situation in which Hungarians and members of the Hungarian national minority find themselves. For us this war in a neighbouring country is a different reality than it is for them.
So, ultima ratio, let us wait for strong Western politicians!
It might not take too long. In the United States the midterm elections will be held in early November. If the results are good, it could open a new chapter for the Republicans.
Did you see any signs of this when you were in the United States at the beginning of August, meeting Trump and other Republicans?
One thing’s certain: this war wouldn’t have broken out if Donald Trump had still been president of the United States on February 24th.
In Berlin you even said, “the hope for peace is called Trump.” Have you received any signs to that effect in the United States?
Americans don’t like to show their cards. When it comes to power, they’re very reserved.
Like the European Union, the United States isn’t a monolithic bloc. There, too, different interest groups are fighting one another…
Of course there are also interest groups there that see the conflict in a broader context. They’re surprised that the U.S. is now using all its might to force Russia to side with China, the great economic competitor. The cheap energy sources that for decades have supplied Europe are now being progressively transferred to the East and to China. In response to the Russian attack, the EU in particular has taken steps that will ultimately result in a major boost to cooperation between Russia and China.
From the West’s point of view, this is true geopolitical stupidity!
I don’t want to go to the other extreme. I’m on the side of balance. I don’t subscribe to the view that foreign policy should be conducted solely on the basis of morality and values, but on the other hand, I don’t like it when moral considerations are completely ignored. It all depends on striking the right balance. What the EU is now carrying out is the complete destruction of its rational and geopolitical interests. The decisions on sanctions were taken purely on moral and emotional grounds. During my travels in Germany and in many conversations, I was hoping to find a rational core of German policy on energy and sanctions. In Hungary there’s still an image of rational Germans who are the best engineers in the world: German cars, locomotives, machines, factories are all highly regarded.
Did you find what you were looking for?
This rational core might not even exist…
Let’s just say that I haven’t found it.
Do you think it’s possible for the United States to accept a multipolar world order?
I’ve yet to see a power voluntarily relinquish its leadership role. You can’t raise a lion to be a vegetarian. So we don’t need to waste much time on wondering whether the United States would be willing to accept a new global constellation of powers. That’s their business. Instead, we should focus on strengthening our own position and our own potential.
At any rate, there’s plenty of scope for Europe to strengthen itself. So we shouldn’t take America’s intentions as the starting point for what we should do. Europe must use the opportunities available to it to further our own interests. For this a common European defence industry is essential, along with a common defence and security policy. As we’re members of NATO, we tend to think that we don’t need all that. NATO is important and should be kept, but this doesn’t negate the need for Europe to build up its own defence capabilities. Here I’m thinking of the European arms industry and joint military training.
Finally, we must take steps towards the creation of a European armed force. If Europe cannot defend itself, it will always be dependent on Washington. Today Europe is not in a position to guarantee its own security. But if we have to ask the Americans to defend us because we don’t want to deal with that task ourselves, then the Americans are entitled to get what they’ll ask for in return. And from that moment on we won’t be two equal partners face to face, but we’ll be accepting a subordinate role. Therefore, Europe must do much more in the military field to promote its own sovereignty. We must also provide more money for armaments and defence. Then Europe could even fill the geopolitical space freed up by U.S. withdrawal.
A common defence policy yes, but not a United States of Europe?
I am not a big supporter of strengthening European institutions. I’m a politician who’s firmly in favour of national foundations. But neither am I doctrinaire. There are areas where we need more Europe and areas where we need less Europe. In security and defence policy, we need more EU.
If we add up the arms budgets of the individual EU countries, we’re not that far from the United States…
In this respect, the EU’s situation is actually not that bad. But I think there’s still some catching up to be done in the arms industry.
But the problem with European sovereignty is perhaps not so much financial as conceptual. I’m thinking here of the transatlanticism prevalent among European decision-makers.
I can clearly remember German politicians who, with German interests in mind, rejected American wishes. I’m the longest serving prime minister in Europe. During that time I’ve met many European politicians who have stood up for European sovereignty.
What can Hungary do for peace efforts between Ukraine and Russia? Is your offer to make Budapest available for possible peace negotiations still on the table?
Of course it is. That offer remains unchanged. But we must understand that this war won’t end with Ukrainian-Russian negotiations. It will also require U.S.-Russian negotiations. The war will continue until both sides see a clear interest in peace. We continue to support a ceasefire and early peace talks.
Have you noticed any signs within the EU of a stronger awareness of European interests?
A few days ago French President Emmanuel Macron said that the price the United States was asking for liquefied natural gas wasn’t a very friendly one. That comment piqued my interest. Perhaps a new era has now begun. And the more the economic difficulties in Europe intensify, the more realism will come to the fore and the more taboos we can break.
And what about your counterparts in Central Europe?
In Europe the rule is that the greatest asset is unity. Therefore everyone’s very cautious about expressing an opinion that differs from the mainstream. I don’t expect other prime ministers to take a position which differs from the official EU line without prior consultation. They’re much more cautious than we Hungarians, for example. We don’t like being banned from speaking, either. The Germans in particular find it difficult to understand that we Hungarians think differently. For the Germans, oppression has always been on a national basis, but liberation has been on an international basis. In Hungary it has always been the other way round; oppression has always been on an international basis, but the liberation from it has been on a national basis. Therefore it’s in our nature to give priority to our national forces.
In contrast, we see international groupings first as a potential threat. Only later do we examine whether it’s good for us to participate in them. So our first reflex is always negative. We’ve learnt this from history. This is why our attitude towards EU institutions is different from that of, for example, the Germans, who assume from the outset that they’ll certainly be good for German interests. We see things differently: the European institutions are good, but they’re still dangerous. We must treat them with caution, lest they end up undermining our national interests. But Germans tend to identify strongly with everything that comes out of Brussels. We’re much more cautious about that.
The official position of the European Union continues to be based on the total victory of a supported Ukraine. Hungary is a more or less enthusiastic participant in this. Have you received any guarantees from Brussels or Kyiv that, in the event of Ukraine’s consolidation, the Hungarian minority there won’t be exposed to a campaign of reprisals by Ukrainian nationalists?
Ukraine has been attacked. In such a situation, previous nationalist feuds are pushed into the background. We Hungarians are a generous people. What happened to the Hungarian minority in Ukraine cannot be compared to what’s happening to the Ukrainian people now. This is why we’re not harping on about the attacks on the Hungarian minority there and their rights. Before the war, Hungary obstructed closer ties between Ukraine and NATO. We made it clear then that Ukraine cannot count on Hungary’s full support until the Hungarian minority in Ukraine regains its original rights.
Now there’s a war and a completely different situation. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we’re suffering from amnesia. We still know that we must seek an agreement with Ukraine, and we’ll come back to this immediately after the war. Then we’d like to set out our cooperation with Ukraine in a comprehensive agreement. One part of this agreement would certainly be to guarantee the rights of the Hungarian minority living there.
So you hope that the Hungarians there will be able to live in peace after the war?
I’m convinced of it: Hungary is strong enough to achieve this. I’m not placing my trust in the other side, but in our own strength.
What are the chances that the funds the EU has unjustly withheld from Hungary will be given the green light by the end of the year?
This is a purely political question. It’s not about law or the rule of law. In the EU there are three large, closely cooperating party families: the Socialists, the People’s Party and the Liberals. The main governing parties in Hungary and Poland don’t belong to any of these three party families, which are therefore given a free hand to take punitive measures against us. When the British were there, there were no such punitive measures. There were no rule-of-law procedures, no conditionality mechanism, and no collective debt deal. Back then, no one dared to do any such thing. But unfortunately the British have gone, and we’ve been left without protection.
The Liberals are led by the French, the German SPD stands by the Socialists, and the CDU is in the People’s Party. Given that we are political rivals, the EU institutions are now being used as a weapon against us. They’re punishing us and openly blackmailing us with EU money. But there’s no legal basis for this—it’s blackmail, pure and simple. We don’t want to argue; we want to cooperate. So if the European Commission asks us to do something that doesn’t run counter to Hungarian interests, we’ll do it. Therefore we have no problem with the implementation of the 17 points that the Commission has asked us to implement. We certainly won’t be to blame for any failure to achieve effective cooperation.
And can the current game with EU funds finally be brought to an end with the implementation of these 17 points?
I’m afraid not. After this I assume that there will be ever more demands. Look at the way the Poles are being treated! They’ve done everything that’s been demanded of them and that’s been mutually agreed upon. But then new demands are put on the table solely to continue to withhold from the Poles the resources that are due to them. Clearly this is about forcing a change of government in Poland. Ultimately this may also be the objective with regard to Hungary. The only difference is that Poland will have an election next year, whereas Hungary won’t have an election for another four years.
These new demands coming from Brussels sound rather Kafkaesque.
Now we’re dealing with 17 demands. We’ll meet them all. But right after that I bet there will be an 18th, a 19th, and so on…
So there’s no hope that the withheld EU funds will finally be fully disbursed?
I assume that the money we’re owed will be released at the end of the year. If this doesn’t happen, it would lead to a series of conflicts. As we’re fully complying with all the technical requirements, there will soon be no reason to deny us the funds for a longer period of time. I expect to be able to sign the contracts with the EU by the end of the year. But I can’t say whether the money will actually come through. Hungary cannot be forced into a corner financially, however, because we’re engaged in several negotiations in international financial markets. In the area of energy resources, negotiations with Russia are ongoing. We’re also negotiating with China. We may end up having to finance the EU’s green programmes from Chinese sources.
Have you ever been approached discreetly at any of the EU summits by someone telling you that these problems could be easily solved if Hungary were “a little more flexible” on certain issues? For example, on illegal migration, the work of NGOs, or the Child Protection Act?
This is done quite openly. The EU has never left us in any doubt: if we behaved like the others, we wouldn’t have problems with funds.
So there’s a clear link between technical issues and a willingness to comply on completely different issues?
Yes, clearly. It’s not the technical concerns that are the problem. It’s about other issues; for example, the way we think about EU integration. The bureaucrats in Brussels are pushing for EU integration so that the sovereignty of nations will be drastically eroded. This process is called ‘ever closer union.’ But this intelligent-sounding phrase means nothing more than fewer and fewer rights and less sovereignty retained by the member states, with ever more being transferred to Brussels.
We, on the other hand, believe that the EU should be an alliance of strong nation states. We see national sovereignty as an asset and have no intention of simply giving it up. We want to work more closely together within the framework of the EU, where we can do more for Hungary’s interests than at national level. This used to be called subsidiarity, but that word has somehow fallen out of fashion.
One problem is the over-politicisation of the EU.
That is accompanied by a truly serious risk. Since the announcement in the Juncker era that EU institutions are political bodies, i.e., not independent but political, the gates have been thrown open for political rivalry. This also marked the beginning of our problems with EU funds. As long as the institutions were neutral, these problems simply didn’t exist. The politicisation of European institutions will ultimately lead to the disintegration of the EU. If we don’t return to the Commission being the “guardian of the treaties” rather than a political body, the unity of the EU will be seriously threatened. In this context, therefore, the rule-of-law mechanism is nothing more than a disintegration mechanism—as are the conditionality mechanism and the collective-debt deal. Within the EU today, there are more disintegration mechanisms than integration mechanisms. If we don’t change this, the unity of the EU could soon be shattered.
But is Orbán, the supposed enemy of the EU, trying to prevent that?
I strongly believe that Europe is better off with a sensibly organised EU than without it. I’m entirely positive about such an EU. It would have wonderful potential. The EU’s founding treaty clearly stated that its purpose was to ensure the freedom, security, and well-being of the citizens of each member state. For Hungary, only an EU that guarantees the freedom, security, and well-being of its citizens makes sense. But if we’re heading towards disintegration, it’s bad for every member state. I’m confident that the EU will get back on track. We support a comprehensive reform of the EU. But our voice is in the minority, and we can only achieve anything with the legitimacy argument. I greatly regret the fact that—instead of engaging us in meaningful negotiations—our opponents constantly pillory us as the supposed enemies of the EU.
Yet you consider yourself a fighter for an intelligently organised EU.
Of course. There’s no basis for the constant insinuations that we’re enemies of the EU. The truth is the exact opposite: We have no doubts about the EU, or even of our membership in the EU. Our efforts are rather directed at its quality. We want it to be capable of responding adequately to the current challenges. As far as this is concerned, the current EU paints a rather sorry picture. It’s neither able to protect its borders nor guarantee its own security. It’s unable to resolve conflicts in its neighbourhood. It cannot ensure fair competition in the single market. Deliberately denying Poland and Hungary the EU funds they’re entitled to will inevitably lead to distortions in competition. All in all, the EU is not living through its best days.
But anyone who brings this up quickly becomes an outcast…
Unfortunately, there’s a widespread perception in Europe that the real problem is not the EU’s many failures, but the people who point them out.
As we’re talking, we’re surrounded by books, so let’s talk about books! What did you think of Klaus von Dohnanyi’s book National Interests?
It’s an extremely valuable book. I bought it as soon as it was released in Hungarian, and I’ve already read it twice. The first time I literally devoured it, and then I read it again to make notes. I was deeply impressed by the clarity with which von Dohnanyi examines and analyses international relations. I’m naturally proud that this great man has Hungarian roots.
What have you been reading lately? What other reading material is on your bedside table?
I’m currently reading a book about China, because I want to deepen my understanding of Chinese thinking. Before that, I read a book which I think is particularly important for understanding the intellectual conflicts that are going on in Europe. It’s by the liberal Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, called The Light That Failed. The book is about the rise and fall of liberal hegemony. It’s a very useful read if one wants to understand how liberals see themselves. But I also like reading history books, because I firmly believe that the future can only be understood through history. Besides Hungarian history, I’m also very interested in German history.
When he was still a minister, Zoltán Balog once told me that you regularly gave your staff reading advice…
I still do, to this day. For me it’s important that my colleagues are also constantly educating themselves. This summer, for example, I gave all my staff the book by Klaus von Dohnanyi that we’ve been talking about, so that they could read it and—equally importantly—discuss it later. I come from the anti-communist resistance. Back then we founded independent student circles. One of the basic tasks of these circles was to collectively train ourselves intellectually. We acquired books, especially pieces of so-called samizdat literature, self-published books that weren’t really appreciated by the state censors. We read them and then discussed their contents together. We still do this today. For intellectually stimulating books, I find post-reading discussion incredibly important.
What other books have you recently recommended to your colleagues?
For example, I recommended the Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism. Incidentally, this year Hazony published a very good work called Conservatism: A Rediscovery. Unfortunately for the time being it’s only available in English, but there will be a Hungarian edition soon. In my view it will be a seminal work of political literature. We try to keep track of the relevant international literature; we’ll read anything that seems relevant to us and our work.
You have met Hazony several times, most recently in early August…
Yes, we had another very animated conversation here in my office. By the way, I know quite a few authors, for whom I have a great deal of personal respect. When they’re in Budapest I always try to meet and talk to them, if time permits. Above all I want to ask them questions and get their views on current affairs. I’m always very curious to hear their answers.
Which of these discussions have had a particular impact on you?
My discussion with Hazony. And of course with the grand master of conservatism, Roger Scruton, who I also counted as a friend. Our friendship went back to my university days at Oxford in 1989. In our circles in Hungary, his 1989 book The Need for Nations is considered an absolutely seminal work. Roger Scruton is an immortal legend. I’ve also read several books by Václav Klaus. Thank God, he’s still in good health. I was able to see this for myself a few days ago when I was in Prague. He’s published some excellent papers on freedom and has now written a book on inflation. Klaus is worth listening to. One of the last anti-communists from the period that saw the fall of communism, he’s still active as a writer.
What books on geopolitics would you recommend?
First of all, of course, Klaus von Dohnanyi’s book, which we’ve mentioned several times. But if one wants to better understand the Russian way of thinking, I’d definitely recommend reading Solzhenitsyn. An essential work for understanding the current conflict is, of course, The Grand Chessboard by the Harvard professor Zbigniew Brzezinski, with whom I was able to speak personally on several occasions in the mid-1990s. That seminal work of his was also published around that time. I’ve been working in this profession for many years, and this means that I’ve had the great luck to have met many of the world’s great thinkers in person.
Going back to the beginning of our conversation, I’ve also learnt a lot from some Germans, such as Helmut Kohl. But I learnt the most from Otto Graf Lambsdorff. He was a very patient man, and we often talked for hours. He explained international politics to me and my young colleagues, answering all our questions. We Hungarians like to ask questions. We’re not ashamed to learn. A Hungarian proverb says that “A good priest learns until the day he dies.” This also applies to me; a good politician is forever learning. My belief is that you can’t be smart enough on your own. This is why I read a lot and exchange ideas with others, including with people from the other camp.
Three years ago, here in this library, I had a conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévy, a very left-wing French philosopher. That was an interesting conversation. There was hardly any consensus between us on any issue, but we had a great conversation. The crucial thing was that on both sides there was a willingness to engage in discussion. The situation today is much worse intellectually than it used to be. ‘Wokeism’ and cancel culture that comes from it is eliminating not only history but also dialogue. Since it’s practically forbidden to think anything that departs from the given line; discussions rooted in the desire to understand others are disappearing. Everything increasingly revolves around censorship and denial. But this is killing politics intellectually. This is one of the reasons for the sorry state of Western politics today.