Panel discussion involving Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the directors of the monthly magazine “Cicero”
11 October 2022, Berlin

Prime Minister, in the early hours of 24 February, Russian troops attacked Ukraine, a neighbour of Hungary. Many people only found out later. How did you learn of this event, and at that moment what were your first thoughts?

I was in Moscow on 5 February, three weeks before the war, and I had five hours of talks with Vladimir Putin, as a kind of peace mission. I’d already seen that this was going to be a problem. And I saw that there was no one on the Western side who understood the urgent need to negotiate, whether or not there was the chance of an agreement: the very existence of talks would cool things down, but since there was no such cooling effect, we were very afraid that war would follow. When I was there on the fifth I asked the President of Russia what he thought about the Ukrainian army. He said that the Ukrainian army is a very strong army, a very well-equipped army, with a general staff trained by the Americans and the British; they get information from the Americans, and therefore it’s a very, very strong country. And he made it clear that he’d do everything possible to ensure that the country [Ukraine] never joins NATO. For him that’s an imperative. And I saw that he was determined. He didn’t say there would be a war, he didn’t say he was going to attack, but I could see that trouble was in prospect. So I went to NATO headquarters in Brussels and reported to the NATO Secretary General that trouble was in store, because time wasn’t on our side: time was on the side of the Russians, and anything could happen. And when it happened on the 24th, all I said was, “Well, it happened as we expected.” And I immediately started thinking about how many Hungarians would die. Because the difference between the German position and the Hungarian position is not only geographical – you’re further away, and Hungary neighbours Ukraine – but that we have 200,000 Hungarians living in Ukraine, some of whom have dual citizenship. And I wondered how many Hungarians would die if they were drafted into the army, or if the Russians were to shoot their way into Transcarpathia. And so far we’ve lost about two hundred people: two hundred Hungarians have died. So when we talk about the war, we Hungarians have already lost two hundred people who died as conscripts at the front – most of them dual citizens. So we’re within this war’s immediate impact zone. And we have a very strong sense of being under threat. So that was the morning of the 24th.

As you’ve said, during your visit to Moscow in early February, before the attack, you saw that the Russian president showed determination. At the time there was a lot of information from Western intelligence services about the exact timing of the attack, and one or two of the announced dates passed by. In your opinion, what was the actual purpose and true trigger for the invasion? Because the information at the time was inconclusive. And when you say he was determined, was that just about wanting to prevent the Ukrainians from becoming members of NATO?

This is a very interesting question, and I’m sure that books will be written about it; but to be honest, I’m reluctant to give an answer. The reason is that I see the whole discourse on this war as being too focused on Putin. Everyone’s talking about Putin: What did he think? What does he think now? What will he be thinking tomorrow morning? But to tell you the truth, I’m not interested in Vladimir Putin at all: I’m interested in Hungary and in Europe. So we should put more energy into thinking about ourselves and what the consequences of this war are for us. Our starting point shouldn’t be what we think is going on in his head; it should be what’s in Europe’s interest, what’s in Germany’s interest and what’s in Hungary’s interest. So I don’t want to take part in a debate about Putin as an exotic leader, at the expense of focusing on my own affairs. So I don’t know why he embarked on the war; that’s something that historians will find out. Now there’s a war being fought. We’re in the midst of trouble. We should say what our interests are. How are we going to put an end to all this if we don’t know what the German interest is, what the Hungarian interest is and what the European interest is? So I want to focus on that issue rather than on Vladimir Putin.

I think most Europeans agree that in this situation a shared goal is to help Ukraine. Now, after the invasion of 24 February, the impression is that Hungary isn’t really on the side of Ukraine, but is at least as much on the side of Russia. For several weeks after 24 February, the Hungarian defence minister wasn’t prepared to call the Russian aggression an invasion. On 7 March he spoke of an attack – and I quote – of “limited purpose”. Why have you been so hesitant to call Putin’s war of aggression what it was and what it continues to be?

I called it aggression on day one, and we accepted the European interpretation. Our thinking about the war is the same as the European Union’s position, of which we’re a part. So there’s no Hungarian position which is distinct from the European position: we share the European Union’s position. This is aggression. Moreover, I’m a lawyer, I was once – or, to be more precise, I went to law school. Legally, the situation is absolutely clear. There is international law, and the Russians have violated it. This is called aggression. They’ve started a war. Whatever the reason, it’s an international violation, and there’s nothing more to talk about. It’s aggression. And in this regard the Hungarian position is quite obvious. The question is this: when we think about this situation, what starting point do we choose? I’m often asked – as you’ve done – whose side we’re on. We’re on the side of the Hungarians. And I think that our inability to contain this conflict is a very big problem. You know, of course, that I had some fierce duels and debates with Angela Merkel on certain issues – particularly on migration. But what Angela Merkel did during the Crimea crisis [of 2014] was a masterstroke. So “Danke, Angela!” This war could have broken out during the Crimea crisis, because at that time there was a clear international violation, but it didn’t turn into a war. Why didn’t it become a war? It was because the Germans – with the Chancellor in the lead – immediately initiated negotiations: they went to Kiev, they went to Moscow, they invited them to Brussels and they isolated the conflict. So the conflict in Crimea remained a Ukrainian-Russian conflict, and it wasn’t allowed to escalate and draw in all of us. That was a great diplomatic achievement. But now when this war broke out there was no one from Europe even attempting to isolate it. It all blew up immediately and we all got drawn in. And now we’re all talking about being Ukrainian or Russian, instead of talking about what’s in our own interests. So Hungary doesn’t want to be in a position in which it’s not acting in its own interests. So I’m not willing to help the Ukrainians, while at the same time destroying Hungary. I’m not willing to help the Ukrainians while at the same time Hungarians are dying. This is a boundary that must be acknowledged. Good intentions are important, but – and this may surprise you – in politics accountability isn’t based on intentions. It’s not a question of who is a good person. Of course it’s good to have a lot of good people, but the question is about who will solve the problem. In politics one is accountable for one’s results, not for one’s intentions. We’re accountable for whether or not we solved something, not for whether our thinking was right or wrong. I want to solve this problem, and so I belong to the peace camp. So there are two camps in Europe today: the war camp and the peace camp. And I stand for an immediate ceasefire, I stand for immediate negotiations. This is regardless of what the Ukrainians think. As a Hungarian, it’s in my interest that there should be a ceasefire as soon as possible and peace negotiations as soon as possible. This is what distinguishes me from you, who are deducing what needs to be done from the Ukrainian point of view. So I stand in a different position.

Let me ask you once again: am I right in understanding that with Angela Merkel as Chancellor the war wouldn’t have happened?

I’m absolutely sure of it.

Youve said that you take a Hungarian position, whereby you represent Hungary’s interests. Everything else is simply put to one side. Yet Hungary is part of the European Union, and the European Union is a community of values; and it unifies its strengths – and not only its strengths, but also the free movement of capital and the free movement of people. In the early stage of the war, for example, you negotiated energy and oil supplies for Hungary and you concluded these agreements in a way that was optimised for you – contrary to the political recommendation from Brussels that the European Union should act as one. In doing so, you’re pursuing policy from a national perspective at the expense of the European perspective, and thus sending a message to Russia about the European position.

Here I must first of all make a philosophical comment. What do we call European policy? There are two concepts: according to one, European policy is what the European institutions formulate in Brussels; according to the other, European policy is in Berlin, in Budapest, in Warsaw, in Lisbon. European policy is nothing more than the sum of the wills of the Member States, which must be harmonised to become a European position. But there’s no European position above us from which we can deduce what a national position should be. It’s the other way round! Each country has its own interests; and if we agree, then we have a European position. This is my philosophical or sociological comment. On your specific point, I’m engaged in difficult negotiations with the European Commission on financial issues. So now I should express myself very politely. For that, however, I shouldn’t have accepted such an invitation as yours. But I’m here now, so frankly I have to tell you that what the Commission is doing in relation to sanctions is catastrophic. I’m not talking about the existence of sanctions per se, because sanctions can be good or bad, but about what the English call “craftsmanship” or “engineering”: the way they’re being executed. So this is an extremely crude system, which completely neglects European interests. And in this form these sanctions are killing us: they’ll destroy the German economy and they’ll destroy the Hungarian economy. And that is not good. So sanctions must be imposed in a different way. When I was in Brussels I said this: “My friends, Hungary is a landlocked country, oil cannot be transported by sea, only by pipeline. One end of the pipe is in Russia, the other end is in Hungary, and there’s no other pipe. So if you formulate the oil embargo, the Hungarian economy will shut down the next day, and I’ll have no alternative. We didn’t do this, we inherited this East-West infrastructure from communist times. What am I supposed to do about this?” In reply they said: “Find a solution.” It’s impossible! So what we’re doing is crude. And if we’d applied sanctions correctly, energy prices today wouldn’t be sky high. Of course they’d be higher than they were before the war, but they wouldn’t be sky high. One can impose sanctions without destroying yourself. But the Commission wasn’t able to do that. So I’m always forced to say, “If it’s a sanction, I have a problem. Will you or won’t you help me solve it? If you won’t, I’ll veto. If you help me, I’ll accept the solution and you can do what you want. But you cannot kick the Hungarians into a corner, and say that their problems are of no interest to you.” So in essence that’s our dispute.

Okay, the main argument for sanctions is that we won’t support Russia or help Russia finance its war against Ukraine. That argument seems quite plausible. You say that we need to be more intelligent in the way we design sanctions. What do you mean by an intelligent sanctions regime that harms Russia and doesn’t harm the European Union so much – or perhaps even benefits it, and above all benefits Ukraine? 

What did we want? We wanted to stop financing the Russians. What are we doing? We’re financing them! Prices have gone through the roof, and the Russians are making money from this. In the first six months of the sanctions, the Russians made a whole year’s worth of money. So the sanctions were crude because they aren’t strangling Russia, but giving them extra money. They made 158 billion euros in six months, and we paid more than half of that. What kind of sanctions are those? What I’m saying is that when the oil sanctions first came up, the argument was what you’ve said: because we’re not buying oil, the Russians will have less money. I told you that I represent a small country, but how much money someone has depends not only on the quantity bought, but also on the price. If prices go up, the Russians will sell less oil, but they’ll make more money. What was the response to that? “No, no, that won’t happen.” Has it happened? Yes, it has! So sanctions must only be imposed intelligently. And sanctions must also be handled with care, because sanctions should be used in a situation when you’re the stronger party. So sanctions are always imposed by the strong on the weak. Now, in terms of energy, we’re dwarves and the Russians are giants. Now the dwarf’s sanctioning the giant, and we’re wondering why the dwarf’s dying. So here we have to act more intelligently. Craftsmanship: you have to put it together more skilfully. It isn’t good like this.

I now have the impression that you’re assuming that Russia would supply oil and gas if there were no sanctions. But what makes you so sure that this would be the case? Russia quite obviously has an interest in destabilising Europe, the West, in our case Germany, through energy shortages. Why do you think that the Russians would resume supplies if we lifted some sanctions?

I’m not even saying we should lift them, I’m just suggesting that we rethink and remodel the sanctions. So I’m not saying don’t do this, I’m not saying withdraw, I’m not saying give up; I’m just saying let’s do something reasonable and commonsense, something that makes sense. Now, will the Russians supply or not? At the moment the Russian reaction to the embargo is that they’re not supplying, as you say. And we don’t know if they’ll ever restart – especially if certain groups blow up pipelines in acts of terrorism. If the pipelines are blown up the Russians can’t deliver, even if they wanted to. That’s what’s happening now. The infrastructure through which the Russians can bring natural gas and oil into Europe is being destroyed. This is what happened with Nord Stream. And we’re very worried that this could happen with the southern pipeline. The only remaining high-volume pipeline supplying Russian gas comes from the south – through Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. If they blow that up too, Hungary will be without gas supplies. So we’re worried about that. And we want a solution in which Russian energy comes in – in the longer term, too. What’s in Europe’s interest? It’s not in Europe’s interest to replace Russian energy dependence with American energy dependence. We don’t want to change masters; we want independence. So we want to have alternatives: from here if we want, from there if we want, from somewhere else if we want; from Algeria if we want, from Qatar if we want, from America if we want, from Russia if we want. That’s our business. So we need independence, not extreme vulnerability. What we’re doing now is replacing dependence on Russia with dependence on America. Of course this is more comfortable, because the Americans are democrats, unlike the Russians; this may be politically more comfortable for us, but it’s not good. We need a good structure. So the question is not whether or not the Russians will supply, but how many other places we can get supplies from, and then we’ll make them compete with one another. We are customers. It’s good for us if there are four or five offers on the table, and then we’ll buy from whoever we want – for economic or political reasons. The problem isn’t that there’s Russian gas and oil, the problem is that there’s nothing else. And therefore we’re at the mercy of others. This is our logic. In the longer term it’s in Europe’s interest to have a lot of options, and not to replace one master with another.

Youve just posited that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict was a local conflict as far as Crimea was concerned, but that since then this has become an escalating international conflict. Now if we come back to the embargo and the sanctions policy, we have to conclude that there’s a European perspective, there’s a Russian perspective and there’s a very large perspective from India and China. We said earlier that these are the third world, the non-aligned. So from a European perspective we should unify our negotiating power, precisely so that we can create this open competition: so that we can meet our energy needs and at the same time have fair prices. And in this how can it help for Hungary to oppose the European negotiating position that’s being defined at the moment? In tactical terms, isn’t this in fact playing into the hands of the Russians?

This is the accusation. So I’m accused of being Putin’s Trojan horse. I always say that we represent the interests of the Hungarians, and that’s that. I think that in the next few months there will be a lot of books written and a lot of presentations given on these issues. China. Now we’ve driven the Russians into the arms of China, to whom they’re delivering energy. India has refused to close ranks with the West. The OPEC countries have, in essence, humiliated us: the Americans went there to persuade them to produce more so that energy would be cheaper; the Saudis said “good luck”, and then announced that they were going to cut production. So the consequence of this whole conflict, which the West has taken on, is that our weakness has become obvious. So previously the Western world – especially when the Americans with their huge military – said something is the right thing to do, and then most of the world stood by them. I’ve been in international politics for thirty-two years, and I’ve never seen a situation in which the Americans are dismissed like this: China says, “No, we don’t agree with you”; India says, “We don’t agree”; the Arabs say, “We don’t agree either”; Iran says “Well, after all, we don’t agree”; Africa says, “We’re not interested in the West anymore.” Globally we’ve never been so weak, and now it’s become obvious. I don’t think this is good. But it’s very important that politicians avoid replacing action with rhetoric, speculation and lectures. Because if we want to end the conflict by first coming up with a long-term solution, and then start negotiating only when we’ve found it, then this war will go on for years. We need to reverse such thinking: we have to say that whether or not there’s a long-term solution, let there be an immediate ceasefire. Let there be an immediate ceasefire, otherwise tens of thousands will die and the war will move closer to Europe. An immediate ceasefire – whether or not there’s a long-term solution. This is what the Pope says, this is what Kissinger says, this is what Habermas says, this is what some American Republicans say, and this is what I say. So let there be an immediate ceasefire and then let’s start negotiating. But we shouldn’t sit down and say that we know the solution, and that’s that. There’s one thing we do know: every day that we are at war is worse than a ceasefire. So now let us politicians concentrate our efforts not on long-term reasoning, but on the ceasefire. I think that would be the right political behaviour.

You’re always saying that we should achieve a ceasefire and that we should negotiate and talk to Russia. We’re not talking about Putin, are we, and it’s not just Putin. But what makes you so sure that the Russian side is ready for a ceasefire, for talks? What is there to negotiate about anyway? 

It would be better if the public couldn’t hear what I’m about to say, but that cannot be helped now. So the ceasefire must not be between Ukraine and Russia, but between America and Russia. So the ceasefire and talks aren’t dependent on a Ukrainian-Russian negotiation. Anyone who thinks that this war can be ended by a Russian-Ukrainian negotiation isn’t living in the real world. The realities of power are different. It’s the Americans who must be negotiated with. So we need Russian-American negotiations. And if there are Russian-American negotiations, then there will be a ceasefire. After all, at the heart of this war are resources. What does the picture look like? In terms of raw materials, military capabilities and personnel, the Russians have almost unlimited resources. In all these the Ukrainians have limited amounts. Obviously, in terms of its outcome this war will only remain open if the Ukrainians can draw on external resources. And today, economically and financially the Ukrainians have unlimited resources, because we’re providing them with these. America is providing the weapons, the training and the information from space on where to target; all this is being provided by the Americans. The whole world’s political sympathy towards Ukraine is being sustained by the American media, which is the driving engine for this. So the Ukrainian-Russian war is open today because the Americans want it to be open. Therefore they’re the ones who can also bring it to an end. This is why the Americans must reach an agreement with the Russians; and then the war will be over. Every drop of blood in my heart is with the Ukrainians. They are a heroic people. We have had – and still have – many conflicts with them, but that’s not important now. They are a heroic people, they fight with extraordinary heroism. But they’re only able to engage in open warfare because we’re backing them up with unlimited amounts of money, weapons, information and everything we can supply. This is why they can’t bring this war to an end. America can bring this to an end. And this is the essence of the trap. The US president has gone too far. The American president has said things that are very difficult to walk back. If Putin is a mass murderer, if he’s a war criminal, if he must fall, then Putin must fall, and there must be regime change. So if you say things like that, then afterwards it’s very difficult for this president to make peace. So this will sound brutal, but the hope for peace is called Donald Trump.

As someone who was socialised in the German Democratic Republic, I have experience of politicians who were unable to detach themselves from their parents; and I have a nice new theme for the next round. I’ll move on to the next question. The Visegrád Group was created by the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary as a communicative counterweight to the western part of the EU, and within the EU it literally formed an opposition which was able to make an impact. As Hungary is currently taking an independent position and Poland is positioning itself against the Hungarian position, is there still a future for this Visegrád Group?

That’s the million-dollar question. It was clear, wasn’t it, that the Polish mindset and historical experience differs from that of the Hungarians. We’re on fraternal terms with the Poles, and a magical, romantic element of Hungarian history is that we’d sacrifice ourselves without thinking if we were to fight alongside the Poles for Polish freedom; yet our mentalities have always been different, because we have different historical experiences. The Poles have always thought differently from us about the Russians and the Germans. And the situation is the same now. We don’t discuss this every day, but what the Poles say about the Germans from time to time is challenging, to put it mildly. We don’t say such things, obviously for a reason. So it’s always been clear that cooperation is difficult when geopolitics comes to the fore within the V4. If geopolitics isn’t on the agenda, but national interests are, and if we fight for values in Brussels, then life in the V4 is easy, then it goes well: we stand up for our shared interests against, say, the Germans or the big states, and we have enough weight to negotiate, as our four countries represent more than 60 million people, and we act together. We’ve now entered a phase in which geopolitics has become the most important thing, and this is torturing the V4 – it’s pulling at its seams. But there are two other things here that I don’t know whether you Germans are used to talking about. If you look at the map of Europe’s values, you’ll see that on migration, on family issues, on gender issues, on the concept of the family, on the issue of national feeling, there’s a line dividing Europe that starts at the top, runs along the western edge of the Baltic states, comes down to the Czech Republic, comes down to Hungary and ends at Slovenia. Those to the east of this line think in terms of the traditional family, reject gender and reject multiculturalism. These countries don’t want migration, seeing it as a threat rather than a help. And east of this line, where we live, national feeling and national pride is the main driving force, and is a positive thing. To a German ear, national pride probably sounds like a terrible thing. But east of this line I’m talking about, every country says that you need three things to live: your mother, your father and pride in your nation – otherwise there’s no life. So this is why it’s important that the V4 represents a Europe based on conservative values. We understand what you’re doing: migration, the fact that here same-sex couples can marry, that soon there will be some kind of group thing here. We understand all that. We understand that migration should be welcomed, and that from a German point of view this is surely logical. But we don’t think that way, and we have a different conception. Ours is under constant attack, and it must be defended. It’s easier to defend it together than individually. This is one of the reasons for the V4. Forgive me for speaking at length, but there’s another reason which is perhaps even more important: the British. Everything that’s wrong has its roots in the British: if the British hadn’t left the European Union, the internal dynamism of the EU that has prevailed for the past thirty years would have been maintained, because together with the V4 the British never accepted a federal conception for the European Union. You Germans and the French wanted a federal Europe and we didn’t – along with the British. And this was more or less in balance, more or less in equilibrium. And if we wanted to come to an agreement, neither side was dominant and we had to agree. Now the British have left, and so the federalists – the Germans and the French – have gained the upper hand and the dynamics have changed. If the British had stayed in, there would never have been a rule of law procedure in the EU, there would never have been a conditionality procedure, there would never have been a debt community. All these are national rights that are being taken away: what used to be national law is now being transferred to Brussels. The British always opposed this. Now that the British are gone, we are left without them. We’re small and you Germans and French are forcing these federalist conceptions on us. If the V4 cannot cooperate for geopolitical reasons, things that we don’t want will be forced on us. So the weakening of the V4 because of geopolitics is a big blow. It’s a big blow to us, to the nations of Central Europe – and also, I think, to conservative people in your country and in Western Europe who understand and share our values in the way we organise Central Europe.

I’d like to return to something that’s important to me. Let’s briefly return to the peace negotiations and the ceasefire. As I understand it, this would be between Russia and the United States. This reminds me a little of the 19th century, when the great heads of state would lean over a country, decide where the border should be drawn and at the table decide what’s to become of that country. What role would the Ukrainians play in this whole geopolitical game? 

There are bigger problems than this. Before we can answer this question, we need to say what role Europe will play. Because after World War II Europe lost its sovereignty. Europe was governed by a Russo-American agreement – more precisely a Soviet-US agreement. The European Union was not a peace project; it’s nice to say it was, but we know that it wasn’t. The reason there hasn’t been a war in Europe is not because the European Union was a peace project, but because the Russians and the Americans said that there would be no war because that’s what they’d agreed. Europe’s sovereign capacity for self-determination was removed from the continent after World War II. In 1990 we wanted to get it back. The change in 1990 was not just German reunification and freedom for us, but a chance for Europe to regain its sovereignty. And this is what Angela Merkel promoted in the Crimea crisis. Then we were sovereign: the French and German leaders sat down with the Russians and Ukrainians in an intelligent way and negotiated. Now we face the threat of being left out of everything. Europe is being left out! The Americans will make a deal with the Russians and we’ll be left out again. That’s the real problem! So how are we Europeans going to get a seat for ourselves at the negotiating table? And, since there’s no European army and no European security structure, but only a NATO structure, brute force will prevail. So before we think about how the Ukrainians are going to be fairly involved in the negotiations, we have to say how we Europeans are going to be fairly involved. Because this is not how things look at the moment. An old concept has been resurrected. What was the guiding idea of NATO? Keep the Russians out, keep the Americans in, keep the Germans down. That was the concept. Now we’re going in the same direction. The Russians are coming in, the Americans are in, and we are down. Macron is right: Europe must stand up for its strategic independence. If Europe doesn’t stand up for its strategic independence, a new security situation in Europe will be created by the Russians negotiating with the Americans. And that’s not good for us.

These are political concepts that remind me of my youth. My harshest critics are at home: my children. They live in the UK, in a kind of kibbutz that I find somewhat difficult to accept. As I listen to you a few decades later, this question comes to mind: if not at the level of political concepts, shouldn’t we take more account of the principles of freedom and equality, and of minorities – regardless of whether this is in terms of sexual orientation, geographical location, or economic strengths and weaknesses? Isn’t this precisely what Hungary has benefited from to the maximum over the past thirty years, as part of such a community of values – and shouldn’t Ukraine also benefit from this solidarity? And doesn’t civilisation oblige us to say very clearly to the Russians – who through violence are trying to influence political competition – that perhaps it was possible to do such things in the past hundred years, with Hungary paying a huge price in its history, but that, given our knowledge of the world today and the wealth at our disposal, violence can no longer play a part in political competition? And shouldn’t we – and Hungary in particular, because of its own history – vigorously reject all that and work to ensure that the principle of equality prevails within civilised society? So the very specific question is this: Hungary has benefited from these freedoms over the past thirty years, but now it’s challenging them very robustly. Isn’t this a contradiction?

I haven’t thought about that, but it’s a good question. First of all, of course, the Ukrainian position needs to be understood. I think the position of the Ukrainians is best understood by the Hungarians. So, you know, people talk about Bucha; but the Bucha of 1956 was called Budapest. So if anyone knows the meaning of a military offensive and repression by the Russians, we do. After the ‘56 revolution our Zelenskyy was hanged. So we don’t need explanations of how brutal a Russian war can be. We know that exactly. Therefore we think that everything possible should be done for Ukraine, but now the best thing we can do for it is a ceasefire. Nothing else can match that. In my opinion there’s no better gift we can give the Ukrainians than the achievement of a ceasefire. As for the future. I think that it’s a good idea to include Ukraine in the community which, as you’ve said, we Hungarians have enjoyed the benefits of membership over the past thirty years. So let the Ukrainians come closer to the EU. Whether or not they should join immediately is a difficult question, but I agree that offering the Ukrainians the opportunity to join us is a minimum: a minimum obligation, morally and historically. But we definitely shouldn’t do it at the cost of destroying ourselves in the process. So it’s no help to Ukraine if German industry is destroyed. It’s no help to Ukraine if the Hungarian economy is ruined. It will not help if we fall into a two- or three-year recession – as now very many of us will, because of the sanctions. We won’t be able to help anyone if there are 5 million unemployed in Germany again, and if the recession in Hungary takes unemployment from 3 per cent to 12 per cent. So we must help the Ukrainians in a way that’s good for them, without ruining ourselves. So I think we should also leave open the prospect – the European prospect – that you’re talking about. NATO is another problem, but that’s been solved for the time being. To quote NATO’s founding rules, it’s stated that there can be no NATO admission for a country currently at war. So now Ukraine’s membership of NATO has been put on the back burner for a long time.

I’d now like to talk specifically about a possible peace plan. Nowadays everyone on television is coming up with clever peace plans. But I’ve not seen a single responsible politician who really had a concrete plan or idea for the conditions under which this war in Ukraine could end – not just temporarily, but permanently. There’s a serious risk that the same situation will be repeated in the coming months or every few years. What do you think could be a scenario that could lead to a kind of lasting peace in the region?

What you’re talking about is a difficult question, and I don’t have such high intellectual ambitions. It was some German politician, perhaps – I can’t remember who, but I learned it from them – who said that a hundred hours of failed negotiations is better than a single rifle shot. And now this is the situation we’re in. So now is not the time to be clever; now is the time to negotiate. Then, in the course of negotiations, we’ll be able to catch sight of the end of the negotiation. If we wait to first have a concept for peace, for a postwar settlement, there will never be a ceasefire. We have to focus on the ceasefire now and then we’ll see.

A lot is happening in this respect.


Thank you. Thank you very much.

At a global level we’re currently experiencing a tectonic shift. Even someone as cautious as our current chancellor, Mr. Scholz, is talking about changing times. How do you think our children or grandchildren will look on these politicians and their actions? As a possible lead-in, how did you as a young man – as an opposition politician before the Berlin Wall came down – view the generation of politicians that preceded you? And today you’re in a similar position. How do you think you – or our children and grandchildren – will look on us, and on our actions today?

To answer your first question, what was I thinking in the 1980s? Hungary is on the fault line between East and West. We’ve always needed to look to three places: Berlin, Moscow and Istanbul – the Hungarian magic triangle. We live in this region, and from history we’ve learned that there have always been great powers that have come and tried to tell us how to live. The Turks came and told us what the true faith was. Then the Habsburgs came and told us what a good Catholic is, what a good Christian is: Catholic – that’s the answer. Then the Nazis came, who told us where we belonged in the ranking of races. Then came the Russians, who said that they would re-educate us as Homo sovieticus. So everyone was always trying to tell us Hungarians how to live. And in the 1980s I thought that communism needed to be overthrown in my lifetime whatever the cost, because I refused to die having lived a life in which I was told how to behave and how to live. They would be impossible! And now – under democratic conditions, of course – when people want to tell us what a Hungarian family should look like, what the ethnic composition of Hungary should be, whether I or we should let in people from abroad, then I will simply say that I fought against that. I will not be told from Brussels, Berlin or Paris what the Hungarian family should be like, who we should let in as migrants, who we should not let in, and what the ethnic composition here should look like. How is that right? In Hungary, freedom, the choice of a free life and national independence are interlinked. In Hungary feeling for the nation is something positive, because feeling for the nation is freedom itself. If you’re not free as a nation, you’ll never be free as an individual. This is the Hungarian law, this comes from experience. So we’re both nationally motivated and freedom fighters. These two can only go together in the Hungarian mind. Now, as far as our children are concerned, the question is what one’s concept of life is: what human life is. I don’t know what the answer is in Germany, but in Hungary the answer is that life is an alliance: it’s an alliance between Hungarians who have died, Hungarians no longer alive, Hungarians who are alive now, and Hungarians who will live in the future. My life is nothing but this alliance itself. What I’ve received from it that is good, I must preserve at all costs: the language, the love of freedom, everything that is good in Hungarians. Not everything is good, but what is good must be preserved. The second is that I must not bequeath a world in which my children cannot choose how they want to live. I must not pass on to our children a country that regulates the family, migration and multiculturalism on the basis of a Brussels directive – that is an impossibility! Nor can I pass on a country that is in a debt trap. I am opposed to the principle of a community of debt. So I don’t agree with those who think that good collective debt in Europe will create a new European unity. That’s the worst thing that can happen. We must not burn through our children’s financial future by sinking ourselves in debt now. We want to leave our children a free world in which they understand what it means to be Hungarian, in which they understand why I lived, why my father lived and why my grandfather lived – and on that basis they’ll decide how they want to be Hungarian. This is the Hungarian conception. So for our part we want to leave to our children the legacy of the most independent, sovereign and free Hungary. This is the greatest gift that I can give my children.

If I understood him correctly, Holger Friedrich asked a question in which he wanted to know how you think people will look back on these times in fifty or one hundred years’ time. What are we going through? When you live in the present, when you’re living history, you’re rarely able to judge it as well as you can from a later historical perspective. What kind of historical period are we living in now?

I’ll have to add another sentence. So I want our children to look back on this period when their father and mother fought well for Hungary’s independence and didn’t let any alien point of view influence the way Hungary should be. We live in a historical age in which we need to defend our freedom and our national identity. And I’d like our children to remember that their fathers and grandfathers fought well during this fateful period.

And here’s the last question, which relates to your visit to Germany. Although we’re of course delighted at your visit to us, yesterday you also met Chancellor Olaf Scholz. A very simple question: what were your talks like, what did you discuss, and do you see the German chancellor more as a partner or a rival?

It was a very animated meeting, which lasted about two hours. Your chancellor is a man who apprehends things quickly and broadly. He’s a good man to talk to: he looks back historically, forwards, and across a broad horizon – on the economy, on politics, and on foreign policy. So he’s good to talk to. The fact that I didn’t achieve anything is another matter, but the meeting itself was good, and a Hungarian can appreciate that. In fact the starting point is easy, because German-Hungarian friendship is a special thing, you see. We’ve done quite a lot of things together in history: we’ve done bad things together and we’ve done good things together. Therefore in Hungary there’s no negative cultural prejudice against Germans. There are so many companies in Hungary – six thousand German companies – not just because there’s money to be made, but because being a German in Hungary is good. That counts. The Danube Swabians have contributed a great deal to this: we have a German minority, the Swabians. Outside Germany I don’t think that German-language education from kindergarten up to university is available anywhere else in the world other than in Hungary; but we have it, from German-language kindergartens to German-language university education. So the starting point for German-Hungarian bilateral cooperation is actually good. If I look at the automotive industry, there are three large car manufacturers – Mercedes, Audi and BMW – which, outside Germany, are only present together in Hungary and America, and nowhere else. Maybe China. And the Germans not only manufacture in our country, but I’ve just handed over a research centre – a German development centre – where three thousand research engineers are working. Three thousand! So German researchers and developers have come to us, and we’re cooperating at a higher level. And in terms of military-industrial cooperation with Germany, Hungary is ahead of America: we’re cooperating more in the military industry, not only in terms of quality, but also in terms of money. So these are important things: in history, in empathy and in economic cooperation. I make offers of tolerance to German chancellors, which are usually rejected. This time I said, “If we can actually cooperate so well, why don’t we leave each other alone?” In modern terms, this is called tolerance. So I understand what you think about migration, but why don’t you allow us to think according to the Hungarian way of thinking? I don’t want to veto the migration rules in Brussels, I just want you to make rules that leave us the freedom to settle this issue in the way we want to. We have zero Muslim migrants. We don’t have a multicultural society and I don’t see why we should turn ourselves into one. We’re comfortable in our own skin, thank you very much, and we don’t want to change. So I asked the Chancellor to tolerate the Hungarian position and not to seek to force anything on us. It’s the same with the family. We don’t accept this concept of gender. We understand that there’s the idea that, well, you decide for yourself whether you’re a boy or a girl. Everyone has the right to do that. In Hungary, too, everyone can decide. In fact, they can live together as they wish. Indeed we have the same legal regulation as you had here in Germany up until 2017. If it was fine in Germany until 2017, why isn’t it fine now in Hungary? Now, as I understand it, you’ve gone further and allowed non-traditional relationships into the institution of the family. That is your decision. But in Hungary it’s one thing to be free to live as you wish, and it’s another thing to have a family – which is a legal institution that must be protected. I asked him to tolerate the fact that on this we have different ideas. Why shouldn’t they be different? So we’re making offers of tolerance to enable European cooperation to move forward; but if your way isn’t good for us, let us go our own way – provided it doesn’t harm pan-European interests. And we are not at that point yet. So Angela Merkel always rejected my offer of tolerance. She said it’s a must, it has to be done. And now the present German chancellor has listened to me. He didn’t reject me, but he didn’t say “ja”. He listened. This is where we are now.

I don’t think that anyone in Brussels or Berlin really wants to dictate what Hungary should do on gender.

Oh yes they do! We’re being subjected to continuous legal proceedings. In fact from time to time we’re told that we’re not receiving financial support because this law of ours isn’t good. What is at issue in Hungary? The issue is who decides on the upbringing of a child. The debate is not about adults in relation to gender, but about children, about who is given authority in sex education: schools or parents. The Hungarian conception is that children mustn’t be allowed to receive any kind of instruction in kindergarten or school related to sexual identity without the permission of their parents. That’s a red line! That’s a task for parents. This is our conception. But there’s progressive-liberal pressure to allow LGBTQ activists into schools, in order to give children access to the information and knowledge needed to define their personal sex identities. But we believe that this isn’t for the child to decide, nor for the teacher, but for the parent. Right up until the child has reached adulthood, it’s the parent who decides, because the parent is responsible for their child’s upbringing. And there’s pressure on us to yield on this. There’s very strong pressure. Sometimes it’s even openly stated that we shouldn’t expect cooperation on financial matters unless we give in on these issues. So things are tough. Now, I’ve not come here to complain, because I learned from Angela Merkel that those who complain are weak. But this is what we have to put up with every day. We shall fight this battle. But if I were German, I’d be a little more cautious than current German foreign policy is. Now you’re talking about changing the need for unanimity on foreign policy. The situation today is that decisions on important foreign policy issues can only be taken unanimously, and a majority isn’t enough. Now that the British have left, we Central European countries don’t have the strength to organise any blocking minority against a majority decision. The only way to assert and defend Hungary’s foreign policy interests is to include us in the discussion, because without us there is no joint foreign policy. Now the Germans are suggesting that we surrender this. Now, I can understand a medium-sized country raising this issue, but Germany, which has a massive influence on all European policy? Shouldn’t Germany be a little more careful with such proposals? Because what do we see in this? That the Germans want to be the ones who decide foreign policy. That’s not good. We also touched on such issues, of course. And I come to Berlin once every two years – I was here in 2018, then in 2020, now in 2022, and the next time I’ll be here will be in 2024, when Hungary will hold the presidency of the European Council, of the European institutional system. So I hope that our second meeting – due in two years’ time – will be another step forward.