Prime Minister, we Germans have a great deal to thank Hungary for in relation to the opening of its [Austrian] border in 1989. We are grateful to Hungary, but the road that Hungary is travelling along today fills many Germans with apprehension. How did it happen that our paths diverged so much, or that we came to be moving in different directions?
The gratitude for what happened in1989 is mutual. In a geopolitical sense German unity was a precondition for Hungarian freedom. Therefore in 1990 support for German unification was proportionally higher among Hungarians than it was among Germans themselves. This is why to this day Chancellor Kohl is still honoured in Hungary. The geopolitical sensors of Hungarians are very finely tuned.
Do the Germans misunderstand Hungary?
In the current situation, the negatives are exclusively political. In all other areas of life German-Hungarian relations are excellent: economic cooperation is excellent; cultural cooperation is excellent; tourism also; and empathy at a societal level is very strong.
If politicians are responsible for this situation, does that include you?
I’m certainly partly responsible for the generally bad feeling in Hungarian-German political relations.
Have you ever breached an agreement made with the German government? Or has it ever breached an agreement with Hungary?
Hungarians feel that we concluded an agreement with the Germans in 1989. This included German support for Hungary’s NATO and EU membership. It also included Hungary’s willingness to accept German investments and create links with German technology. But Hungary never accepted the idea of becoming a free rider in the European Union. Unlike other Europeans, we have never asked for free money from Germany – and we shall never ask for it. We have always paid off our debts as agreed. We also always supported Chancellor Kohl’s vision of Europe: that differences in size between countries should not lead to subordination or superordination of one country to another. Every German government has kept to this understanding – right up until the migration problem emerged. The fracturing of political relations was solely due to immigration. We insist on the right of nations to defend themselves. The Germans have a different philosophy.
It is now almost four years since the peak of the migration crisis in 2015.
Everything we have experienced since 2015 will happen again in an even stronger form. We are approaching the point at which the population of the countries of the Arab world will overtake that of the European Union – and in this I haven’t included sub-Saharan Africa, which is hardly able to provide for its populations. In this respect we are a border country: we live our everyday lives in a state of full readiness, with thousands of military and police personnel at our southern border; and we know that today the Turkish government has the sole power to decide on whether or not the millions of refugees in its country will set out for Europe. But even if this happens we are resolved to defend Hungary’s borders. Germany is not a border country, it is in a more protected location within Europe, and therefore feels in a safer situation. This, together with our different historical experiences, gives rise to our different ways of thinking.
On my way to this interview I saw several posters featuring a photograph of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and the accompanying statement that he supports migration. Mr. Juncker is in the European People’s Party [EPP], and your party is in the People’s Party, which is right now launching its campaign for the European Parliament elections. So you are conducting a poster campaign against the European People’s Party, while at the same time calling on people to vote for the People’s Party. Isn’t this contradictory?
I don’t see any contradiction in this. The problem with the EPP is that it has grown to a large size. Its members from the North are much closer to Macron than they are to the CDU [Christian Democratic Union of Germany]. We Hungarians see ourselves as the CSU [Christian Social Union in Bavaria] of the EPP. Unfortunately, here too migration has heightened the differences.
And does this justify the President of the European Commission being represented on posters as the enemy of the Hungarian people?
In the East the general opinion about Mr. Juncker is quite different from that in the West, in Western Europe. The EPP is campaigning for its new Spitzenkandidat, Manfred Weber, to continue the work of Mr. Juncker. In Central Europe this is political suicide, as here Mr. Juncker commands hardly any respect. If the EPP wants to win in Central Europe, you have to say: “Mr. Juncker is the past, but Mr. Weber is the future.”
Last autumn Mr. Juncker was already demanding the expulsion of Fidesz from the EPP. So are the posters revenge for this?
I don’t like policy motivated by revenge. Revenge is always backwards, and pulls one down. Jean-Claude Juncker is an amiable person – so amiable that one can forgive even his silliest and most idiotic gestures. I am a street fighter, but there’s no personal animosity between Mr. Juncker and me. At the same time, I don’t like his views – and especially his closeness to socialist economic policies and his support for immigration. His attempt to expel us from the European People’s Party was a personal act of disloyalty. No one can expect us to let disloyalty go unanswered – even if it is the disloyalty of an amiable man. This is one of the laws of politics.
The poster featuring Juncker and the US investor George Soros reminds me of photographs I’ve seen in history books. The style of representation and context carry anti-Semitic undertones.
You say that because you’re German. One finds a different history in the baggage of every nation. In Hungary no one looking at such a poster thinks of anti-Semitism. We regard Hungarians of Jewish origin as being first and foremost Hungarians rather than Jews. Campaigns focusing on individuals are not surprising either here or in the English-speaking world. To me this seems to be a German problem.
For a long time the campaign against Soros has been an international one. We know about this in Germany. Our newspaper, Die Welt and certain reporters are personally attacked by people who claim that we are being directed by Soros. In Germany these accusations come from the far Right, who also cite your anti-Soros campaign.
The international aspect of this is of less interest to me. The Hungarian Jewish community is under the protection of the Hungarian government. Furthermore, we are pursuing a consistently pro-Israel foreign policy. We are convinced that it is not only important for European Jewry for there to be a Jewish state, but that in addition to this the security of Israel should be recognised as a key issue for the stability of Europe. In the past, anti-Semitism existed on the Christian right in Hungary also, but we have rolled it back. Nowadays anti-Semitism has a new character: hostility against Jews and Israel is now being brought into our societies by migration. This is why anti-Semitism in Western Europe is now on the rise, while in Central Europe it continues to decline. So far Europe has formulated no concept for how to combat this, although it should do so.
Your campaign against Soros doesn’t fit into that context.
I can’t do anything about the fact that George Soros is a Hungarian of Jewish origin: that is solely a matter for the Good Lord. But in Hungary, it is Soros who embodies the worst face of globalism. On one side there is Hungary, represented by its elected leaders. On the other side there are the international civil society organisations, elected by no one and financed by George Soros: NGOs that want us to pursue a different kind of migration policy. From our point of view, what we’re doing is not a campaign, but normal behaviour.
On your poster for the European elections, we see Soros – who lives in America – and Juncker, who in a few months’ time will be a retired politician. This isn’t a normal election campaign, but a campaign stirring up emotions among the Hungarian population.
Politics is not a beauty contest; we are clarifying what is at stake. There are elections in which democracy is at stake, and there are elections in which the economy is at stake. In this election migration policy is at stake. And these two men embody pro-migration policy.
Yes, but Soros and Juncker are not being elected, they’re not running in the election.
We nevertheless need to inform people what is symbolised by these two men. And in the next phase of the campaign – which will be a party campaign – people will see an additional character on the posters: Mr. Timmermans. Mr. Juncker is retiring and Mr. Timmermans is arriving.
The Dutch Social Democrat EU Commissioner with responsibility for rule of law issues. Do you want to feature him alongside George Soros?
The role of George Soros in European politics is unavoidable, and everyone has the right to know that Timmermans is, by his own admission, his ally.
You say that Christian democracy is not liberal but illiberal. What do you mean by this?
When I entered the political arena thirty years ago, there were still Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Liberals. Liberals fought a language battle, which they won. First the Left accepted that all democracies must be liberal. When non-liberal parties win an election, the end of democracy is immediately announced. This forces Christian democracy and social democracy to lay down their arms. This is leading to the demise of social democracy – and we are currently witnessing its death throes. If Christian democracy doesn’t oppose the adoption of liberal concepts and assumptions, it too will be destroyed.
The CDU president Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has said that your accusations against Juncker are “incomprehensible and indefensible”. According to her, they are “weakening and damaging” the European People’s Party.
Mrs. Kramp-Karrenbauer perhaps knows better than I do how our campaign is received in Germany. Here in Central Europe there are two problems that you cannot sweep under the carpet: Brexit and migration. Both of these are linked to the name of Juncker. But the name of Weber must represent the changes that Europe so clearly needs.
Has Mr. Weber personally told you that he wants the changes in migration policy in Europe that you think are right?
We’ve talked about this a great deal. Our candidate is a great man, and I think that it will be good for Europe for a Bavarian to lead the Commission. Mr. Weber’s candidacy is one of the bravest political undertakings that I’ve ever seen. The presidents of the Commission have mostly been former government ministers in their own countries – and sometimes prime ministers. Mr. Weber would be the first exception to this rule, but in Europe that’s not enough to win an election.
What are you referring to?
After the election we will see the start of a round of bargaining, agreements and deals. There will be other candidates for the post of President of the Commission, and they will try to topple Weber from this position. I’ve made it clear that we shall support him all the way. But he still faces a very difficult time.
Your depiction of Weber is surprising, as he voted [in the European Parliament] for the “rule of law” procedure against Hungary. In one of your speeches, you said that Mr. Weber was duped. Do you doubt his intellectual abilities?
No, because Berlin is a bigger city than Munich.
I don’t understand. Mr. Weber actually voted in favour of a report which stated that Hungary falls short in the areas of freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. The EU has launched a procedure against Hungary as a result. And yet you’re saying that he’s your man?
Mr. Weber said that this procedure is a good opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue with Hungary. That’s why he voted in the way he did.
Many people, including investors, are also concerned about the independence of the Hungarian justice system. With a majority as large as the one you have, isn’t there a need for checks and balances?
This assertion relates to the amendment of the Act on the establishment of a public administration court. In this case the text of the regulation has been copied verbatim from Austrian legislation. This is why I think that the Hungarian judicial system is compliant with European standards.
Your most loyal ally in Germany has always been the CSU – but now the new president of the CSU has issued a statement about your campaign which is more critical than that of Mrs. Kramp-Karrenbauer. So have you lost the CSU to liberalism?
No. We listen to the opinions of our Bavarian friends, but we have to decide according to our own interests. Our historical friendship with Bavaria remains intact.
Northern EPP parties – from Sweden and some other northern states – would like to expel Fidesz from the European People’s Party. The votes of the German delegates could be decisive. Just now your Chancellery Minister Gergely Gulyás has been in secret talks with the Chair of the CDU. What did she tell him: does she want to kick you out or not?
There is a “structured dialogue” between the CDU and Fidesz, as part of which the leaders of both parties continually meet to clarify the issues we agree on and those on which we disagree. And now at the meeting it was agreed that we will continue this dialogue. I am happy to meet Mrs. Kramp-Karrenbauer personally. We’ll meet in Brussels in March.
Will you get on better with Mrs. Kramp-Karrenbauer than you did with Mrs. Merkel?
At the moment the dominant feeling aroused by Mrs. Merkel’s departure is one of great loss. Of course we didn’t take the same stance on every issue – and especially not on migration. But the Chancellor has made a decisive contribution to keeping Europe together. This is a great task, which will not decrease in scale in the future.
Do you want Fidesz to stay in the European People’s Party at all? There are some in Berlin who seem to suspect that you’re party wants to provoke its expulsion, so that later it can revel in the role of victim.
Helmut Kohl invited us to join the EPP. We considered that an honour then, and we still do now. Our goal was to strengthen the party, and the same is true now. Here in Central Europe we’re seasoned experts on left-wing power politics, and the fact of the matter is that the Left are attacking us. They’re not doing this to weaken us, but to weaken the EPP. And if Fidesz didn’t exist, they’d be attacking someone else; the Left always attack someone – if not us, then the Italians, and then the Austrians will be next in line. There will always be someone who the Left single out, as this is the essence of their power politics. It’s called “salami tactics”, and the aim is to weaken the European People’s Party on the European scene so that they – the Socialists and the Left – can take control of Europe. So this struggle is not about principles, but about power. This is what needs to be understood. Not everyone understands this, but if we read political literature we can see that they are in Lenin’s words the “useful idiots”. While they believe they’re fighting in a spiritual struggle, in fact they’re serving the power interests of others – indeed of our opponents.
So are critical Christian Democrats the useful idiots of the Left?
If we’re talking about those who value division above unity and the joining of forces, then the answer is “yes”. For example, I don’t feel any love for my Scandinavian colleagues in the EPP, but I’d never suggest expelling them. I know that this would play into the hands of the Left, and that in doing so I’d be paving the way for the Left’s ascent to power in Europe. Mr. Juncker may suggest our expulsion, but I’d never demand the expulsion of the Luxembourgers. At our congress in Helsinki I openly stated that criticism is important and diversity is important, but what is most important now is unity. Politics is not only a debating club, but also a power struggle; and if we don’t want the Left to take the helm in Europe, we must defend the EPP’s position. There’s a good chance of us being able to do this, but at the moment we are the ones damaging our own prospects.
If Fidesz were to be expelled from the European People’s Party, would you enter into some sort of cooperation or coalition with Italy’s Lega?
I’ve never liked people who wear a belt and a pair of braces at the same time. One must have a strategy. We are in the EPP and we’re staying there. There is no Plan B.
But that wouldn’t preclude Fidesz finding new partners in the event of its expulsion, would it?
Expelling Fidesz is not a rational alternative. It would only serve the interests of our opponents. That’s why today it looks completely implausible.
A final question: are there any unbridgeable differences between the Hungarian and German visions for Europe?
There are more things that unite us than divide us. I think that the Germans clearly see that if we were to create a socialist Europe, we would be ruining Germany. So if we eliminate the notion of competition from economic thinking in Europe, or limit the space for competition, we will be harming everyone – Germany included. The vision for Europe which stands in opposition to the EPP’s vision is a socialist Europe with enormous state budgets, large budget deficits, rising state debt and the distribution of money without producing anything for it. The Germans don’t want this, and neither do we. This is a very strong shared interest. And another identical feature of our thinking is that the democratic nature of Europe must be safeguarded, so that it must always be the people who decide on the direction followed by our countries, and also by the whole of Europe. Differences can be found in the migrant issue – these differences cannot be bridged, but they are manageable.
What are you thinking in terms of?
We need a recipe for coexistence, regardless of differences in our standpoints. Responsibility for the general issues raised by migration should therefore be taken away from the Commission and entrusted to a separate council formed by the interior ministers of the relevant countries. A separate body must be set up, which is exclusively for interior ministers from Schengen Area countries – just as there is a separate council for the finance ministers of eurozone countries. The interior ministers from the Schengen Area should set up a strong body to decide on issues affecting the entire Schengen Area in a manner that is typical of specialists, rather than politicians.