Brussels sees threat to democracy everywhere liberals don’t win – Hungarian foreign minister

The EU doesn’t know how to deal with its member Hungary, where the strong prime minister, Orban, dares to defy Brussels’ vision for the future. How will Hungary hold up under pressure and how will this dispute shape the EU? We talked to the foreign minister of the country, Péter Szijjártó.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Péter Szijjártó, it’s really good to have you on our programme again. Welcome back.

Péter Szijjártó: It’s my honour. Thanks for letting me be here.

SS: Lots to talk about.There are tensions between Hungary and Ukraine over the rights of the ethnic Hungarians living in Western Ukraine. And you have said that Ukraine “stabbed Hungary in the back”. What is Hungary’s reaction going to be?

PS: Well, you know, Hungary was maybe the loudest supporter within the European Union to help the Ukrainians to get the visa-free regime and to make the EU-Ukraine Association agreement to come into force. And, unfortunately, a couple of days after that there was a regulation passing in the Ukrainian parliament which violates the rights of the Hungarians when it comes to education on mother tongue. So we made it very clear that we have to use all kinds of instruments in the toolbox of international politics in order to make sure that the rights of the Hungarians will be restored in Ukraine.

SS: So you have sent a memorandum to NATO suggesting that Hungarians shouldn’t abide by Ukrainian laws. Why do you think NATO is going to back up your memorandum?

PS: Well, you know, we are part of the alliance. So it’s obvious that we inform our allies about our policy towards the country which has the inspiration to go forward when it comes to the Euro-Atlantic integration path. And we would be very happy to come back to our position to support Ukrainians on this path, but definitely the Ukrainians have to comply with international regulations when it comes to minorities. The Venice Commission made a very clear proposal to the Ukrainians to consult with the national minorities and do not implement any kind of regulations that violate already existing rights of the minorities. So all we want is nothing special, nothing extraordinary, just Ukraine to comply with the EU regulations and with the proposals of the Venice Commission.  

SS: So your memorandum to NATO was just to inform the allies rather than to expect a reaction from them?

PS: There’s a continuous negotiation, of course, going on with the NATO member states, with allies, with the European Union about how we see this situation. We made a proposal there that those minorities belonging to NATO member states should be exempt from such kind of regulations. We will see whether there’s any reaction from our allies and then we will continue the dialogue and discussion about that.

SS: Members of the European Parliament are accusing Hungary of human rights violations, saying that your Prime Minister is smearing critics, journalists and NGOs. You’ve said those are lies. Why do they have such a harsh stance on your Prime Minister?

PS: We had and we’re still having a very serious debate with the international network which is led and financed by George Soros whose name you and your viewers might know. We have a very open and a very serious debate with him as the Hungarian government has a very strong anti-migration policy. We made it very clear that it’s only us, Hungarians, who can make a decision whom we allow to come to Hungary. It’s only us, Hungarians, to make a decision with whom we want to live together. We don’t want to let neither the European Union nor the United Nations to force us to invite people in our country whom we don’t want to invite. We made it very clear that protection of our border and guaranteeing the security of our citizens is the number one priority for us. And George Soros and his network is totally against this concept. He would like to invite millions of migrants to Europe on an annual basis. He basically wants to get rid of the phenomenon of nation states. So this is a very open confrontation between us, and we have to see that the Soros network definitely has people who are members of the European Parliament. And these kind of attacks against my country, our government and our Prime Minister are based on this political approach. You know, these kinds of reports which are being written about my country absolutely take facts out of context.  

SS: Are they groundless?

PS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, just let me give you two examples. All these accusations say that there’s no media freedom in Hungary. But if you look in the Internet, for example, if you look at the web-pages you will see that anti-government rhetoric and government critics are in majority compared to those news which are favoring the government or considering the government decisions as positive. In Hungary it would be totally impossible to hide facts like migrant attacks on citizens of our country. In some Western European countries it did happen. Or when it comes to anti-Semitism - it’s a constant accusation against us. Although we’re proud that we have absolutely implemented zero tolerance against anti-Semitism. There’s the biggest Jewish community of Central Europe living in Budapest. We do not only renovate the synagogues in Hungary but outside Hungary as well. It’s not Budapest where Jewish youngsters wearing kippah are attacked openly in the streets…

SS: … in Paris, everywhere, yes, absolutely.

PS: … and compared to that we’re always under accusations.  

SS: Brussels is also accusing your government of stepping on the independence of the judiciary - and they are actually threatening to invoke an EU law, Article 7, that would strip Hungary of the EU voting rights. Could it come to that?

PS: There are definitely some endeavors to put very heavy attacks on Hungary and on Poland as well. So, the procedure based on Article 7 you refer to was launched in relation to Poland. We opposed that because we absolutely think it’s based on double standards. When you take facts into consideration there’s no factual ground, no factual basis to launch this kind of procedure against Hungary. For example, when it comes to judiciary you were kind enough to refer to, yes, we did have debates with the European Commission about legislation in Hungary regarding the judiciary system. But the fact is that we already closed all those issues in three different ways: we either understood that the Commission was right and changed the regulation, either the Commission admitted that we were right and then we left it as it was, or we couldn’t agree and then we went to the European Court and had to respect the decisions of the European Court. So these are all closed issues. So all these issues that are being put in the report about Hungary very recently in the Committee of Liberties and Justice of the European Parliament - these are mostly already closed issues between the European Commission and Hungary.   

SS: So, in general Brussels has lots of demands when it comes to Hungary. And they are actually saying that if Hungary doesn’t meet those demands whether it’s the judiciary or the freedom of press or immigration, they are saying: “We may not fund you in the next EU budget”. Here’s the thing: whatever EU gives you it only makes up to  6 percent of your budget. First of all, is it worth it? Is this money worth doing everything they want you to do? Because I know that Mr. Orban said: “We don’t need German money anyways”...

PS: Well, you know, Hungary’s interest is the European Union to be strong because a strong Hungary needs a strong European Union. We have a very open economy and 79% of our export goes to the European Union. We have an export-to-GDP ratio around 90%, so you can imagine how significant for us it is the European Union to be strong and to have a competitive economy. On the other hand, when it comes to European funds, yes, European funds play an important role in our economy. But this is not a one-way road. We don’t get these funds as a gift, as a humanitarian aid or as a donation from our Western European friends. These funds are to be given to us based on contracts. Why? Because the Hungarian economy has been opened, the Hungarian market has been opened for Western European companies making a lot of profit. This is one lane of the road. And the other lane of the road is the European funding. So, this is not a one-way road, you understand? This is a vice versa situation. We totally reject that false context, we’re painted up on the wall as if we would only enjoy the European funds for free. This is not true. We have complied with our obligations based on contracts as well. And according to the statistics of the European institutions 70 cents of every 1 euro which is paid to the Central European countries go back to Western European companies.  

SS: There’s also the opposition of Hungary and Poland - the East vs West - because Hungary and Poland are making sure whatever they have to say is heard at this point. I don’t think Brussels likes it.  What do you think this East vs West confrontation would mean for the union?

PS: We’re absolutely interested in the unity of the European Union. We oppose all kind of comparison like that, like, if there were Eastern and Western members of the European Union because the European Union must show unity. Although, if we put into consideration why Poland and Hungary are under this constant torture, let’s put it this way, well, it’s obvious we have the two strongest governments in the European Union. We are the two countries where a one-party government has received the authorization from the people to govern the country. We have absolutely stable political systems. Many times it’s definitely not liked by the institutes in Brussels. There’s a big debate in the European Union whether to go sovereignist or federalistic way. The federalistic way would end up in the United States of Europe, which we oppose because…

SS: … yeah, tighter control, unified budget, more integration. That’s what France and Germany want. Do you think it’s a viable thing?

PS: Our position is that European Union can only be strong if there are strong member states. So we don’t think that the concept of weak member states creating a strong European Union would be realistic. We think that only strong member states can form a strong European Union. That’s why, for example, we are absolutely in favor of the competition within the European Union, meaning that we don’t like the tax harmonization, for example, and we don’t want irresponsible economic policies to be communized. What I mean is that those countries can reduce taxes that are disciplined fiscally speaking. Those countries that are not disciplined fiscally, that let debt increase, they definitely cannot afford cutting taxes. But the answer shouldn’t be to bash those who are able to cut the taxes.

SS: Your Prime Minister sees the Orban the European Union as an alliance of sovereign states. European Union is the union that crosses state boundaries. It’s, like, the core principle of the European Union. European Union is based on the principles of liberalism. Your country is a nation-based, conservative country, which is not a good thing or a bad thing. Russia’s same way. On ideological level there are so many differences. In a basis it’s not even economics. Why do you want to be part of the union so much that opposes everything that you, guys, stand for?

PS: Well, actually, it’s not everything…

SS: But core things...

PS: Yeah, but if you look at the statistics, for example, how many infringement procedures are going on against us and others, you will see that we’re somewhere in the middle, so, there’s nothing extraordinary in this regard. We definitely have the debates based on ideology as well. For example, when it comes to the fact that when the election is not won by the liberals then the system is immediately considered not a democracy, which is totally unacceptable. If the liberals do not win it can be democracy, of course. That’s why what we’re intending to build in Hungary is a Christian democracy, based on Christian values, work, achievement, merit-based society. There are debates about that as well. But all in all our interest is the strong European Union because within the strong European Union Hungary can be strong.     

SS: There’s this EU Commissioner who actually voiced her opinion about Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland voicing their concerns and views, she said those are “sandbags” that can be thrown away. Could it come to that?

PS: Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland - the Visegrad countries - are members of the European Union and will be members of the European Union. Even more than that. This Central European region is currently the growth engine of the European Union. Our growth rate is much higher than the European average. Everybody speaks about the German-French cooperation when it comes to the issue of European competitiveness. But if you look at the figures you will see that the trade between Germany and the Visegrad countries is 55% higher than the annual trade between Germany and France. That shows that the economic cooperation between Germany and Central Europe is extremely strong. Central Europe became kind of a backyard for the German industry which has always been and which will always be the backbone of the European economy. So a strong Central Europe is in the interest of the European Union because a strong Central Europe can contribute to the European Union being strong as well. That’s why we reject these kinds of accusations and politically based attacks against us.

SS: The bottom line is the EU is in crisis right now. There are Eastern countries that want more independence in terms of making decisions. There’s the center - Brussels, France and Germany - who want more integration and maybe a two-speed Europe. It’s absolutely clear that the EU cannot go on living in a shape that it is in right now. Something needs to change. We don’t really know what. Where do you see Hungary in this Union? Do you feel, like, you’ll be one of those faster integrating countries? Or do you feel, like, you would want to be in the second part where the countries would have more decisions to themselves, but they won’t be as integrated as France and Germany?

PS: If you mean that the European Union is faced with historic challenges, you’re right. Not only one. We have the migration crisis, we have the threat of terror, we have the Brexit, we have the energy security issues and many others which we have to deal with. So that’s why I think it’s obvious that there are debates going on about the future of the European Union because when should debates go on if not now when we have to find answers to the historic type of challenges? Our approach is definitely a sovereignist approach meaning that those answers that have already been given successfully to these kind of questions have been made on the level of member states. For instance, take the migration issue - Hungary’s answer was the only successful answer by regaining the control of our own border with the assistance of the Visegrad countries, and making it obvious that it’s absolutely possible to protect your border and do not let any illegal migrants enter the territory of your country.   

SS: I have to ask you about this, Minister, because you were so adamant about migration, building walls, cracking down on NGOs and then secretly you accepted 1300 refugees and it’s like the quota that the EU asks you to accept anyway. What’s the point of being so tough on it if you were going to secretly accept those people anyway?

PS: These are two totally different things. Asylum seekers based on the Geneva Convention shouldn’t be confused with illegal migrants entering the territory of ours in a violent way, attacking our police, tearing down the fence, not respecting our rules and regulations, blocking our highways, occupying our public areas, not wanting to go to the refugee stations and so on and so forth. These two things shouldn’t be confused because these are two different issues.  

SS: The mood in the European Union in general is changing. Austria has the first anti-immigration Chancellor, Germany has the far-right Alternative for Germany Party is the third biggest party in the Bundestag, Emmanuel Macron is very liberal on words and when it comes to implementing policies, it’s pretty much center-right as well. Do you feel like saying “we’ve told you so, we’ve been reprimanded so much for this and then all of you, guys, are coming to what we were saying”?

PS: You know, politics is not a profession where you get credit if it turns out that you were right. But it is obvious that on the last couple of parliamentary elections in the European Union the main issue was migration. That was the case in Italy, that was the case in Austria, you’ve put it forward, that was the case in Hungary. And in all free countries those parties receive the most votes that run anti-migration policies. You’ve mentioned the Austrian Chancellor, who’s definitely representing an anti-migration policy. In Italy the parties forming the coalition are anti-migration parties. In Hungary we’ve made it very clear that we will not allow any illegal migrants entering the territory of our country. You see the latest statements of the German Minister of Interior. And you’ve rightly quoted some new measures implemented by France. You see the statements of the British about the main motivations of the Brexit vote which is definitely in correlation with sovereign issues of migration and so on and so forth. So definitely migration is becoming the hot issue on the current European agenda and we see that more and more people, more and more political leaders understand that letting all those migrants into Europe definitely doesn’t serve the target of a better future of the European Union.

SS: So how come so many countries in the EU are anti-immigrant, are pushing their ideas and measures about that. Just as many countries are against anti-Russia sanctions but when it comes to extending  them all of them agree silently to extend them. Why can’t you be as firm on anti-Russia sanctions?  

PS: Well, if you ask me whether there are double standards I would say “yes”. We are a small country. And we understand that the big Western European countries make big businesses here. If you come to the St.-Petersburg International Economic Forum and you look around, and you look for the companies coming from EU member states you will definitely see much more companies coming from the Western European big member states than from the Central European countries. If you see the top event of this forum there will be the panel shared by the Russian and the French presidents. If you look at the preparations of Nord Stream 2 you will see the biggest Western European energy companies being involved. If you look at how the trade figures are changing between Russia and the Western European countries, one might be surprised. If you ask whether there are double standards, yes, they definitely are. There’s a big debate in the European Union whether the sanctions were successful or not. But definitely the unity of the European Union is very important.  

SS: ...Even if it is at the expense of the anti-Russian sanctions?

PS: … that’s why the prolongation of the sanctions has already been decided upon. But it’s interesting to come here to see the big Western European companies making business with the Russian counterparts.

SS: You know, we’re open to anyone who wants to come and make business with us. Thank you very much for this interview, Foreign Minister. Good luck with everything.

PS: Thank you. I really do appreciate it.