We are anti-migration government, whether Brussels likes it or not – Hungary’s FM

The rift between Hungary and Brussels is widening. But can Budapest resist pressure from the EU’s establishment… with warning shots already fired? We talked to Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, about the challenges ahead.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Foreign Minister, welcome. It’s really great to have you once again on our programme. It’s always a pleasure. 

Peter Szijjarto: Thank you. 

SS: A lot has happened since the last time we spoke. The European Parliament has given an official warning of some sort to your country, over your Prime Minister’s domestic policies. Do you feel that this is a little parliamentary scolding or sanctions can come with it? 

PS: It was a political decision that was made by cheating as the votes for abstention were not counted. So if the vote had taken place like two days later maybe no votes would have been counted either. There is a basic debate between us and the majority of the European Parliament, and this debate is about migration. The majority of the European Parliament is absolutely pro-migration and we are very clearly an anti-migration government. We made it very clear that we want to preserve our right to make our own decision whom we would like to let into the territory of our country, and whom we don’t want to let. And the European Union would like to take this right of ours. They want Brussels to impose obligatory quotas on member states to distribute migrants among the EU member states. And there’s a clash between the pro-migration majority of the European Parliament and the Hungarian government.   

SS: We are going to get to the migration part because that’s a huge topic, it’s dividing Europe in half literary. But I think, they also meant other domestic policies when they’are threatening sanctions against Hungary that they don’t like or they think are undemocratic. Do you think Hungary’s voting rights in the EU could be suspended? If yes, what can Budapest do in return? 

PS: No, surely not. It cannot be taken away because it requires a unanimous decision. Poland has already expressed that they would veto all kinds of decisions like that. There’s an Article 7 procedure going against Poland as well and we made it very clear that we would veto all kinds of sanctions against Poland. Prime Minister of Czech Republic made it very clear that he’s standing behind our Prime Minister. So definitely such a political intention will be unsuccessful in the European Union to take away voting rights of Hungary. But you know, this report contains 69 accusations against Hungary, out of which 13 have already been resolved between our government and the European Commission. 19 are under discussion between our government and the European Commission as it has to happen in the European Union. And there are 37 qualified lies, no more than a lie, based on opinion of NGOs that are clearly anti-government which took part in the last election campaigns and had an open goal to throw out the government but they were unsuccessful, they are frustrated and they are spreading lies about my country. So this report is based on these lies, this is a liar report.      

SS: Ok, so let’s think logically. What can Brussels achieve by isolating Budapest? And if you find yourself isolated, maybe you can invoke Article 5 and leave the EU altogether? 

PS: No, definitely we will not leave the European Union because our interest is to have a strong European Union. Hungary can be strong in a strong European Union. This is the focal point of the debate - how to make the European Union strong again. And there’s a big clash between some Western European entities, let’s put it this way, which are pushing the European Union which should be stepping into the dimension of post-Christianity and post-nations, and our goal is totally different. We want a strong European Union based on strong member-states, and we want Europe that sticks to its Christian heritage. So number one is that we don’t want Europe to get rid of the Christian heritage and we want member states to stay as member states. We don’t want to give up our nationality, our culture and our heritage and so on and so forth. So there’s a big clash between those who want to see the European Union as post-Christian and post-national and us who want to see Europe as a Christian continent based on strong member states.  

SS: The European Commission is also undertaking legal action against Hungary for its law that targets those helping asylum seekers. Do you think if this goes all the way to the European Court of Justice Hungary could give in and scrap the law? 

PS: Look, the thing is the following. We are a state. And the state does have an obligation to protect its citizens by protecting its own national border. And if there’s an organisation that helps other people violate the border of the given country that’s again in the interests of national security. So it must have a consequence. Yes, we’ll punish those organisations in the future as well who try to encourage people to violate our own border, who try to promote the opportunity of border violation towards Hungary, or who try encourage to people to ask for asylum without a legal basis. So it’s obvious that if there are organisations acting against your national security, then you have to protect yourself.  

SS: Austria’s Sebastian Kurz ha always been in favour of most of your policies backing you in migration. This time he says: “You know what, Austria’s MEPs will vote against Hungary.” Do you feel betrayed?

PS: Well, you know, although politics in not a personal profession, I have to tell you that personally we’ve enjoyed a good friendship as we have always fought together in the Council of the European Foreign Ministers for the solutions which we found preferable. So it was a negative surprise what he made as a statement. I called him because we are friends. We talked eye-to-eye even though it was on the phone. He gave me an explanation. I wasn’t very happy. Regardless of any pressure being put on me I would never say such kind of things about friends. But we are different personalities. 

SS: I guess there’s no friendship in politics. Do you think he was pressured into taking decisions like that? 

PS: I think, this is the question that should be addressed to him. 

SS: In your interview to the BBC you said that EU policy on migration can be seen as an invitation for people to come to the EU and that sparked quite a debate. But obviously people who come to Europe, they come from war-torn countries with famine and instability, they are dreaming of all those European social packages - it’s only normal that those people are seeking for a better life… 

PS: I think we have to start with the basics of international law. And international law says that everybody has the right to have safe and secure life. It means that if you have to escape from your homeland you must be treated in the first safe country. It means that we, Europeans, should help those countries which are located around the war-torn areas be able to treat refugees, instead of encouraging them to come to Europe. My question is what is the legal basis for anyone to cross one-six-seven peaceful and safe countries, violate their borders just in order to get to Germany. So there’s no fundamental human right saying that you can wake up in the morning, pick Germany, Austria or Sweden as a destination of yours, and in order to get there you violate a series of borders. That’s not the human right. The human right says that if you have to escape you will be treated in the first safe and secure country. That’s why we’re absolutely in favour of supporting Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and all other countries.

SS: It’s easy for you to say this, but if you were in the same position like Italy when you cannot change geography and the first arrivals have to be taken - you just can’t shoot those people or send them back. You’d be talking differently. It’s easy to say “no migration” when it’s so hard to get to you… 

PS: Come on! There were 400 thousand illegal migrants marching through my country in 2015. How we ended it? We built a fence. Very few people know that, but we had to spend more than one billion euro so far on protecting our southern border because currently there are still dozens of attempts to break into Hungary on a weekly basis. Our police is there, our military is there, our infrastructure is there. And we have spent one billion euro in order to stop that migratory route. It is possible on the land route, which we have proved. The other question is whether it’s possible on a maritime route as well. We’ve heard from Brussels for three years that no, it’s impossible physically and legally. The Australians have proved that yes, it’s possible. But now the Italian Minister of Interior whom we respect a lot has tried to prove that it’s possible to stop the migrant flow on a maritime route as well. But those in Western Europe who always say that protection of external broders is extremely important attack him like they have attacked us in the last three-three and half years. In we make it very clear on behalf of Europe that “please, don’t board those smuggler ships on the Northern shores of Africa because you will not be allowed to disembark those ships in Europe”, then these people wouldn’t leave. These people leave because they see that regardless of any kind of attempts of certain politicians in Europe Brussels and the majority in Western Europeans always reach, these people can disembark those boats and come to Europe and ask for refuge, and regardless of the fact that they are rejected they cannot be sent back and they stay.   

SS: I actually spoke two weeks ago with Matteo Salvini on the same topic, and I asked him: “How can you be allies with Hungary because at the end of the day what you want are two different things. Hungary says “no migration at all, and you say “We want Europe to help us redistribute the new arrivals because we can’t change our geography”?” Are you as an ally willing to help with funds, for example? 

PS: I would like to tell you two things on that. Number one, we’re allies because sequencing is very important. Number one in sequencing is to control and protect the borders and do not let migrants in. This is what Matteo Salvini wants. He tries to close the maritime border and he tries to make people understand that there’s no way they could disembark those ships because they are illegal migrants and they are not allowed to come to Italy. Number one issue says that no illegal migrants should be allowed to come to Europe. This is the major issue on which we agree and where we are allies. Number two, when it comes to funds, when it comes to helping those in need, we have a programme which is called Hungary helps. We’ve already spent around 15 million euro on that. We are reconstructing the torn-down houses of Christian communities in the Middle East. We help them to build schools, we help them cover their medical expenditures in hospitals. We help them re-create their own communities because the church leaders of the Middle East begged us not to encourage people to leave the Middle East to come to Europe, but to help them to be able to stay where their communities have been staying for centuries, or even a millenium. So our philosophy is that we have to bring help where it’s needed instead of importing problems where there are no problems.  

SS: You know, this idea floating around European capitals that in order to stop migration from Africa we need to pour money into Africa to make lives of those who are there better. Would you be ready to pour some money into Africa so that people didn’t come to Europe? Because whether you like it or not, if you say that you want to be part of the European Union, and you are part of one whole entity that says “maybe we should be considering giving some money so that those people don’t come to us any more”... 

PS: This is what we call tackling the root causes. And yes, we’re absolutely on board. Just recently I met the Foreign Minister of Uganda. We made an agreement that Hungary pays around 14-15 million euro so that refugee camps were able to operate there, for solar energy technologies, water technologies, security measures. The Foreign Minister of Uganda told me and he told that publicly on the press conference that they don’t ask people and they don’t want us to ask people to come to Europe because he understands that if people in Africa come from one country to another it’s the same culture, same heritage, same religion. So they don’t experience a shock for each other because they are same culture, same heritage and same religion. If they come to Europe this is not the same situation. That’s what he said. And I agree to him that we have to help them in order to keep their labour force, to help them develop their economy. That’s why I made an agreement with the German Minister of Development that we invest together in Africa in order to make people’s lives better there. But there’s one very important principle that we always want to apply when it comes to funding of African countries, for example. This is conditionality. So we have to stick these funds to conditionality meaning that we have to demand that these countries which we finance must carry out reforms be it legal, economic, political, democratic, which delete those reasons why people have been leaving those countries.        

SS: Right now, the way things are looking is that Europe is divided in half. There’s a block Hungary, Italy, Austria, the Visegrad countries against the rest of EU, and you, guys, are defying them on migration policies. Do you feel the block is strong enough to resist the EU pressure? 

PS: The Visegrad co-operation is the tightest and the most effective alliance within the European Union. Look, four governments belonging to four totally different families, and regardless of this fact we are the strongest allies of each other. And we know we can show back to back because we’re in solidarity to each other, we protect each other, and the voice of the four us if said unanimously is much louder compared to four separate voices. So from effectiveness point of view, from interest point of view, from solidarity point of view, from principle point of view, this co-operation is strong enough. This co-operation could have been killed many times. We say in Hungarian: “If people speak about you dying you’re going to live a long life.” In this regard I can tell you that the Visegrad co-operation will live for eternity.  

SS: But you know, more than ever before the unity of the European Union is threatened, not just for the migration issue, but for many other issues. And many would argue that this block (the Visegrad countries, Hungary, Austria, Italy) is putting the rift even further, this gap is getting bigger and bigger. Do you feel like you could be blamed for that - for creating a rift that cannot be reversed? 

PS: I think, it’s a very unfair accusation against us, not to mention that it’s very undemocratic. As you said rightly, it’s not only migration, but a lot of other issues which can be taken into consideration as historic challenges ahead of the European Union: Brexit, terror threat, the war in Ukraine, the co-operation between the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union, transatlantic relationship. So there are many historic challenges ahead of the European Union. And I think it’s obvious that we have a debate within the EU how to overcome these challenges. It’s a very undemocratic approach to try to eliminate the right to debate and to discuss possible solutions. When should be have debate about the future of the European Union, if not now when we have historic challenges ahead of us? And I think we have the same right in the central part of Europe to discuss these matters as the countries in Western Europe do have. 

SS: Many say that these parliamentary elections in May are going to be nothing like the ones before and that they may change Europe forever. Do you agree? 

PS: I agree that this is going to be an extremely important election. We really hope that the composition of the European Parliament and the European Commission will change. This European Commission made a terrible performance if you look at their track record: migration, terror threat, Brexit, transatlantic relationship… It was very harmful what they have done to the European Union, so it’s time to step down. And we hope that the composition of the European Parliament will change as well, and it will be created based on the will of the people, and anti-migration forces will take the majority.    

SS: You know President Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon, right? He is a great fan of your government and the ideologist that you stick with - and he is working on “The Movement”, a Eurosceptic alliance, hoping to have an impact in May elections. Would Hungary support such a project? 

PS: Since there are European citizens to vote in the EU election, I think, we should leave it to the Europeans - number one. Number two - we are part of the biggest European family, European People’s Party, and we are the strongest and the most successful party within the European People’s Party. We hope that we can change the general attitude of the European People’s Party which is now pro-migration into an anti-migration attitude.   

SS: President Trump and your Prime Minister get along very well, President Trump admires Mr. Orban greatly. Do you think this sympathy can be of some help to Hungary? Or is it just an ideological liking? 

PS: Well, you know during the Democrat administration under President Obama we suffered a lot because they made open attempts to interfere into our domestic policies. Now such kind of attempts are not happening any more. It’s great for us. In many cases we see things in a similar way. But we have to understand that they are the number one superpower in the world and we are a small Central-European country. So we know our place, we are aware of our size and dimension. But we find many ideas of President Trump very refreshing. When he says “America First” we like it and we understand it because we say “Hungary First”. 

SS: Yeah, but does this friendship help you to withstand Brussels? Mr. Trump is not the most popular politician in Europe these days either… 

PS: I don’t think he needs popularity in Europe, he needs to be popular among the U.S. voters. I don’t think he’s too much interested in being popular in the EU. You know, we respect the decision of the American people. We never questioned that. We leave it to the American people to elect their own president as we expect others to leave it to the Hungarian people to make decisions about the future of Hungary.     

SS: Your Prime Minister is also good friends with Vladimir Putin. They get along very well. But that must come with a cost for you and your country… 

PS: President Macron was here in St. Petersburg as a guest of the International Economic Forum. We understand that they are in continuous contact with your President. We understand that there are several meetings between your President and Chancellor Merkel. So I don’t think we would be too exceptional in this regard. We have a very clear schedule. We have one official meeting between your President and our Prime Minister every year which is normal. We are countries close to each other, we depend on your energy supply, we have a tight economic co-operation. Now we have a tight investment co-operation as well. You have an important role in our energy supply, not only gas but nuclear power as well. So I find it very normal that we try to make a pragmatic relationship based on mutual respect. 

SS: The only difference is that when your Prime Minister meets President Putin he doesn’t go back to Hungary and the minute he has his face turned to his voters he doesn’t say: “Russia is number one enemy.” Most of the European heads come to Russia, talk about bridging gaps, but as soon as they are home their rhetoric changes...   

PS: You know, we always say the same statement about the same things. Maybe this is one of the reasons why we won three elections in a row with the constitutional majority. We never change faces. 

SS: Obviously you country has always said that anti-Russian sanctions don’t work for anyone - not for EU, not for Russia. But when it comes to lifting them, you don’t vote to lift them. Why? This is your right to vote - why wouldn’t you? 

PS: We made it very clear, as I told you, as we’re always very honest. We’re in favour of straightforward speech, we hate cheating on each other. We told openly even here in Russia that we will never break the unity of the European Union because the unity of EU is a value. On the other hand, we made it very clear that there must be a dialogue and honest and straightforward discussion about whether sanctions have been successful or not. Let’s see things factually whether it helped European economies, whether it helped the Russian economy, or whether it helped to down the Russian economy, whether it helped to implement the Minsk agreements, and so on and so forth. So these are very straightforward questions and there are very easy answers: yes or no. And after giving honest answers to honest questions we should make decisions about our future. Now the current Italian government seems to represent the same position - no automatic roll-over, discussion must be made. And since they are a strong and big G7 country it will be much easier for the smaller EU member state to represent this position together with the big one. 

SS: Thank you very much for this interview. And good luck with everything. 

PS: We appreciate that. Thank you so much.