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Hungary’s FM: We didn’t get suspended; we chose to suspend our EPP membership

The European People’s Party, the center-right group within the European Parliament, has suspended Hungary’s Fidesz party, led by Viktor Orban. Is this the beginning of a major rift within the union? We talked to Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Peter Szijjarto, Hungarian Foreign Minister, great to have you with us again, you’re always a very welcome guest on our show. 

Peter Szijjarto: Thank you for the invitation. 

SS: And this time around, we have lots of news to discuss, because Hungary is once again making the top charts when it comes to the news. So, the bloc of the centre-right parties in the European Parliament, the European People's Party, has voted to suspend your ruling party, Fidesz. Is it a very big blow to your party? What does it mean, and why would they do it, because it would seem like they need support for the May’s elections? 

PS: Look, because... Because, you have to understand that migration rules the agenda of the European Union as such, when it comes to politics or policies, and EPP, being the largest political family, coming from the right reaching out to central left, basically, you have very colorful set of parties, and that's why the migration there is an issue when it comes to the debates, and the position of different parties on migration differs. And our position is a very strong anti-migration position, which is not shared by many. And since migration became the number one issue of European politics, it definitely raises emotions, tensions, very strong feelings and very strong announcements. So that's why this is the core of the conflict. 

SS: That's where the misunderstanding is, because for people from the outside, EPP is the centre-right party, and, you know, logically, they would be supporting the same migration policies as Fidesz would, but you're saying it's much larger of a spectrum, not just centre-right, because we get an impression that it's a center-right bloc. Ok, so that makes sense. 

PS: And you should know also, one more thing, I am sorry to interfere, but you should not forget the fact that after the recent number of European Parliament elections, the EPP and the Socialist group had to make, as they call, a technical type of coalition, but a coalition for sure, in order to create a majority in the European Parliament. And if you, let's say, govern together with a party family coming from the other side of the political spectrum, that shapes you. And we have to be honest, European People's Party was shaped by this coalition in the last decades a lot, so the core of the EPP’s position moved, you know, towards the left from where it used to be. 

SS: So, this suspension happened, took place. The head of your Prime Minister's office has said that if suspension happens, that means that Fidesz is leaving the EPP. What’s going on right now? 

PS: Yes, but then, the decision was a little bit different than that, because in English, you say that we were suspended, but we were suspended by ourselves, meaning that before the vote on whether to suspend or exclude Fidesz, we have announced that we suspend ourselves, we step back, we basically say that we put our rights in the EPP on hold, and there is going to be a body of three persons appointed by the European People's Party, smart, experienced politicians who used to be high-ranking officials of their given countries, and even the European institutions, and they will make a report about whether Fidesz’s values, Fidesz’s actions are in line with the EPP charter, let's put it this way. And in the meantime, we have set up a body as well, three persons, who make a report whether it makes sense to remain in the EPP. 

SS: So what could be the consequence? From what I understand, the vote didn't take place, you suspended yourself before the vote, right? So there was no vote... 

PS: The vote was about this consensual outcome that Fidesz suspends itself. 

SS: So that means, that if it wasn't voted in, and it was your choice to suspend yourselves, they cannot put any pressure on your further policies? 

PS: Well, they cannot put pressure on our policies anyhow… 

SS: I mean that was the whole idea behind this, right, if they were to suspend… 

PS: Yeah. We are a sovereign party, you know, and we are held responsible by our voters back in Hungary. So what we want to do, and what we have been doing is satisfying the expectations of the Hungarian people based on the will of whom we are governing. 

SS: So what would this consequence into for your country? Could EU’s payouts to Hungary be under threat? What can happen? 

PS: No-no-no. We shouldn't confuse the party issue with, let's say, institutional questions. The issue you raise, regarding the EU funds, is a very unfair debate, because many times we, the Central European countries, the so-called newcomers, I mean a long time ago, but the so-called Central European newcomers are usually portrayed in a very unfair way, as if we were only taking the benefit out of the European Union, like a cash machine, you know, and don't take responsibility for anything, which is absolutely not true, unfair and can be taken into consideration as an insult. Because we have fulfilled our obligations, with opening our markets, allowing Western European companies to come there to take profit, take the profit out of the country. So 70% of the European funds paid to Central European countries basically go back to the Western European countries through their companies. So portraying us as being the net benefitters of all of these funds with no merit is simply unfair. 

SS: So you're saying the payouts are not under threat? 

PS: Well, the payouts are based on contracts and and treaties, and if someone wants to change the treaties, must go through a very complicated and very long legal procedure, because the treaties can only be opened by consensus of 28, or 27 soon, and can be closed by the consensus of 27 or 28 in the future as well. So it's a very complicated thing, so there can be communication turbulences around that, but if you look deeply to the substance, then it must be a very complicated and a long-lasting debate or legal procedure. 

SS: So just to sum up this, this suspension topic, right, it was caused in the beginning, it was ignited, triggered by the anti-migrant policy that your country's leading, and also attacks on George Soros, those banners we've all seen. Do you think what has happened could anyhow be a drawback for Orban’s home policy? Could it somehow affect Orban’s policy? 

PS: No, no definitely not. Because we are serving the national interest, and regardless of any kind of pressure in the past, we have always served the national interest, and that's going to be the case in the future as well. And when it comes to George Soros, we have not attacked him, we have a debate with him. A very serious debate, because the vision he has about the future of Europe, and the vision he has about the future of Hungary is dangerous, harmful, and we don't want that to happen. So it's a debate with him, an open debate. He openly wanted to throw the government, and we got into an open debate with him. And my question is, why shouldn't a government go into an open debate, considering that we represent the people of Hungary. 

SS: Okay, so let's see how the forces could be re-arranged, because now we have Italy and Poland, and they have actually been building a Eurosceptic alliance under the banner of Renaissance of the true European values. That was unexpected for many, because Poland used to be so pro-EU, and now it's kind of siding with Italy against. Is this idea result in forming another bloc within the European Parliament, a bloc on the right-wing, is it a good thing, and would Fidesz actually considered joining that? 

PS: Look, I don't think it's fair to consider either the current government of Poland or Italy as an anti-European or Eurosceptic, as you said, sorry. Because you have to understand, there is a debate in the European Union… 

SS: Integration, let’s put it this way. 

PS: Yeah, yeah, right. There's a debate about the future of EU, which way to go forward. And there are definitely at least two different camps. One camp says that we need to reach to a situation where a United States of Europe is created, meaning weakened member states, stronger Brussels. We think it's a dead-end street. We think this is a bad concept. We think that this will not strengthen European Union. What we think is, that EU can only be strong if the member states are themselves strong. So urging for strong member states is not a Eurosceptic position, urging for strong member states is a pro-European position, as we think that the way towards a strong European Union leads through strong member states, which stick to their national identities, which stick to the traditions, to the cultural heritage, Christian heritage. We should not forget about all this, because if we distance ourselves, if we forget about our roots, our heritage, then we cannot be strong. So the debate is rather about that, and that's why I think that this kind of, you know, expressions like Eurosceptic, whatever, do not describe the situation properly, because we are not eurosceptic, we are in favor of a strong European Union, but we think that… 

SS: What would you call yourselves in one word? I mean, it's not Eurosceptic, I agree with you, because you're all part of European Union, you want to be part of European Union, but, like you said, there's definitely two camps. One is super pro-integration, like you said, strong Brussels and less stronger states, and you’re pro-stronger state and a formal Brussels, let's put it this way. So if Italy and Poland do create this bloc within the European Parliament, and you've suspended yourself from the EPP, would you consider joining it? 

PS: Well, what will happen after elections, I cannot give a prediction there. We will make a decision which group to belong to, of course, because we have to wait for the reports of the two bodies, and we'll see how we go forward. But the most important thing is, regarding the future European Parliament, well beyond party borders, is to move towards a more anti-immigration position than currently, because currently the European Parliament is an extremely and radically pro-migration body. And this is something that we don't like. 

SS: So you're leading me to my next question, because that has already been in the news. You said Brussels is intending to weaken the EU's border protection against migrants, and is lying to the public when it comes to the border situation. This is a serious accusation... 

PS: These are facts, basically. 

SS: I was going to ask: do you have a fact, do you have a proof? 

PS: Look, those leaders who are now trying to shine up as leaders in favor of stronger border protection, they are exactly the same ones who put enormous attack on Hungary in 2015, when we built the fence on our southern border. Let's look at the Internet, at what they have said. You know, they have put expressions on us which were really disgusting. And now the very same people are speaking in favor of a strong border protection. Not credible! Absolutely not credible! And then the organisation, you might heard the name Frontex, is being mentioned. Look, Frontex is a travel agency, it's not a border protection unit. They speak about, you know, 10000 people to be put together. But protecting the entire border to the South of the European Union with 10000 people? If someone says that, he doesn't know what he or she speaks about. We needed to mobilise thousands of policemen and military personnel to be able to protect the fence at our Southern border, which is 550 kilometers long. So in order to be able to protect the whole Southern border, including maritime and land border, the solution is not Frontex. The solution is strong national obligations, so that the member states should take seriously into consideration their obligation to protect their borders. Look, we are member of Schengen area, and the Schengen code says very clearly that if you are located at the external border, it is your obligation to make sure that your border is only crossed through the official border crossing points, with the proper documentation during opening hours. So every members of the Schengen area should take this seriously into consideration, and if someone fails, then the membership should be suspended. 

SS: Ok, so I'm going to play a little bit of devil's advocate, and I'm going to tell you what the opposite side is saying. The European Commission has immediately dismissed your claims, and they're saying it's ludicrous, and it's a conspiracy theory, and they're actually saying that EU states are responsible for managing their own border policies, and they can decide how many immigrants come in and stay. Judging from that argument, does it mean that you feel like you're not in control of your border in Hungary? Do you feel like it's under threat? I just want to hear that. 

PS: Whether the borders are under threat? 

SS: Do you feel like you're not in control of your own border? 

PS: We are in control. That's why we have built the fence. That's why we have instructed the military personnel and police to be there. But there are attempts to break in or break through the fence on a daily basis. A number of them. So we need to be tough there, and we are strict, and we have the control over our border. But, you know, it's really not serious when the European Commission speaks about that, because the European Commission was the one to push the obligatory quota initiative forward, wanting to take away, intending to take away a sovereign right from the countries to decide on their own whom they would like to let enter the territory of their own countries, and with whom they would like to live together. We think it's a core national competence, to make a decision whom we would like to let enter the territory of our country, and with whom we would like to live together. No one else, no European Commission, no Brussels, no New York, no one should take away any kind of such a right from the member states. 

SS: So there is another thing that has happened recently, the European Court for Justice ruled that Germany is authorised to deport failed asylum seekers and illegals to other EU states, and that means that they would send those people back to the EU states that they originally entered... 

PS: Absolutely. 

SS: That's your country as well... 

PS: But this cannot be our country. It's physically excluded. 

SS: OK. But a lot of people entry EU through Hungary. 

PS: But that was not the case, because no one could physically… It was impossible to have Hungary as the first entry point, because the people who ended up in Germany and went through Hungary came to Hungary either through Croatia, which is an EU member state, either through Serbia, but to Serbia, they got from Macedonia, and to Macedonia they got from Greece. So everybody, all those 400000 illegal migrants who marched through the country of ours back in 2015, came through at least one or two EU member states before entering Hungary - either Greece or Greece and Croatia. Now the reason why the Germans wanted to send them back to us, - but we made it very clear, no way, we won’t receive any of them, - was that we registered them, and the Greek didn't. But not fulfilling an obligation of yours must not let you be not responsible for what you have done, meaning that regardless of the fact that the Greek have registered these migrants or not, they were the first entry point, and the treaties speak very clearly, that the first entry point is the responsible one. 

SS: Another thing - Manfred Weber, the EPP leader who could actually replace Juncker very soon, he wants to create this independent body, independent from the European Parliament, that would check the EU members’ domestic commitment to rule of law and, obviously, Hungary is the top goal. Do you think that could come into completion, that plan? 

PS: Look, I think after the elections, it will be more rational to speak about these things, because, first, there should be a majority put together in the European Parliament. Then we don't know the composition of that. We don't know the composition of the European Commission. So all these plans are, I mean, they sound nice, they sound exciting in the campaign period, but we have to wait until the election happens. Now, when it comes to the rule of law issues in the European Union, what we see is a huge set of double standards. Why? Take the example of Poland. The Polish are under procedure because of their decisions regarding their judicial system. Look, the European Commission put forward a list of decisions they should have made. They completed all of them from A to Z. And what European Commission has done was saying “oh, it's not enough, we continue the procedure” instead of stopping it and, you know, closing the file and putting it in the drawer. So the problem is that there are double standards, hypocrisy, political correctness, and at many times political motivations. 

SS: So I want to talk a little about Hungary's stance on immigration and Islamisation, because that's something that your country speaks very strongly about. For instance, your Prime Minister has said that imposing pro-immigration policies and Islamisation would actually break up the European Union. If that happens, if the pro-immigration sentiment persists, would Hungary actually consider leaving the bloc? 

PS: No, absolutely not. That's not in question. 

SS: So I just have a few polls here, Pew says in 2016, only about 5 percent of Europe's population was Muslim. And then even the most generous forecasts see that in 2050 only 14 percent of Europe will be Muslim. I mean, talking about Islamisation of Europe with those numbers is a little far-fetched, no?... He sees it as a very serious threat, but the polls say different. 

PS: Well, first of all, I want to tell you that we are a Christian Democratic government, and being Christian as a person and being Christian Democrat as a politician means that you must not be anti-anything. So we are not anti-Muslim. We are not anti-anything. We are in favor of protecting the Christian culture and the Christian heritage of Europe. And I can tell you that it was like 4 years ago when I first was challenged by my negotiating partner when I said that Europe is a Christian continent. You know, it's unbelievable that you are challenged for that sentence, that shouldn't be the case. Europe is a Christian continent with the Judeo-Christian heritage, with its Christian culture. And in this regard, I think it's very harmful and dangerous that there are forces suggesting that we should forget about this Christian heritage of ours. Look, there were decisions made in the Western part of Europe forcing the Christian symbols to be taken off from public institutions, or there was even a French decision to take off the cross from the top of the monumental sculpture of Pope John Paul II. I mean, this is unbelievable and this is something that we should not tolerate. 

SS: I know you don't like Frontex, but I'm still going to give you some numbers from that, because a few weeks ago your Prime Minister warned of a second migrant crisis that could be hitting Europe, worse than in 2015, but in January, Frontex says that 2018 was the lowest number of illegal crossings into Europe since six years. What are you guys, so worried about, especially that, you know, most of the newcomers are actually heading towards Sweden, Germany, not Hungary, really? 

PS: You know, there are 30 to 35 million people, according to estimates, around the European Union, mostly in the Southern and Southern-Eastern neighborhood, who are either living on the daily humanitarian aid, either are living as internally displaced persons already, or already are on the move - thirty to thirty five million, who can easily make a decision to hit the road towards Europe. I was in Jordan recently. The 1.3 million refugees put enormous burden on the shoulder of the Jordanian state, on the Hashemite Kingdom. Lebanon - the situation is worse and worse there because of the burden being put on the shoulders of the Lebanese with the refugees there. The last time the Turkish President has complained about the European Union not paying the agreed sum of money to fulfill or to comply with the EU-Turkey deal on migration. As you talk to the ministers of interior of the Western Balkan countries, they will let you know that the influx is getting more and more serious. The foreign terrorist fighters are making attempts to return. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are 27 to 28 thousand illegal migrants getting stuck. On our border, we register a growing number of attempts to break in or, using vehicles, to squeeze in somehow. Talk to the Serbs, talk to the Croats - they'll let you know that the influx is there on a continuous basis, not to speak about the fact that Mr. Salvini was attacked by not allowing the illegal migrants to enter Italy and disembark the ships. So the problem is that Europe got again very comfortable, and instead of building the capacities to be able to protect ourselves, we basically have done nothing. I mean, on the level of European Union, we still cannot protect the maritime border, the number of trespassers on the land border between Turkey and Greece is increasing. So there is a threat of a next big wave, because the policy of the European Union is still kind of considered as an invitation in the mindset of those people who are in a situation that they can make a decision to to leave and to come to Europe.

SS: Okay, I get your point. Now to a different topic - the Russian-led International Investment Bank is moving to Budapest, changing headquarters. Hungary is the top contributor with the lowest number of loans. What's the calculus behind it? What's the logic? 

PS: Look, now the situation started to change. So the International Investment Bank is getting involved in more and more projects in Hungary, financing them. We have just inaugurated the first food industry investment, big one, there the IIB was the one to contribute. IIB’s cooperation with the Hungarian Exim Bank is getting tighter and tighter. Now, even the biggest Hungarian companies are working together with IIB on financing. There was the first successful issuance of foreign denominated bonds by IIB in the recent days. So having the headquarters of IIB in Budapest is something very favourable for Hungary. Number one, the more international institutions we have headquartered in Budapest, the better, because the more international we will be. You know, when it comes to finances, our economy is in a period of changing dimension. So new and modern investments are happening in the country. We are looking for financial background. So IIB's involvement in financing Hungarian investments is something very crucial for us. 

SS: But the Hungarian Parliament has granted the diplomatic immunity for the bank. It's a normal, usual practice with this international institutions. But the Western commentators are saying that actually it's a great base for Russia's intelligence services to operate from. What do you say to that? 

PS: You know, I think I surprised these commentators, including the Hungarian opposition, when I ask them whether they know that five out of the nine owners of this bank are NATO member states. Period. 

SS: Thank you very much. It's been great pleasure talking to you. Good luck with everything. 

PS: Thank you for the invitation again. Good being here.

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