Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 4th March 2012.
“There is a hidden Europe”
“Nations without character and ambitions will not be able to make the European Community great”: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on national pride, Christianity, German greatness and Hungary in the eye of world politics
Translated by Peter Stuyvesant, with Tom Sunic. See also Styvesant’s “Encouraging Developments in Hungary.”
Mr. Prime Minister, you are being criticized by the EU institutions in Brussels like no other head of government. We will discuss this later. But first we are interested in how you see the state of affairs in Europe.
I have a mind map before me. And what I see there fills me with extraordinary worries. When I look at the development of the world in the next twenty years, I see on this map an ever weakerEurope. We are continually losing importance, and we are declining in numbers in comparison to the total world population and also in comparison to the earlier Europe. Our share in world trade and the global GDP continues to decline. In our European democracy and our economic and social system more and more people lose their European self-confidence, because they see that those who set up their economy and society differently than we do are more successful in ever growing numbers than we are.
Why is that?
I have this feeling that a majority of European leaders have lost their faith in what made Europe great and into an influential factor in the world. Moreover, it seems as if it would be something shameful or something forbidden to talk about this issue. We can not help to see that those who are coming up now, stand firm for their spiritual identity: the Islamic peoples to Islam, the Asian peoples to Asian traditions and their spiritual system. It’s not just about God, but also about the culture that was influenced by their traditional beliefs. We on the other hand reject the power that comes from the fact that this is the world of Christian culture. The successful ones make sure that there is no future without children and family.
You believe Europe denies its origins?
We perceive it as praiseworthy if we talk about the traditional ways of life, it is something that is already out of fashion or long forgotten. I have this feeling that for the sake of the debate over culture and political correctness we no longer speak about the topics that are necessary so that we can continue to exist as a crucial civilization. There is something that I call a hidden or a secretEurope. This part is seldom discussed as a topic in public. And this does not coincide with the European claim, to become again a determining mindset, culture and political direction.
You look for support in religion, nation and family. Has progress not been moving in a different direction? Away from the nation, away from family, away from religion?
This is one of the reasons for my gauntlet. There is in fact an interpretation of European history, the European future, in which we march from the religiosity to the secularization of religion, from the traditional family model to the direction of different family models, and from the nations toward internationalism or cultural integration. What I have in mind is clearly going in the other direction. The contentious point is what is forwards and what is backwards. I contest that what is expressed in the Hungarian Constitution is being interpreted as something which belongs to the past. Because when I look at the world map, then the things about which I speak are those which can provide a solution to the shrinking European influence in the world.
The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights stipulates that human dignity is inviolable. It encompasses all the achievements of European law. After all, this is all the offshoot of our Western Christian tradition. How come this is not enough for you?
That’s all wonderful and good. We respect each other, and for the conduct of business a certain constitutional framework must not be contested. But where is life? I do not miss it in European documents, but in the culture of everyday life. Sometimes it flares up, I do not want to deny that. Then this triggers a lot of discussion. For example, when Sarkozy went on stage I felt a sparkle of De Gaulle, this glory, and you don’t have to be a Frenchman to have the feeling that there is a serious matter at hand. Or when I saw a sea of German flags for an international football for the first time in a long time — with the message: We are the Germans and we will prevail because we are the strongest. One doesn’t have to have fear, because you can see: something serious is developing inGermany. Or if the Poles say: We Poles have such a strong country that the European decision-makers can’t ignore us. There is a will, there is energy, there is a pending claim.
How can a European spirit specifically grow out of nationalisms?
I would not like to see that these statements would be used to oppose the European Union and its integration. I would like if in Brusselsand elsewhere one would not react as if European integration is under threat by this. Nations without character and ambitions are not able to make the European Community great. As a European I welcome these occasional flare-ups.
Europe has merged together, because their nations have relinquished some of their sovereignty. That was a lesson of both world wars, today it is a requirement for globalization. Do you think the states that became sovereign only after 1989, can resist it?
I do not know if my reply will be something for which I will be scolded inGermany. But since you mention the story: the world wars can be seen as wars between nations. However, I fear that the tragedy is greater. It was the internal civil war of our civilization. That civilization has been so wounded, that it could bring about our downfall. The demographic effect is clear, the consequences of the economic devastation are clear. After the Second World War, Europeans have been deprived of the means to shape their own future, both in the east and west. What befell us Europeans in the 20th century, was a civil war within Christianity. Dear God has created every individual after his own image. Therefore, we should not be allowed to destroy each other. This is the source of the European spirit. Accordingly, Schuman said after the Second World War, that Europe must either be Christian or it won’t exist.
The EU Commission believes that the Constitution that you have adopted with your two-thirds majority in the parliament violates basic values of the Union: against the independence of the judiciary, against the right of expression and press freedom, against the fair treatment of the opposition. These are serious allegations.
The whole matter is trivial. Hungary has to face up to objections against five to eight laws that have been passed. Together with those from last year, there are fewer than 50 individual cases in which we are engaged in discussion with the [European] Commission. The Germans have almost 100 cases in disagreement with the Commission, the French have even more cases. Are they now less European than we are? Of course not. As long as we can keep the discussion in this context, there are no problems. Such discussions are commonplace in the EU. But some argue that we have violated the European spirit. They say it could be true that the solutions in Hungary are legally acceptable, but they are nevertheless contrary to the European spirit. What should I do with such an opinion? I am elected, the Hungarian government was elected, the European Parliament was also elected. But who has elected the European Commission? Where is their democratic legitimacy? And to whom is the European Parliament accountable? These are very serious problems facing the new European architecture
What the Commission objects to is also bemoaned by many Hungarians.
What happened in Hungary in 2010? The left has collapsed. The Liberals are no longer in Parliament. What happens now? The international left tries — it does not make me happy, but it is understandable — to rebuild the Hungarian left. It is not possible from the inside, because there are only ruins, so they do it from the outside, not only from the rest of Europe but also from America. Foundations and left-wing people who want to formulate a leftist alternative in Hungary are being funded. Therefore we are attacked by the international radical left. But the international right, which, however, sometimes feels quite uncomfortable, is protecting us.
The approval of your party has waned considerably since the elections in April 2010. Many people were protesting in the streets against you.
There have been two mid-term elections since the last parliamentary election. We have won both overwhelmingly. If you compare what I have implemented in structural reforms in Hungary — I have reformed and changed everything, education, healthcare, social services — we did much better than I could have ever imagined. Those who gather on the street have my full appreciation, my respect. Sometimes it can be tens of thousands. But compared to the meetings of the right, these are trivial events. March 15th, a national holiday, is coming. The fact that we will successfully mobilize our supporters is beyond any doubt. This is a liberating experience for the supporters of the Hungarian right.
Your country is very polarized. Why do you steer towards this polarization, why do you want to destroy the Left?
I would like to book the destruction of the left as my own success. But that goes only partly to my credit. The current Hungarian opposition, which formed the government in the eight years before me, committed suicide. It was not murdered, the knife was not in my hands. The voters cast the ballots at the polls. Politics is like a phoenix from the ashes — it can be resurrected.
What is the social cause of the struggle between the right and the left?
In Hungary, a rather ruthless part of big business has been a part of the parties, mainly the socialists. The last three prime ministers of the socialists were the richest men in the country, and there was an alliance created between big business and the poorest people. The state was in the grip of big business. With social assistance, with an early retirement, with disability benefits, with the connivance of tax evasion, a mass of people was created that was propped up by the state. Thus the middle-class began to flex its muscle. When I won the 2010 election, the social situation in Hungary was such that more people lived off the state than from wages obtained from work. Hungary had slipped into a tragic endgame, because we have ten million people, of whom only 3.7 million worked in 2010 and only 2.6 million paid taxes. When I was voted out of office in 2002, the national debt was 52% [of GDP]. When I returned, it was more than 80 percent. A man, a company, a country who is in debt is not free, I think. In this sense, the Hungarians are not free and Hungary is not a free country.
And Europe? Is Europe free?
The Germans are still our hope. Because the Germans are the only ones who have an economy that is able to provide fantastic results, and that’s why they are excused when they sink the government debt below 80% — perhaps even to 60%. We have a bit of confidence that we could also do it, but the way others cope with it, offers little hope. The Germans have a natural instinct, and we have a two-thirds majority in the parliament. As long as we have this, we can start the economic recovery.
In Greek newspapers, the [German] Chancellor is shown with a swastika. Don’t you fear German dominance in Europe?
The Germans are very careful when it comes to taking the leading role. We know the history. The French will never accept it, the British immediately respond with their usual reflexes. Among the Central Europeans there is nervousness — they could be trapped again between Germans and Russians. But Germany has a destiny, and one can not choose his destiny. I’ve always seen Germany as too small to really dominate Europe but too big to take away the concerns of others, which Germany would not desire. This is Germany’s destiny. If Germany is using its power for good, then we must put aside our concerns and create an alliance, a partner relationship.
Who has influenced your positive image of Germany?
I’ve learned much from the older generation of German politicians. I will never forget how I once visited Graf Lambsdorff in his office in Bonn. We talked all afternoon. He sat behind his desk, and behind him hung a huge portrait of Bismarck. I said to him: I come to the Chairman of the Liberal International, and there is a portrait of Bismarck! He clarified this. It was a lesson on how Bismarck and German history are to be considered, and why a German liberal can hang up such a picture in the 1990s. When I became Prime Minister for the first time in 1998, I asked Kohl for an unofficial meeting, and it was a very long conversation in his office in the Chancellery. Kohl told me that the Rhine and Danube are synonymous with Europe. As long as the Danube region is not an integral part of Europe, there can be no unity. He argued at length that we young people need to understand this, for he himself had seen the other Europe. If there is no EU and the Euro, then there will be no peace.
Have you learnt something new about Hungary and the Hungarian people from your prominent position?
I have found a lot more strength and willingness for change than I suspected. We Hungarians have a very critical opinion of ourselves. It is legendary that we cannot agree among ourselves, going even back to the tribal times — this was the case. But now that there are big problems, not only at home, but also for Europe as a whole; a sense has developed of now or never. Today there is a lot less hate in Hungarian society than there used to be. We Hungarians blame ourselves that we always only see the bad side. But today, many set it as a personal goal to keep up the hope of a happy ending. Not only on the right but also on the left. How the Hungarians have responded to the attacks from abroad was amazing. We are a hot-blooded nation. And we always formulate exaggerations, for which the Hungarian language is very suitable. But now the opposite has been achieved. They say: There are problems in Hungary and errors, but we also face unfairness. But we are also a nation that has its dignity. The people are united, they cannot talk about us and with us as this is done in the European Parliament, by the left and the liberals. And the people have expressed their aversion so gracefully. I would never have thought that we were capable of doing this. The lesson from this is that politicians sometimes underestimate their own nation. From this one can draw strength.
There is a solid expectation of the EU Commission that your government will bring forward some legislative changes in the coming weeks. When you were in the European Parliament earlier this year, you have proven be willing to talk. Are you ready to come to terms with Brussels?
I have not only shown willingness to negotiate; we have also negotiated, both my ministers and myself. We have sent the Commission the draft legislative changes. Now we are waiting for their reply. Then it will become clear which issues there are solutions for and which there are not. And then we continue the negotiations.
The interview with the Hungarian Prime Minister was conducted by Thomas Gutschker, Friederike Haupt, Georg Paul Hefty and Volker Zastrow.