A few hours before Bratislava, before the informal EU summit, we recorded an interview with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán.
Hello, Prime Minister.
Thank you for this opportunity, even though this is not going out live. Tomorrow morning I have to be in Bratislava, so I’m leaving tonight, to be in a good position to tackle this important conference.
The conference is important, and indeed it’s enough for us to look at the invitation. The migration crisis and Brexit have thrown into sharp relief the European Union’s weakness – or its management and mismanagement of the crisis situations which it finds itself in. And then in the first half of the week we were overwhelmed by a battle of communiqués in the lead-up to Bratislava. After all this, will there be a general consensus pointing the way forward? In one day is it possible to prove that Bratislava is not Brussels?
You are asking a lot from me if you want me to tell you the conclusion to a meeting before it has even started. In today’s world that is close to tempting fate. We will launch into a debate, and if I’ve understood correctly, the plan is not to bring it to a conclusion, but for us to honestly face up to those mistakes which the European Union has committed recently. Those mistakes have produced two serious consequences: one is that the United Kingdom has waved us goodbye, and the other is that allowing uncontrolled immigration has brought an unmanageable terror and public security situation into Europe. We must face up to these two things. I think there will be some long debates. We don’t yet know whether we can bring this debate to a conclusion next spring or only in the middle or perhaps end of next year, but we must start it now.
Yes, but this would not be a problem if the two points – the migration crisis and Brexit – received numbered tickets for the queue. The migration crisis should have the first number among all the matters under discussion. But the Western European Member States would like to see Brexit dealt with first; meanwhile the UK has still not officially submitted the official notification of its intention to leave the EU.
The rules of common sense dictate that we put migration first. Now here in Hungary we are living through somewhat calmer times, because at the moment illegal immigration is taking place on the sea route to Italy. Many people might think that because we can’t see them at our borders, perhaps nothing is happening. But this is not the case, and you probably broadcast the news that every day hundreds or thousands of people are crossing the sea to illegally enter Italy. And then, in line with the German proposal, Brussels will try to distribute them among us, so that we too would receive some of them. When autumn arrives this sea route becomes more difficult, and we can expect the pressure to shift again to the overland Balkan route. That is where we will have to face intense pressure at our fences on the border.
And, for example, it will reach the Bulgarian-Turkish border, which you have visited, and some important questions have been raised. But before we turn to that, prior to Bratislava the Visegrád Four have coordinated their positions somewhat. We have a four-point proposal, which can be seen as the Visegrád Four’s joint proposal on budget discipline in the European Union, on the European Commission returning to its original role, on migration issues being within the remit of Member States, and on the need for a joint army. Will the community of twenty-seven be able to at least say that these are important issues?
Let’s first get to the point at which the V4 says that officially! That is the position that we’ve represented, and now that is our plan. And just before I came here to speak to you, we were putting the finishing touches, and finalising discussions so that there can be a joint Visegrád written proposal. For the moment the plan is that there will be no final document at the end of the Bratislava meeting. We believe that there could be one, but in any case the V4 will prepare one, and the V4 will submit this as its joint proposal to the European Council. This will be an important moment in the life of the V4.
But will this four-point agreement be complete by tomorrow morning?
We would like it to be complete by tonight.
And the Visegrád Four are united on this.
When I left we were very close.
This is one of the four points, but we hear more and more about whether national concerns – a Europe of nations or a Europe of Brussels bureaucracy – should be the starting point for reform of the EU, or something else. Because reform is needed. So the migration crisis and Britain’s withdrawal makes it clear that this is necessary. The leadership of the EU – President Juncker for example – is saying that they also would allow for consideration of the question of a Europe of nations, or give more scope for it than earlier. Do you hear them saying such things?
Let’s briefly summarise what arguments they’ve put forward over the past few years. Whatever problem has emerged, the bureaucrats have jumped to the fore, and a few high-ranking loud politicians have backed them up, saying that in the crisis facing us the only possible solution is even closer European cooperation. “Even more Europe, even more Europe…”
That has always been the answer, yes.
Yes, always. We take powers from the Member States, we give them to the EU, and later they will solve the problem. Now the migration crisis is the turning point, because in the beginning the EU agreed to develop a joint response. Last year we waited three months for that response, and it turned out that there wasn’t one. And so it fell to Hungary – seeing the intolerable situation and Hungarian citizens in need of protection – to take matters into its own hands and build the fence to protect the border and thus guarantee the security of the Hungarian people. So migration is an issue for which it is quite obvious that it is not more Europe which provides help, but assisting every nation state itself to meet the obligations for border protection that it has signed up to in the Schengen Agreement. The Greeks must protect the Greek border, the Hungarians the Hungarian border, and so on. If they are unable to do this they can ask for help, but the responsibility remains within their competence. So I think that the migration crisis is an opportunity for us to say that it is not a good answer to every crisis to say that we want a common Europe, or more Europe. Because there are crises – such as the migration crisis – to which the answer should instead be to strengthen the nation states, and not to take powers away from them. The situation now is exactly the opposite of this, because those in Brussels want to take away from Member States their authority over policy on migrants and to exercise it themselves by redistributing refugees and immigrants. I think this is taking a wrong turning.
But they do not just want to take away this authority: they also want to take away money. And this is mathematics. So far we have been talking about who thinks what or what debates among EU leaders we can look forward to. But what the European Commission is proposing is mathematics: to cut cohesion funds by 24%. So, to put it simply, 24% less cohesion funding for the European Union’s poorer regions and 25% more for migration. This is mathematics.
The stakes are high. Wherever I meet voters I always try to say that the relocation quota and the referendum on it is not an abstract political issue which is distant from us, but flesh and blood reality. It is going to happen here among us. So they will take money from us, money must be given to migrants arriving here, they will distribute those migrants – if we allow it – so that we can’t decide whether or not they come in. And the EU will distribute migrants among the countries and settlements. Everyone will feel the consequences in their own lives. That is why I say that this is a common cause, not a party political issue. This is a national matter, and also a personal matter for every Hungarian.
But can border protection at last be focused on, among other proposed solutions? Or, if we are talking about which problems should be at the front of the queue, why not make border protection at least one of the top of three for the 27 leaders?
Let’s be fair! There has been an improvement here. President Tusk, leader of the European Council, has visited me. He, for example, sees this as the top priority. Of course there are others with significant influence in the EU who support a different order of priority, but overall I should say that over the past year the idea has gradually strengthened that we cannot solve this problem without protecting the external borders. This is why I represent this stance, and this is why I went to the Turkish-Bulgarian border, as now Bulgaria is in focus: Bulgaria must be given help, the Bulgarian fence must be strengthened and money must be provided for Bulgarian border protection, so that protection against illegal migrants can occur as far south as possible.
This is a matter of three and a half per cent – because that is how much Bulgaria would need compared to the amount received by Ankara in its agreement with the European Union for external defence against migration. Could this three and a half per cent be produced tomorrow?
I think it could be. I see a very good chance of that. Essentially this is a question of what we mean by justice. Justice means that we cannot treat an EU Member State subjected to migration pressure in the way that we are treating it now. To put it another way, we cannot leave it to fend for itself, while we send money by the sackful to those outside the EU. This is simply not fair and not rational, and it can be changed.
But why do the EU leadership believe in this so dogmatically? Explain to us why they have more faith in a shaky deal with Turkey than in a border defence task.
They were raised in a different political environment. In the political environment in which we were raised, a basic principle is that it is always better to ensure that we cannot be harmed than to assume that others do not want to harm us. Therefore this is part of our genetic configuration, a part of our history. Our defensive instincts are much keener, as we live in a tougher part of the European Union – a more turbulent zone than those to the west of us. Therefore I believe that our opinion should be taken more seriously, given that it comes from first-hand experience. I’m afraid I have to say that in forty years of prosperity every problem was thought to be soluble; this attitude sprang from naivety – I wouldn’t say it came from bad intentions. The response has always been that the European Union would provide some money, or together we could work together more closely to solve the problem. So there has been a kind of knee-jerk reaction throughout the history of the European Union that somehow all major problems can be managed sooner or later, without fundamental change. And now, when we’re facing a problem for which it’s obvious that if you make a single mistake it can’t be corrected, the European Union is paralysed, and it can’t shift from one course to another. Immigration and migration is an issue in which if you make a single mistake – if you let people in and they come in – it will be very difficult to handle the situation later on. I think that this is the case with the Islamisation of Europe, and this is the case with the terrorist attacks and the deterioration of security. So this is an issue in which there is no room for error. But it is a new kind of issue, a new kind of challenge for Brussels, where I believe we find people who are well-intentioned, but naive. But in a situation like this, naivety can wreak havoc.
In Berlin, however, there is a different approach, and there, too, the suggestion is that the protection of borders is not the central problem: instead they are trying to treat the symptoms. They want to provide loans for the migrants who have arrived here, so that they can have their residence and their school qualifications recognised. So that they can take out loans of a few hundred euros, which they will somehow pay back later.
I have also been struggling to understand this; I thought I had misunderstood the news reports.
The Chancellor made this announcement.
Yes. I thought I had misread it, because I would understand if they wanted to give money to people who do not come here – if they followed the principle of taking help there, rather than bringing the problems here. But if we give them money here, everyone will want to come here. In this world we live in there are three billion people – three thousand million people – living on less than two dollars a day. If we brought a hundred million here, it would destroy the European Union – but even then there would be another 2,900 million left. So this is faulty logic. Help must be taken there, rather than the problems being brought here. If we give them loans here, why wouldn’t they want to come here? I’m convinced that this naive immigration policy is a gravitational force drawing into Europe people from around the world who are living in poor surroundings. Because Europe is a wonderful place. There’s a reason why we love it. So this is a wonderful place, it offers a great life – I’m not saying a problem-free life, but great opportunities – and it is also beautiful, it has amazing historical features, and a culture of freedom. All this is a major attraction. In my view, encouraging people to come here without assessing the consequences doesn’t seem like reasonable behaviour – not from a Hungarian point of view, at least.
But its borders are easy to cross, as we saw last year – and also so far this year. Since you’ve mentioned numbers, the situation is that in North Africa alone hundreds of thousands of people are practically on their starting blocks. And when bad weather sets in they can again reach Hungary’s borders along the Balkans route. So the situation is as if a flood is approaching, and the barriers must be raised, and they must be kept in place with emergency forces. Isn’t this how it is?
Yes, exactly like that. I have been in charge of some flood defence situations. I already had my real test in 1998: I’d just taken my oath as Prime Minister, and within six months the great Tisza flood had descended on us. And at times like this I learnt that there is always some chaos and confusion: the forecasts are inaccurate, everyone is frightened and insecure, and you must create order. You can set things in order by asking the right questions in the right sequence. The first question you ask a flood control expert is “Do you think there’s a chance of stopping the water, or should we start by limiting the damage?” If there’s a chance of stopping it, however, we should focus all our efforts on control efforts. This is also the situation now. So first we should determine what we think – or possibly know – what the facts are. Is it possible to stop the masses of people with physical barriers at the fence, at the border? My answer is that it is indeed possible. It is technically possible, it is militarily possible, and the achievements of modern technology are there to be used. A country is able to defend itself against unarmed illegal immigrants arriving in large numbers. This is possible. And once we have determined this, we must concentrate all our efforts on ensuring that this capability should not be merely theoretical, but actual. Hungary is continuously working on reinforcing and technically upgrading the fence, because we believe that we shall stop them. It is also true that it would be best for us Hungarians if we didn’t need to do this – if this task was carried out somewhere to the south of us. So we’re happy to help the Serbs in managing this, or the Bulgarians or the Macedonians, because then there will be less left for us to do. So while we’re concerned with our own situation, cooperation with the peoples of the Balkans has once again become something important for Hungary – just as it was long ago in history.
This physical barrier can also be built on the sections you just mentioned, and there are plans for that – indeed this is what we see on the Romanian-Serbian border as well. And there’s a reason for that, as dozens of Iranians and other migrants are trying to get through the fence every day. So returning to the initial point: if a physical barrier is built and it is able to hold back the flood, is it also possible to build a legal barrier with the result of the referendum on 2 October?
It is, it will indeed be a legal barrier. There will be great debates and battles in Brussels afterwards, but it will constitute a legal barrier. I repeat: at times like this, you either have faith in unity, and consequently in your own strength, or you’re a nihilist and say: “We can’t succeed, anyway, we should just forget the whole thing”. This is the debate we have in Europe today. I’m convinced that a great many well-intentioned people naively believe that we can’t stop them anyway, and if we can’t stop them, it’s better to start thinking about how we should take them in. This is what I call nihilism. Because our view tells us that now is the time to act: rather than surrender, we must act. And I cannot give you a better example than the United States – one of the world’s richest and most attractive countries. If it is able to use physical barriers along its southern border to stop the many people who would like to enter its territory, and to protect itself, I can’t see why we Europeans shouldn’t be able to do so.
Having seen the polls, there is a good chance that millions will back the Government’s position; this could create some kind of a consensus, set an example in Europe, and serve as a reference point. The day of the referendum, 2 October, could also be an important date in a western Member State, but we’ll come back to that in a minute. But among millions of people an understanding may come into being.
Well, I would downplay the role of the Government here – though it can’t be entirely disregarded, because someone must organise the consensus. But this is not about the Government now, because the nature of Hungarian politics is that when we talk about the Government, people think about political parties. But in this respect Fidesz is irrelevant, the Christian Democratic People’s Party is irrelevant, Jobbik doesn’t count, and likewise MSZP doesn’t come into the picture – because it’s not about these parties. It’s about whether we can protect our interests together, by treating the defence effort as a national cause. This is the only thing it’s about. And I would suggest that everyone should throw away their party political spectacles.
On the subject of the quota referendum, do you also hear statements which seem to be more permissive, more lenient as regards the mandatory part of plans for migrant quotas? We have heard such statements this week.
What is the precise situation here? The truth is that the European Union’s decision-making mechanism is extremely complicated, and therefore people don’t quite understand what’s actually happening. To put it very plainly, in order for a rule to be adopted in the European Union which is binding on the nations, three decisions must be taken: one by the Commission, another by the Parliament, and finally one by the Council. Where we stand right now is that the Commission has made its decision: this is what they want – they want to let people in and distribute them. The Parliament is currently debating this issue. Finally it will be passed to the Council, where there is no veto, because there countries such as Hungary, which don’t want this, can be swept aside with a majority – with a strong, large majority. So now we must create a position in which we can stop the decision which the Commission has already adopted; we might not be able to stop it in the Parliament, but we might be able to in the Council. This is what we’re working on. Well, this would be an unprecedented achievement, but in some areas we have already achieved results which no one expected. For instance, we’ve always been able to protect Hungary against flooding.
I’ve just mentioned that on 2 October there will be another local referendum about almost the same question. There will be a local referendum in a small town in the South of France called Allex. According to the French state’s plans, a few hundred people would be relocated there from Calais, from the British-French border, from what is widely known as the migrant “jungle”. Allex is a small town with a population of 2,500, and practically the same afternoon that this news was announced in Paris, the local mayor scheduled a referendum for 2 October.
This is what I’d like every Hungarian – if they have some time to listen to us – to hear and to understand: that in every country to which migrants have come in large numbers, they have been distributed. Families and groups were relocated, and settlements received a share of them – because, after all, where else would they have relocated them? They needed to be distributed. They cannot be locked up in camps – that is against the European Union’s laws, against its system. So there is one answer: relocation and distribution. This is why I say that the crucial issue is that Brussels wants to let the migrants in and to relocate them. Hungary doesn’t want to let them in, and consequently doesn’t want to relocate them. These are the two choices: to let them in or not, to relocate them in your country or not. There are French settlements which don’t accept their government’s position, and they don’t want relocation.
In your address before the start of daily business in Parliament you said that Brussels is preparing a trick: if it can’t reach an agreement on this issue with the Member States, it will attempt to solve this issue by striking deals with cities which have left-wing leaderships. What exactly did you mean? What is behind this?
Clearly not so many people visit Western European cities, but those who went to Spain or Italy this summer may have seen that left-wing councils put up hoardings and huge banners with the message that they welcome the migrants who have come here. So there is a left-wing movement in Europe. Some cities are proud that they’ve taken in migrants, and even if they cannot find cooperative countries, people in Brussels are counting on being able to find cities in Spain and Italy which are prepared to take in the migrants – as such cities have been found there. I have seen this with my own eyes: this is not an imaginary problem – it is a real, genuine issue. It is also a threat to Hungarian cities with left-wing councils. But luckily it will not be the leaders of cities who will decide on this, but Hungarian voters on 2 October: in Salgótarján, in Szeged, and in Zugló, too.
If the referendum proves to be successful and valid – which requires a fifty per cent turnout – do you already have an idea of the constitutional consequences? What will be the next step in the Hungarian parliament – a constitutional amendment, or something else?
Yes, I do have an idea of them.
But you won’t tell us?
All in good time. We must cross that bridge when we come to it. We are now in the run-up to the referendum. I don’t think we should start a debate about what we’re going to do after the referendum. At this point in time we should start a debate and talk about whether we’re able to create widespread agreement. This is what I’d like to concentrate all our resources on. I know what direction we could take after the referendum – after all, I believe that the people keep me in my job to think ahead; but while I have an idea, here and now everything depends on the kind of unity we can create. If there is greater unity we can set out in one direction, and if there is less unity we shall set out in another direction.
Our guest was Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Thank you for accepting our invitation.
Thank you for having me.
This interview was pre-recorded, but broadcast in full.