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Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Kossuth Radio programme “Good Morning Hungary”

Katalin Nagy: Three prominent politicians have visited Budapest within the space of eight days: last week President Putin of Russia, then the German foreign minister, and yesterday President Erdoğan of Turkey. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the studio. What is the significance of this very busy diplomatic schedule? It seems that many people are attacking it.

First of all, good morning. I’d like to thank the people of Budapest, because every major event like this is accompanied by inconveniences, and we’re grateful that the citizens of Budapest accepted this – or at least acknowledged it. And moreover, if controversial figures arrive and there are protests, then those protests cause at least as much upheaval as the arrangements for the visits themselves. In answer to the question, we usually say that not a single country can change its address: it is where it is, where God created it or where it occupied a home for itself. We occupied a home for ourselves, with Berlin to the left, Moscow to the right, and Istanbul to the south. Well, this is the reality, whether we like it or not. One can weave every kind of dream or philosophy about who in the world we like the most, but the reality is that to the left of us there’s the land of the German iron chancellors, to the right the Slavic military peoples, and down south the vast population masses of Islam. Hungary lives its life within this triangle, and within this geographical region it has been the task of governments down the centuries to create balance, to create peace and security, and for us to build relations in all three directions, so that the three capital cities and the three powers which are so much larger than us have an interest in the success of Hungary. This is also my foreign policy philosophy. We must work to ensure that as many countries in the world as possible – especially the regionally dominant countries – have an interest in the success of Hungary: not simply to tolerate and accept it, and definitely not to turn against it, but they should have an interest in it themselves. So we must find our mutual interests, based on mutual respect, to cooperate with everyone, and then them there will be calm, peace and security in Hungary. And in that event the extent of our success will be solely dependent on us Hungarians, because external powers will not prevent us from deploying our talent and hard work.

What are the mutual interests that link these countries with Hungary?

Every people – including the Russians, the Germans and the Turks – has its security interests. We must cooperate with them. Turkey is a NATO member state and Germany is a NATO member state, so it’s easier with them. With Russia, however, we must make it clear – and on this we can refer back to history – that it’s not good for us to take part in military action against each other. Russians – either under the flag of the Soviet Union or the Tsarist Russian Empire – took part in military campaigns against Hungary; and, on the side of the Germans, we also took part in military campaigns which saw us making incursions on the Russians’ territories. It would be better to avoid this, and instead to develop relations between the states in which neither side feels that the other threatens it and its security. And then of course there are economic interests. We live in the modern world, and this is good for the Hungarian economy. If Hungarians didn’t have the opportunity to sell goods produced here on foreign markets, then our standard of living would be far worse. So on the whole, although it is accompanied by many disagreeable phenomena, today’s globalising world economy is favourable for Hungary because it increases the scope of our export opportunities, which need markets. So we want to export to Germany, to Turkey, and to Russia, and they want to sell their goods here; and we must regulate this in order to ensure that if possible they engage in the type of economic activity in Hungary which doesn’t damage Hungarian competitors, while we are able to export goods to them which we are able to produce in Hungary. And of course there’s still a sphere which we call “people’s diplomacy”. One consideration is the kind of relations governments have with each other, but the most important thing is what kind of relations people have with each other. Therefore it’s good that we provide scholarships to one another’s young people, for them also to travel to come here, and to get to know one another. It’s good if there’s cultural cooperation; for example, if certain cultural assets have been taken from us by them, it’s always good if we can get them back. If we can take part in joint cultural programmes, if we hold Hungarian days abroad and they hold their national days over here, these always bring people closer to one another and bring us closer to peace and stability.

Here in domestic politics the opposition parties used this event to say that in their eyes the Government’s foreign policy is wrong – and they’re questioning, for example, the need to receive Erdoğan and Putin. But in the European Union it seems as if there’s a dichotomy, because they’re saying that in fact it’s not a problem: it’s as if they’re glad that there’s someone who will speak to Erdoğan, because it’s in Europe’s interest for the refugees who’ve been there in Turkey for the past four or five years not to set out for the continent.

Well it’s not for me to judge the behaviour of the opposition, although the temptation is great. But undoubtedly the fact is that they don’t understand the situation. So I don’t think their behaviour betrays malice, but instead ignorance. So they can’t comprehend, or they don’t want to understand, that without Turkey it will be simply impossible to stop millions of migrants flowing towards Hungary and Europe. They don’t want to understand that President Erdoğan – who is undoubtedly strong, and has a constitutional position similar to the President of America, and so is a strong person – is someone whom many countries would like to remove from power. This would be in the interest of pro-immigration forces, because if there’s no strength, balance, security, predictability and order in Turkey, then the Turks will be unable to halt the migrants, and then the dream of the pro-immigration forces will come true: millions of migrants will arrive in Europe. Well, George Soros has written this in his famous plan, in which he has said that Europe needs one million more migrants every year. We are safe for as long as Erdoğan is president and Europe can come to an agreement with him, and for as long as this agreement means that he doesn’t open Turkey’s gates to migrants in the direction of Europe, but in the direction of Syria – on the road leading back to their homeland. So whether or not one likes the Turkish president, my advice is that we should dare to be Hungarian. The slogan of the post-communist government several years ago was “Let’s dare to be small”. This was the guiding star of Hungarian foreign policy. Instead of this, I suggest that we choose the direction of daring to be Hungarian. There are Hungarian interests, and we should pursue them. It’s worth discussing this with the opposition – or with anyone else, for that matter. For example, they’ve highlighted the situation of the Kurds. Well, this is where we come up against an example of ignorance, as Hungary provides a significant amount of support to Kurdish communities. For instance, we support Kurds living in Iraq financially, with school and hospital facilities, and indeed we’re training soldiers there. Two hundred Hungarian soldiers are training soldiers in the Kurd community in Iraq, in a situation which can hardly be described as safe. So I strive, and we strive, to cooperate with every ethnic group in the world, while at the same time not undermining Hungarian interests, but strengthening them – with the Turks where necessary, with the Kurds where necessary, and with the Russians where possible. I think that this is complicated, and I understand if the opposition find it difficult to take it all in – it’s a complicated mechanism. I’m glad that Hungarian public opinion seems to be broadly supportive of this nation-based foreign policy, and despite traffic disruption and intellectual complexities I think that on the whole they support and accept nation-based foreign policy.

In addition to Erdoğan and Putin, this year you’ve also met Chancellor Merkel and President Trump. So do all of them have an interest in Hungary’s success, and has Hungary’s ability to assert its interests grown, here in the centre of Europe?

I’ve met the Chinese leaders and I shall also meet Japan’s leaders; but I cannot say that when they get up and go to bed at night the American president, the Russian president, the German chancellor or the Turkish president are thinking about what they can do in the interest of Hungary. That’s not the situation. But if Hungary’s affairs come into their field of vision, their initial reaction is that it’s a friendly, cooperative, reliable country. And if this is the starting-point, then on every issue under debate it will be possible to find solutions that are favourable for Hungary. Incidentally, Hungary’s economic policy is strongly oriented towards creating markets, opening markets for products made in Hungary – everywhere from America to Japan, from Turkey to Russia; and meanwhile we welcome investments from abroad which on the whole strengthen the Hungarian economy. The Americans perform very well, the Russians are finding their feet, and the Germans have always been hugely important. Yesterday we were also able to sign several economic agreements with Turkey: for example, gas will arrive from the direction of Turkey, and this will increase Hungary’s energy security. So on the whole I can honestly say that I enjoy this area of my work, which involves finding a path through a complex international constellation which Hungary needs follow. Of course we shouldn’t be blowing our own trumpet, but I think that in comparison with the earlier foreign policy approach – which was based not on the nation, but on a sense of inferiority – what is happening now is far better aligned with the instincts of the Hungarian people. So we are Hungarians, we are proud of our country, and we are proud of who we are. This country has a political philosophy which coincides with the personal philosophy of life shared by many of us. We can sum this up in a single expression: eye level. When a Hungarian meets another person, they don’t like to look upwards or downwards: they like to keep the relationship at eye level. And then we’ll see what life brings: whether a particular person deserves recognition from us or disappoints us will determine whether we look up to them or down on them. But the starting-point is always eye level, and everyone deserves one chance. I believe that this is very deeply embedded in the Hungarian character, and its modern-day version is what we call a civic mentality: an individual must always be judged on the basis of his or her deeds and virtues. And so in foreign policy also, this eye-level approach is an appropriately modest approach, but at the same time a self-confident one.

You said we need nation-based foreign policy. It seems that this has now succeeded with the joint NATO-Ukraine declaration. Hungary said it wouldn’t sign this declaration, and would veto it unless its contents reflected the position of the Hungarian government in relation to the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia. The Ukrainians changed their position after the deadline had passed.

Here we see two coinciding issues. One is that there are clearly national interests in Transcarpathia. At least 150,000 Hungarians live in Transcarpathia, and although the members of their community have never moved from their villages or towns, over the past one hundred years these Hungarians have had successive citizenship of five or six different states – and in some areas even of seven states. This is a vulnerable situation, and we are sensitive to what is happening to our compatriots who don’t live in territories within the Hungarian borders, and we will do everything we can to stand up for them. Because if we don’t stand up for them, then who will? This is an isolated ethnic group in a difficult situation, which has every reason to insist on receiving the support of the Hungarian government of the day. This has not always been the case. In Hungary there are tendencies with regards to policy on Hungarian communities abroad: there is policy based on national foundations, which is what we are pursuing; and then there is – and I’ll try to express it without offending them – policy on Hungarian communities abroad which is based on international foundations. For instance, there is a presidential election in Romania now, and [the Hungarian political party] Momentum is not supporting the candidate of Hungarians in Romania, but a Romanian candidate. How can I put this? You can do something like this, but I’d just like to point out that this is a completely different world, this is a different mentality: this is a foreign policy or policy on Hungarian communities abroad based on the international cosmopolitan beliefs and worldview of the SZDSZ [the defunct party the Alliance of Free Democrats]. Our approach is not like that, because we stand on national foundations, and so we also represent the position of the Hungarian people in debates related to NATO, and to Ukraine-NATO relations. But there’s something even more important than this, because Ukraine signed an agreement with NATO in which it sought to establish closer relations with NATO. In this it agreed that in the coming years it would not undermine the rights of the minorities living on its territory – including the rights of Hungarians. This means that they may seek closer relations with NATO because they’re prepared to share the same values and worldview in declaring that minorities within their country’s borders must be given what they’re entitled to. Ukraine agreed to this. And now, of course, the Hungarians are bearing the brunt of the Ukrainians’ failure to honour this undertaking. But this is not just a Hungarian issue, because how could we possibly want to cooperate with someone who fails to comply with a clear stipulation in an agreement signed a year and a half ago? This is more than a Hungarian issue: this concerns NATO’s internal cohesion and NATO’s internal solidity. And so when we speak up, we shouldn’t only speak up for Hungarians, but also for NATO’s cohesion and its cohesive strength. Nonetheless, I trust that change will occur, because for many years there was an anti-Hungarian administration in Ukraine, and now there is a new president. The formation of a new government is taking a long time, but progress is being made. I trust that the new president will not pursue an anti-Hungarian policy, and that instead we will be able to develop close Ukrainian-Hungarian cooperation. This would be good for the Ukrainians, it would be good for Hungary, and it would be good for the Hungarians in Transcarpathia.

The relevant member of the departing European Commission has compiled the next seven-year budget for Member States of the European Union. Many don’t like it, and the V4 have even said that the budget is unfair. What are their alternative proposals?

We represent very simple principles, but in international politics – as in real life – the simplest arguments tend to be the strongest and most important. One such principle is that if something works, then we shouldn’t ruin it or indeed try to repair it. There are two areas of success in European politics. One of them is agricultural policy: the EU spends a very large amount of money on this in every country – including Hungary, but also France, Germany and Poland. The other one is what is called, in “Brusselese”, the Cohesion Policy. In Hungarian I’d call it a policy promoting integration: the economic integration of poorer countries. These are the two areas of success. These have worked, and so we don’t want them to be changed in the next seven years – because instead of annual budgets, this is a budget for seven years. Other countries would also like to launch important new policies, such as military policy and climate policy, or other initiatives in scientific research development. We say that this is all right, let’s start new ones – but not at the expense of the old ones, which we should keep. This is the first just cause, if you like, that we stand for. The other difficult situation is caused by Britain’s departure from the European Union. I regard this as a fact, although there are still internal fights and some pushing and pulling. Despite all this, we should prepare ourselves for Britain’s departure. The British have been paying a lot of money into the EU budget, and that will be missed. The question is whether or not we replace that missing money. Should we all pay more in, so that the sum remains the same? Or should everyone reduce their own budgets in proportion to the amount lost as a result of the departure of the British? In my view it would be fair to implement a pro rata reduction, but there are countries which don’t want this, and are busy plotting to ensure that funding provided to some countries is reduced more than funding to them is reduced. This is not fair – particularly if they want to reduce the sums and terms of eligibility for poorer countries, while retaining – or even increasing – those for richer countries. If we reduce these amounts because we are forced to do so, we certainly mustn’t do this at the expense of the poorer countries. These are the broad, general principles. I’d also like to say that not all is well with the contributions, because there is a special accounting system in the EU. If we look at the total gross domestic product of each country and calculate its contribution as a proportion of GDP, we find that there are countries which are richer than us, but which pay less than Hungary: Sweden, for instance, pays in less than we do. This is due to a special internal accounting system which was introduced by Britain. Now that Britain is leaving, we’d like to put an end to these special arrangements and make the EU’s budget fairer. And there are around another half a dozen debates like this. Next year we’ll have the Croatian presidency of the EU, followed by that of the Germans. I don’t think that we’ll be able to come to an agreement in the first six months of the year, during the Croatian presidency, but we could do during the German presidency. So I believe that the EU’s next seven-year budget could be adopted in the second half of next year, and it could be fairer than the previous one.

This week the new Mayor of Budapest attended the Government’s weekly Cabinet meeting. Do you now have a better idea of which projects are supported by the Mayor and the Budapest Assembly, and which ones they don’t want to build?

We’re in an interesting political situation. We’ve had municipal elections in which the government parties sustained painful losses, even though they won the elections overall. This clearly shows that the opposition must be taken seriously, so there’s a fierce political battle in Hungary. Naturally this won’t prevent the opposition from continuing to play the dictatorship card: they pretend that there’s a dictatorship here, while in the meantime they’ve won municipal elections in some major settlements, including Budapest. This in itself is more than comical. Fortunately nothing like this happened during the Mayor’s visit: he didn’t play the dictatorship card – at least not at the meeting. He adopted a serious approach to our joint affairs, which is what the people of Budapest deserve. There’s a long list of Budapest developments which we compiled with István Tarlós [the previous mayor of Budapest]. I think that the past nine years can be seen as a golden period in the life of the capital. It might seem somewhat arrogant to make such a statement so soon, because we must leave something for the historians. But now that István Tarlós has left office, it’s perhaps worth taking stock. And I can say that, compared with all earlier periods, Budapest has had an outstanding nine years, because the capital was able to come to an agreement with the Government on the way forward for its development. Budapest is home to the people of Budapest, and Mayor István Tarlós, too, represented this. But it is also the heart of the nation and the capital of the nation – just as, say, Jerusalem is for the Jewish people: it is unique, and every Hungarian must come to Budapest at least once in their life, because after all Budapest is the capital of the nation. So in this sense our task is not only to make the lives of those living here more agreeable, but at the same time this city must also fulfil a national mission; this latter objective is mostly represented by the Government. I believe that the Mayor – both the former one and the new one – understood this. Naturally this requires developments: for Budapest to truly be the capital of the nation it must develop. The debates are about how and where it develops. And now that there has been a change of direction in Budapest – with the return of almost all the people from the old left-wing government – they represent a worldview that is different from that of István Tarlós. And at times like this we must agree on a list of developments. I asked the Mayor about some fifteen to twenty developments, about whether or not he wants them or would like them. This is because we mustn’t allow a bitter feud to develop in Budapest politics, with the Government wanting to do something in Budapest which is opposed by the people living in a given district or the capital as a whole. That is not a normal way to live one’s life. Therefore I’d like to reach agreement on these matters, and for that the only thing I can do is to accept the decision of the Budapest Assembly and the Mayor of Budapest.

Did you have to remove anything from the list?

I had to remove many items, which was very painful for me. That morning was not pleasant for us. We’ve had to give up on some dreams. For instance, the Liget Project and all its developments is currently the largest cultural development programme in the entire Western world. And I’m speaking literally, and this is no exaggeration: it’s the largest cultural development programme in the entire Western world, from America all the way to the Balkans. There’s nothing like it anywhere else. It’s unique, and with it we’re winning every award around the world.

That’s what I was going to say: it’s already won very many awards.

Everyone comes here amazed that there’s a country in the 21st century whose culture, language and artistic assets are so important to it that it’s prepared to carry out a development involving enormous financial sacrifices. Now this has been brought to a halt. I’m not saying that they’ve wrecked it, because hope springs eternal, but now the Mayor has told me to remove the plans for the National Gallery from the list, and also to remove from the list the plans for the House of Hungarian Science and Innovation. This is an old building which was destroyed, and which we wanted to rebuild – so in historical terms we could also have made amends for this. And he also told me to remove from the list the plans for reconstruction of the Városliget Theatre, which in a previous age was a beautiful theatre in the Secessionist style. It was a pleasant surprise for me that when asked about reconstruction of the Regnum Marianum Church – which was destroyed with explosives by the communists – he was more receptive, saying that we could talk about that later. But this is how the Liget Project has stalled. There will be something, because what has already started cannot be demolished, as the capital couldn’t afford that, and perhaps wouldn’t want to cover such costs anyway. But it’s certain that the Western world’s largest cultural programme has been brought to an end – or at least has come to a halt.

But Debrecen has offered to build both the House of Innovation and the athletics stadium, which would mean that Hungary could host the world championships.

Of course people also live outside the capital, they are also Hungarians, and they would also like to live well – that’s not only true of the people of Budapest. So naturally the people of the provinces are right. In Hungary this is an old debate, which I’m reluctant to revive because I believe in national cooperation, and wouldn’t want to sharpen the division between the capital and the provinces. A great many things can – and must – be implemented outside Budapest, but after all this is the capital of the nation, and so Budapest is close to our hearts. So those things which should be implemented here would indeed be better here than in the provinces. Naturally we will have talks with the athletics association about what should happen if Budapest says no. The Mayor admitted that they’re not well-disposed to this project: he said that if Budapest City Assembly were to vote on this tomorrow, they would reject plans to host the World Athletics Championships and to build the athletics stadium. But he said that we should wait until the end of the month. We can’t wait that long, because we must come to an agreement with the international athletics association by the 15th of this month; but there are a few days left – maybe even a week or two – and the Budapest Assembly may change its mind. Very many people have mobilised, because although there’s the Government, the Budapest Assembly and the Mayor, there are also people. From what I can see, a very large number of people – ten to twenty thousand – who have intellectual or cultural interests have signed a petition stating that we should implement the Liget Project. And there’s also mobilisation among Hungarian sports enthusiasts. After all, athletics is the fifth most successful discipline in the history of Hungarian sport, and a basic sport which forms the core of every child’s physical exercise. So they would also like to influence the decision-makers. There are some exciting weeks ahead of us.

We’ve very little time left, half a minute. Tourism – having mentioned the capital as the flagship of Hungarian tourism. It has achieved outstanding results, and it should be developed further.

Well, among the items removed from our list of developments was something that wasn’t raised by the Mayor of Budapest, but by the Mayor of the 11th district, who came up with the idea that there isn’t really a need for the “superhospital” project planned to be built in his district, and which is already being designed. Regarding this I need to try some more things, because I find it hard to believe that an election programme that started as a ban on stadiums would turn into a ban on hospitals. That wasn’t the on the table. So if Budapest is safe, if healthcare provision is good, if public order is stable, if the city’s transport system is good, if our city is attractive, if there are cultural attractions, then there’s a reason to come to Hungary, and then tourism also develops. These are all interrelated. If Budapest and Hungary were like every other country, then who would be interested in us? People from all over the world come here because we’re not like the rest of the world: we’re Hungarians. This is Hungary, and this is Budapest. I believe that our attractiveness is in direct proportion to the extent that we can showcase Hungarian culture, the Hungarian way of thinking and mentality, and the accumulated achievements of our ancestors going back more than thirty generations. This is why people come here. As a country, Hungary is more Hungarian than it was, it is much prouder of itself than it was earlier, and so we’ve also become more interesting for the world. Furthermore, I think that for Hungarians tourism is an expression of patriotism. In Hungarian the word for tourism [turizmus] sounds rather ugly to us, and this is why we don’t completely understand it; but it’s wholly Hungarian equivalent is the word for hospitality [vendéglátás]. We invite guests to our country. Why? Because we’re proud of our homeland, of our home, of everything that we have. So I believe that for us – who, due to our language, live in peculiar isolation in the world – it’s especially important to receive guests in Hungary and to be their hosts; and if they’re even prepared to pay us for showing them Hungary, then we can have our cake and eat it too. Today the tourism sector contributes more than 10 per cent of Hungary’s total economic output: more than 10 per cent! I’ve asked for 16 per cent: some years ago, when we set up the tourism agency, we agreed that we should try to reach 16 per cent – which would be unprecedented, incidentally. We’re moving in that direction, with more than four hundred thousand Hungarians supporting their families from the income received from tourism and the hospitality industry. So not only in terms of macroeconomic figures, but also in terms of everyday life this is an extremely important sector, which is growing well; and it is the Government’s intention for this growth to continue. I’m grateful to those who work in tourism because they’ve given a superb account of themselves – including over the past two or three years.

Thank you. You have been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.