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

Katalin Nagy: On Wednesday the President of the European Commission presented the Commission’s sixth proposal for sanctions against Russia, which includes an oil embargo. By Thursday afternoon the Hungarian prime minister had already sent his written response, giving an opinion on the proposal. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is in the studio. Good morning. Is it so obvious that we cannot accept this proposal? 

Good morning, and thank you for inviting me again. I had thought that if I won [the recent election] I’d only be back here after the formation of my government; but as we know from dyke keeper Pelikán [a character in the satirical Hungarian film “A tanú”]: “the international situation is escalating”. And this really is serious: the war, which threatens security in general, is now directly threatening energy security. It’s in this context that we need to interpret the Commission’s proposal for stopping oil deliveries from Russia. There are several problems with it. The first is that a couple of weeks ago, at a two-day prime ministerial summit in Versailles – because the French hold the presidency of the Union now – we established a consensus, the Versailles consensus. This featured our written declaration that the only steps that could be taken would be ones which take account of the fact that different countries have different energy mixes, and which take account of the fact that every country has the sovereign right to determine the energy mix of its economy: the relative proportions of oil, gas, nuclear, hydroelectric and so on. Without having consulted anyone at prime ministerial level, the Commission has come up with a proposal that breaks this Versailles consensus, because it seeks to impose a single rule on everyone, without taking account of national interests. This is the initiative of the President of the Commission, it’s her responsibility, and she’s broken the European unity that was established at Versailles after two days of negotiations through the day and night. So the problem is that the President of the Commission has – deliberately or unwittingly – dismantled the European unity that it took great effort to create. And in a time of war this has serious consequences. Now, as for the content of this proposal, it’s deeply flawed, because it ignores the fact that there are countries in the European Union which have completely different attributes. Of course those with coasts and seaports can import oil by ship from anywhere in the world, but there are countries that don’t have sea coasts. We’d have one if it hadn’t been taken from us, but we don’t have it now. So Russian oil – or any kind of oil – can only come to Hungary through pipelines, with one half of the pipeline in Russia, one end in Russia, and the other end in Hungary. This is a given. We cannot accept a proposal that ignores this fact. In its present form, this proposal is tantamount to dropping a nuclear bomb on the Hungarian economy.

Yes, but even if they give us until the end of 2023 to resolve this issue?

Let’s see why that isn’t a solution either. First of all, that oil has to come here. It’s possible for oil to come from another direction: not from the East, but from the South. But for that to happen, Croatia would have to significantly increase its pipeline capacity on one section. The second thing is that the refinery operating in Hungary – the Százhalombatta refinery, which is similar to the Bratislava refinery, also part of the MOL conglomerate – is designed specifically and exclusively for Russian oil. So it’s not as if we’ll suddenly start refining another type of oil instead of the present type. So yesterday I called a meeting of all our energy experts, to get a clear picture of the matter; and it became obvious that this would require a major reorganisation of the refineries. This could cost Hungary hundreds of billions of forints. So the EU is asking us to spend hundreds of billions of forints to convert a refinery, after which the oil coming into it will be more expensive than the price we’re currently familiar with. This isn’t a sensible proposal in itself, but let’s put that aside for the moment. If we want to switch to a different oil refinery system, we’ll have to spend several hundred billion forints. So from a Hungarian point of view this is something we currently have no need for, and someone will have to pay for it.

The President said that they’d help. But how?

Yes. We’ll be happy to discuss this. So if we see a proposal that satisfies Hungarian interests, we’ll of course be happy to discuss it. So in connection with the oil embargo we don’t want to make a decision about the Russians or the Ukrainians, but about Hungary. And the proposal that’s on the table creates a problem, a Hungarian problem, and doesn’t suggest any way of solving it. From the point of view of Hungarian interests it’s unacceptable. So returning to my earlier point, after we’ve rebuilt our refinery or refineries, then comes the question of the cost of the new oil being refined in a different way. Now the Commission’s proposal would mean that tomorrow morning petrol would cost 700 forints per litre and diesel 800 forints. That’s quite apart from industrial production plants, some of which would go bankrupt and close down, causing high unemployment. This is a nuclear bomb that they want to drop on the Hungarian economy. This is something we cannot accept. So in order to be able to switch to a new oil supply system, we not only need to solve the oil issue; we also need to modernise the entire Hungarian energy system so that it can produce energy more cheaply, we need to build Paks [the extension to the nuclear power plant], and we need to increase solar energy capacity. So here we’re talking about a very serious investment, an investment of several trillion forints; because we not only need to rebuild production, but also the delivery and pipeline system – everything. We’ve made precise calculations for all of this, and we know exactly what we need. First of all, we need five years. For this whole process to be complete, we need five years. One year or a year and a half won’t be of any use to us. Then we need money to convert the refineries, and we need trillions of forints to convert the Hungarian energy delivery and supply system. We’ll have the money for that, because the European Union will give us the money – if it really does give it to us. But so far we only have this money on paper, because it still hasn’t been given to us. Until it’s given to us we won’t be able to start the work on this scale; or we’ll have to find money from elsewhere – from the money markets, for example. And then, in four or five years, this whole process can be completed. I think it’s worth thinking about whether there’s any sense in such a costly transformation that can only start functioning four or five years from now, when the war is the cause of it all – the war that’s happening now. So these are aspects that the prime ministers need to discuss among themselves again; and if we want to change the consensus that was built earlier, then we can do that unanimously. In this situation Hungary’s opinion carries just as much weight as that of the larger countries. We need a unanimous decision. There will be no Hungarian “yes” until the Hungarian issue is resolved. So I’ve sent this proposal back to the President by return of post for revision, and we’re waiting for a new proposal.

We haven’t seen an impact assessment from the leadership of the European Union. Incidentally, Hungary isn’t the only country in this situation, in such a vulnerable position, because the pipeline system has developed in this way throughout history, and it was also clear where we were going to get our oil and gas from. There are several other countries in this situation. Can we count on other countries being willing to veto this?

In the end we usually find ourselves alone. There are some countries that sometimes speak out, but when it comes to people standing up and saying “return to sender”, then, well, often – I’m not saying always, but often – we’re left on our own. You see, I don’t make a habit of threatening to use the veto: I avoid the word, I avoid the expression, because I don’t want to confront the European Union, but cooperate. We have an interest in constructive cooperation and dialogue, but this is only possible if our interests are taken into account. It’s not acceptable for them to not give a damn about us, and put forward proposals without consideration of Hungarian interests – proposals that run counter to previous agreements. There’s nothing else I can do: it must be sent back, it must be revised, and we’ll wait for their new proposal.

If the EU were to adopt it, it would obviously jeopardise the reductions in household utility bills.

That would be the end of the reductions. So if we’d accepted this now, if I hadn’t sent it back yesterday, then the reductions in utility bills would disappear by Monday. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but by the end of the year the reductions in utility bills would be no more. This is because the reductions in utility bills are a very difficult financial construction, they’re calculated with scientific precision. The financial calculations enabling us to protect families and help them would be completely overturned. So I can tell your listeners for sure that the reductions in utility bills will come to an end if the Hungarian question isn’t resolved, and either an oil embargo is introduced or there’s a gas embargo – because of course the cat will emerge from the bag, as that’s where they want to get to in the end. So if those embargoes are introduced, then the reductions in utility bills will come to an end. The battle I’m waging now is the battle to defend the cuts in Hungarian utility bills.

Fuel is becoming more expensive, gas will be more expensive for industry and for heating, and the end of reductions in utility bills is in prospect. Experts are also saying that there may not even be energy carriers: that there will be shortages. So what will happen to security, to energy security? 

This is the biggest problem. So now we’re talking about how much we’ll have. But the fundamental question is not how much it will cost, but whether it will exist at all. And what the President of the Commission has just initiated could lead to a situation in which there simply won’t be any fuel in Hungary, and far fewer oil-derived products which are important to industry. Therefore, from a Hungarian perspective, I repeat: return to sender!

This is the sixth package of sanctions. The European Union has already imposed five. What have these five sanctions packages resulted in?

Unfortunately, even your full transmission time up until midnight wouldn’t be enough to discuss all the elements of that. Hungary has a completely different view on this matter. Even in the 2014–15 period, when we introduced sanctions against the Russians due to the annexation of Crimea, I held the view that the way we were doing it hurt us more than the Russians. That’s still what I think. So the sanctions we’ve imposed so far are doing more harm to the European economy than they are to Russia. In principle I don’t think that what we’re doing is effective; but Hungary is the size that it is, it has only so much influence, and in the European Union there are twenty-six other countries besides us. The other twenty-six either haven’t expressed an opinion or have expressed a contrary opinion. Now, if you’re on a motorway and you see everyone else coming at you head on, you’d better ask yourself whether you should change direction. That’s the situation now. So, on such a huge issue, big countries like France, Germany, the Scandinavians and our friends the Poles are fans of a sanctions policy: they want it, they’re demanding it, and they’re obviously very excited to see further steps, because they’re convinced that it will help in the fight against Russia.

Well, it hasn’t helped so far: they haven’t been able to stop the aggression. 

Yes, but that’s what they believe. At a time like this, I think that Hungary must reserve its veto – its ability to block initiatives – for the issues that are most important from Hungary’s point of view. Otherwise we’d lose every one of our friends and partners in the European Union. So, against my best convictions – but in a way that still represented Hungary’s interests – I was willing to agree to the first five packages of sanctions. But from the time of the first one we made it clear that there would be a red line that they shouldn’t approach, because on that we couldn’t agree with them: that red line is an energy embargo. Then of course it turned out that they went on, they went further, and crossed that line. We said that sanctions on coal would be all right, because they don’t affect Hungary; but now we really have reached a red line, a double line, because the oil and gas embargo would ruin us. But they’re just continuing. And that’s the point when one has to call a halt to proceedings. There’s another matter on which I feel that Hungary must go as far as an open dispute if it has to. This is the element in this sixth package of sanctions that seeks to place the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, on the sanctions list. I’ve just received a letter from the Orthodox congregation and community in Hungary asking me to do everything I can to oppose this. So now we have the big issue, on oil, but there’s another issue which in principle is perhaps even more important, although of a different dimension in terms of economic importance: the issue of Patriarch Kirill. We shall not support the inclusion of church leaders on a sanctions list, because that would affect the religious freedom of communities in Hungary, which is sacrosanct.

I saw a video clip of German chancellor Olaf Scholz, at an open-air forum. People were demonstrating against him and against sanctions. He shouted back at one of the demonstrators, saying that he didn’t want sanctions, but asked them whether they felt sorry for the Ukrainians. Is that what this is really about?

Well, from Budapest it’s difficult to follow the ups and downs of German domestic politics.

But won’t they perhaps ask us: “Don’t you Hungarians feel sorry for the Ukrainians?”

Well, I can answer that more easily. That’s what they’re saying. Now, every country has its own historical experience. This is a war. We have experience of war, so at the outset we need to clarify who is at war with whom, and what our relationship is to it. The Hungarian understanding is that this is a war between Russia and Ukraine. We don’t see the sides as equivalent, because this war shouldn’t have started, and the reason it started was that the Russians attacked Ukraine. So we’re not confusing the positions of the opposing sides. But this is still a Russian-Ukrainian war. It’s not our war. It’s not Hungary’s war. Now, when a war breaks out in which we’re not directly involved, there’s the question of how we stand in relation to it. Now in such situations there are countries – and on occasions in its history Hungary has been one of them – which choose sides, which support one side or the other. But my view is that Hungary’s historical experience and the Hungarian mentality tell us that we shouldn’t choose sides, but choose a standpoint. It’s necessary to identify Hungary’s interest, what’s in line with Hungarian interests, and also what’s morally right. This position must be identified and represented. We have this position, and it’s called peace. So our position is peace: we’re not on the side of one belligerent or the other; we’re on the side of peace. Every step that I’m taking, that the Hungarian government is taking, is aimed at reaching an immediate ceasefire as soon as possible, and at starting peace negotiations as soon as possible. In fact this was our position even before the war, which is why I went to Moscow on a peace mission to try to achieve some results by taking the side of peace. Well, we can see how far we got: we didn’t succeed. It’s perhaps important to note that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t succeed: neither the French president nor the German chancellor succeeded. So we’ve failed to keep the latest events in European history on the side of peace. But there’s no reason to abandon the position of peace, and so I believe that we must fight and struggle to ensure that the position of peace prevails. And Hungary must stay out of this war. I will directly say that I am not prepared to follow the interests of America, Germany or any other European country – not even those of our best friends – and regard them as the interests of Hungary, if they are in fact contrary to Hungary’s interests. What we would rather say outright is that we don’t think like that, that this isn’t what we want, and that we want to stay out of this war. We have hearts, we too were brought into this world by mothers, and we see people’s suffering. Hungary is providing the greatest amount of humanitarian aid in its history, and we’ve accepted 600,000 refugees – almost 700,000 – from Ukraine, without any reservations. They need to be provided for, we’re providing for them, and we’re providing education for the children. At a donors’ conference in Warsaw we’ve just pledged 37 million euros, which we’ll activate for aid to Ukrainian refugees. We’re also happy to build hospitals and schools in Ukraine to help them. The whole of Hungarian society has mobilised, so I’m not just talking about the Hungarian government. Hungarians have put aside how Ukrainians have treated Hungarians in previous years. Now we see people suffering, and now we don’t want to engage in political debates, we don’t need to discuss why they’ve taken away the possibility of education in Hungarians’ mother tongue, and why they’re abusing Hungarians simply because they’re Hungarians. We’ll discuss that later. Now we see people fleeing, people – especially women and children – suffering, and we’ll help them in whatever way we can. We’re on the side of peace and we’re helping.

Interestingly, many European politicians are also saying that they’re on the side of peace, but at the same time they’re sending weapons. So it’s very difficult to explain the old truth that those who send weapons don’t want peace.

Hungary isn’t sending weapons, because in our view that isn’t a step towards peace, but a step away from it. Furthermore, we believe that whoever sends weapons is bringing trouble down on their own heads – especially if the country at war is their neighbour, as Ukraine is Hungary’s neighbour. Now Transcarpathia has come under fire. So Transcarpathia is now within range, because someone – not us – has either been transporting weapons, or is about to do so. And the Russians will target transport hubs – especially railway hubs – where such transhipment and deliveries are taking place. This isn’t the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last. So anyone who is now transporting weapons into Ukraine is bringing Ukraine within range and making a target of Ukraine and the people living there. Hungary wants to do the opposite. For us, Ukraine – and within Ukraine, Transcarpathia – is particularly important. It’s important that Transcarpathia isn’t destroyed, that lives aren’t destroyed in Transcarpathia, and that the war is kept away from our borders if possible.

In these circumstances you have to conduct talks on the formation of a new government. At what stage are these talks? Are there any signs of change, or how the structure of the Government is changing? 

I’m in the middle of the forest, so I can’t see backwards or forwards very clearly; but in this task I know why I am where I am. I’ll tell you about it when the time comes. The way we form governments – the way Christian democratic national governments are formed – is by trying to understand what challenges we’ll be facing over the next four years. We’re facing a migrant crisis, and my assessment is that it’s here to stay, with pressure increasing from the South. The embargo against Russia will exclude Russian grain from the world market, the war will exclude Ukrainian grain, there will be famine in many parts of the world from which migrants have already arrived in Europe, and this pressure will increase. I want Hungary to be able to protect itself, and so we need to strengthen our defences against migration pressure. That’s the first threat. The pandemic hasn’t passed yet, and it’s become clear that we’re not prepared: the whole world is unprepared for this type of pandemic. If there’s a new one we have to be prepared for it, and so the pandemic remains part of our thinking and part of our governmental work. And thirdly there’s a war. So a dangerous world confronts us. All these dangers are arriving together. We must form a government that can protect Hungary against them. The agreements I come to with all ministers and state secretaries are always for a four-year term. I’ve thanked everyone for their work, everyone has done their work with integrity and honesty, and I’m personally very proud to have been able to work with them. Now we’re forming a new government, and no formal claim for membership of it is provided by membership of the previous government; because that story is at an end and now a new story is beginning. This work isn’t simply a job, but a vocation and a service; and the homeland must be served by providing responses appropriate to the kind of challenges that emerge. This is why I want to significantly reshape the structure of the Government. We’re going to have a government or ministerial structure which is completely different from the one that the electorate has known in the past. I also want to bring in a lot of new people, so there will be very many profound changes – just as there have been many profound changes in the world. And Hungary must adapt to this – first of all in the structure of government and secondly in decisions related to personnel. So I have to look at a lot of aspects, and as I see it we’ll emerge from the forest by the end of May at the latest, which is when I can introduce the members of the Hungarian government to the public.

Are the prospective ministers you’ve been talking to ready to take on the task, or are you having to look around?

There are some I’ve managed to reach an agreement with, some I haven’t, and some I’m still negotiating with. No one can play hard to get, because there’s no greater honour than to be able to agree to work in the government of Hungary and serve one’s country. I’m not talking about the media and the limelight, but I’m talking about the fact that this work is perhaps the most responsible work in this country. When I say this I’m not just congratulating myself. This work involves enormous responsibility, only the most outstanding people are asked to do it, and every person and all their descendants – even to the seventh generation – should feel honoured to be linked to the functioning of a Hungarian government. I, for one, certainly feel that way, and I expect my fellow ministers to not only carry out their work, but to feel the same way. At the same time, Hungary is a country that’s extremely rich in talent, there’s no shortage of political talent; and if we really needed to, I think the intellectual talent pool of the Hungarian right would be enough to form two or three complete governments. The question is not whether there are enough people, but whether we can find the right people for the task facing Hungary over the next four years. I hope that we’ll succeed in doing so.

So when are you coming here next? When will the Government be formed?

My plan is that as Prime Minister I’ll be able to take the oath in Parliament on 16 May. I hope to have a majority for this. Then I’ll need another seven or eight days to present the members of the Government to the Members of Parliament in the following parliamentary sitting, sometime between the 20 and 30 May.

Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.