Hungary made an early commitment to using Russia’s Sputnik coronavirus vaccine, and the strategy is paying off. In an interview with FOCUS Online, Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, defends his national vaccination policy by saying that the EU has been slow to act. Orbán also unequivocally rejects European immigration policy, which he says has “turned the Mediterranean into a cemetery.”
Ulrich Reitz: Prime Minister, Hungary is the first EU Member State to use the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Aren’t you concerned about a “Sputnik shock”?
Not at all. In a pandemic, it’s the duty of politicians to live up to the trust placed in them, and to shoulder responsibility for protecting their citizens’ lives and health. Therefore we must fight the pandemic and procure as many vaccines as possible, as quickly as possible. Those who gain time, gain lives and gain freedom. There’s no such thing as an Eastern vaccine or a Western vaccine: there are only good vaccines and bad vaccines. The Hungarian authorities guarantee the efficacy of vaccines.
Aren’t you bothered about where a vaccine comes from, or who the manufacturer is?
No. If the Hungarian authorities find a vaccine to be safe and effective, they will permit its use. From that moment on, for me it’s a Hungarian vaccine, with which I can save the lives of Hungarians.
Relations between the European Union and Russia are rather tense. Is it possible to separate the use of the vaccine from this conflict?
Yes. Human lives and health stand above politics – and even above geopolitics. It’s irresponsible to turn vaccines into a political issue, and to let people die simply because there are political objections to a particular manufacturer. Furthermore, under communism we were vaccinated with Soviet vaccines as children; and, as you can see, we’re fine. Looking at things objectively, in the East there was a culture of vaccination. As a result, polio could be defeated much earlier in the East than in the West. Meanwhile, during the Cold War Western states didn’t accept Russian vaccines for ideological reasons
The European Union decided on a centrally-organised vaccine procurement process for its Member States, which in itself was a political decision in opposition to so-called “vaccine nationalism”. What’s your assessment of this decision by Brussels?
It’s now clear that it was a bad decision. The United States, Britain, Israel and Serbia are far ahead of us EU Member States. But there’s no use crying over spilt milk: the Commission should do what they have to do; we won’t hinder their efforts, and we’ll support them whenever we can. But we shall exercise our national powers, and provide for ourselves.
Why do you think that the EU decision doesn’t apply to you?
Brussels is following its own logic. They don’t have a strong enough sense of the importance of speed, so they’re slow in issuing permits and have no power over suppliers. The decisions of the EU don’t preclude independent national action, and that’s an opportunity we’re taking.
In its vaccine procurement, the European Union has been guided by political considerations – indeed many have called them “ideological” considerations – based on the principle “Europe First”. What’s your opinion on this?
We don’t exactly know what’s happening in Brussels, or in the heads of the Brussels bureaucrats. But I do know that every person who dies is someone’s father, mother, brother, sister or child. This consideration overrides European politics. The absolute priority is the health and freedom of our citizens.
With regard to the procurement of vaccines, Brussels has sent the following message: “Look, we’re stronger together than as individual Member States.” In other words, Europe functions as a united, centralised state. Are you convinced by this strategy?
No. The value of any strategy lies in how successful it is. In those areas in which joint action brings about success, we must take joint action; wherever a national path brings about success, that is the one which must be pursued. We’ve sought to do something together that we could have managed more successfully on an individual basis – take a look at the examples of Britain or Serbia.
The governments of many countries believe that we can only compete successfully against the United States, China and Russia if we join forces. What do you think of that idea?
Why against them? For 26 years of my life I lived through the era of the Cold War. Believe me, it wasn’t good. We Hungarians always came off badly. I don’t support those who want to revive the politics of the Cold War. For Europe, Russia and China should instead be seen as a great opportunity. We must seek forms of cooperation that further our interests.
Is Europe on the right track in terms of economic development?
Here, in Central Europe, things are going well. All our economic indicators are excellent, and our national budget is as it should be. Our work-oriented policies have helped us towards almost reaching full employment, and we’re also making good progress in the sphere of digitalisation. In the West there are too many economic policies reminiscent of socialism, with tax increases, complicated regulations, and measures disadvantaging capital and enterprise. The EU should do far more to promote improved competitiveness; but regrettably its share of global economic production is declining, and we find this alarming.
The main point of conflict between you and the EU is immigration. Why are you so opposed to the distribution of immigrants among EU Member States?
Because it’s based on a wrong-headed concept. We must take help to where the problems are, not bring those problems to Europe. The EU is creating illusions in the minds of people living in poorer countries. This is why we established the “Hungary Helps” programme. They want a European life and they believe that here they’ll be welcomed with open arms, but in fact they’ll end up in the hands of people smugglers. Europe’s wrong-headed policies have generated a pull factor that has turned the Mediterranean into a cemetery.
Are we right to think that you would like the targeted management of immigration?
Hungary wants to address demographic challenges by supporting families and enacting strong family policy measures, not by inviting in immigrants. The Germans want to force their own pro-immigration policy on us. I have to reject that.
Regarding the treatment of refugees, Brussels cites international law. Do you think that this is wrong?
No, the Geneva Conventions exist, and they must be respected. But Brussels goes further than that, and that’s a mistake.
You once said that Brexit should have been avoided. How?
I’ll give an example: when the British prime minister wanted someone other than Jean-Claude Juncker to be the President of the European Commission, the majority voted against that wish. You can’t behave like that with one of the world’s largest economies, a nuclear power and a member of the Security Council. Was it worth it?
With regard to Germany’s image of Europe you’ve said that – unlike you – Berlin believes in a post-Christian, post-nationalist Europe. What do you mean by this, and why would this conception be objectionable? After all, ever more people in Germany are turning their backs on the church, and globalisation means that the importance of national borders is in continuous decline.
Obviously we respect the Germans’ decision, how they envisage the Germany of the future and the role of Christianity and national feelings. All we ask is for them to also respect our decision. Europe has always been diverse, and must stay that way. Diversity in unity!
In a few months’ time Angela Merkel will leave the German and European stage. Is this a risk for Europe, or an opportunity?
A risk. I would have been happy for her to stay, and it would have been better for everyone. But of course on this issue the opinion of the Hungarian people doesn’t count, as this is a German decision. We will adapt to the new situation, so that we can continue to cultivate the historical friendship between Germany and Hungary.