Prime Minister, you will receive Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache today. What is it that you have in common?
We have known each other for a long time. I knew his party before I knew him. I was Prime Minister of Hungary when Wolfgang Schüssel decided to form a government with FPÖ. This was the time when a repulsive international campaign started against Austria, and I was the only prime minister, in addition to the Bavarians, who openly stood up for Austria. I received Chancellor Schüssel in Budapest while all the doors in Europe remained closed. That was when I started showing interest in FPÖ. What is it they are capable of that everyone is so afraid of? Strache came into the picture later. He stands out in the European political field. The traditional European elite is decadent.
What do you mean by decadent?
Decadent in the sense that the elite does not believe in the power of political action. Quite simply they just want to pedal on as they have done to date, and resist when something new comes along.
Perhaps because the newcomer wears old clothes.
The problem of the European elite is that they do not believe in the power of the individual, the leader. They believe that leaders who are able to inspire people are dangerous.
This scepticism presumably stems from historical experience.
This is a bureaucratic politics which has spread throughout Europe. Strache does not fit in. He is a lot of things, but not decadent. He does not speak the language christened as political correctness. He speaks his mind, and stands up for it. In doing so he sometimes loses, sometimes wins.
Is Strache closer to you than Kurz?
There were times when you and Kurz were closer to each other. The Chancellor has moved away from you. In Budapest people talk about “the betrayal of a friendship”. Did you feel that way, too?
If you are Hungarian, you feel betrayed by default. Central Europe is a complicated area in the world of Europe. Many different interests clash here. And we Hungarians also tend to be romantic which sometimes makes us naive. The Hungarian people have big hearts. They often rely on their hearts, not on their minds. This can be deceptive in politics. They are surprised if someone whom we were once friends with begins to follow their interests, not their heart.
You mean that Kurz has moved away because he thought that this was in his best interest?
It is not easy to be Austrian either. I appreciate that. The chancellor of Austria has one of the most complicated jobs. It is not easy to define his place. Central Europe? World of the German-speaking people? Or a little bit of Italy? Catholic or a modern, post-Catholic, liberal world? All these things exist in Austria all at once. In my experience, Austrian chancellors are therefore very sophisticated. I observe them – there are some whom I learnt a great deal from. I am happy to learn, anyway.
Who did you learn from?
Schüssel. Helmut Kohl.
Is it not the irony of history that now Schüssel has to investigate you and decide whether you can remain a member of the European People’s Party?
I have friendly feelings for Mr Schüssel. And friendship calls for fairness. So I am certain that he will follow that line. But as they say in our country, in Hungary: you win some, you lose some. The fact that there was a time when Mr Schüssel was being investigated gives me home that in ten years’ time we will be investigating those who are now criticising us.
Would you have expected more balancing gratitude from Austria?
Gratitude is not the right word for this. I thought that as Austria, to some extent, belongs to Central Europe, this could induce some kind of a feeling of regional unity. As European conflicts of this nature come and go. However, Austria is here to stay, and so is Hungary. I believe that relations between the two countries represent some special quality. History lends them a special value. This must not be sacrificed for any European conflict. But then again, I am not blind. I know that the Austrian People’s Party, the Chancellor’ party is a big party. It comprises many different political schools. These schools do not all share the same view on Hungary. I am one of the greatest supporters of the Chancellor. To obtain so much trust at such a young age, and to make such a bold move in the elections was, from a professional point of view, a master stroke, this will feature in the textbook of prime ministers.
While there are many common points on the issue of migration, Kurz does not want to give up the conservative centre. You do. You are seeking alliance with the nationalists. By doing so, are you not risking a final break with the European Christian democrats?
There is that risk. The story could end that way. However, we do not want that. What is happening in actual fact? Christian democrats in Europe, in particular, in Germany are shifting towards the left. If things continue like this, and they continually enter into coalition with the Left, the socialists, then they will have to make compromises and will lose their identity and values. At the end of the day, Christian democrats must be Christian. They must represent a Christian stance also as regards family and national identity. Many Christian democratic parties have drifted far from this, far to the left. I see great opportunities in the parties which are gaining in strength – as you say – on the peripheries. They represent Christian values, though they do not call themselves Christian democrats.
Do you really believe that for Mrs Le Pen it is about Christian values?
France is a laicist state, so is Mrs Le Pen’s politics. They do not want Islam to make gains. They see Christian culture as a priority, defend families and the nation state. I like these notions, but in the People’s Party this provoked criticism because the EPP would like to go left. This will have two consequences: First of all, the loss of identity, and secondly, that economically they will build a socialist Europe where international competitiveness will be lost. Here in Hungary we lived in a socialist economy for 45 years. It did not work. There is no point in experimenting with it. Cooperation with Macron and the Left imports ever more socialistic elements. Tax increases, over-regulation, an army of bureaucrats and debts spread over the community. The Austrians and the Germans will pay the price for that.
And are you not concerned that in an alliance forged with right-wing parties the Christian democrats could lose their identity?
Let us see what is happening in Austria. I do not see that having happened. I recommend to Europe that which is happening in Austria. Europe should adopt the Austrian model. The centre-right cooperating with the right. Looking at it from Budapest, this appears to be successful. There is stability, I can see goals in the economy, tax reductions, and it seems that good things are happening in Austria.
The Chancellor has to apologise week in week out for FPÖ’s crazy racist and neo-Nazi remarks.
As I said, Austria is a difficult place. At the same time, neither can we deny that there is a network penetrating the whole of Europe. I call this a liberal network.
What would that be?
This is a network comprised of civil-society organisations, think tanks, the media, left-wing intellectuals, universities and politicians. And if they start attacking a politician, they make his life very difficult. This is why some right-wing politicians are very careful not to earn the wrath of that network. It is due to such tactics that the ability to speak from the heart has disappeared from European politics.
You mean the freedom of non-correct speech.
Every word must be weighed on the scales of politics. By contrast, I live in the luxury of political freedom. I say what I mean because I receive strong support from the Hungarian people. They could not overthrow us from Brussels, much as they would have liked. Fascism, nationalism, populism, these are terms that the liberal network uses as political bludgeons. They make it impossible for anyone to talk about love of country or following the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Karel Schwarzenberg says that he is not afraid of Islam; he is afraid of our own empty churches.
Despite this, I am sure you yourself sense that the majority of European politicians are prisoners of this atmosphere. One can no longer talk about traditional European values, only with embarrassment, apologetically and cautiously. And as a result, the essence becomes lost. Pan-European politics is stealthily shifting in the direction of liberal politics.
We understand that for you the word ‘liberal’ is a swear word.
It is not such a bad word, it had some great periods. In Hungary, too. From 1867 until 1914, and even in 1848/49 the liberals had a great period. Liberalism elevated Hungary to great heights. However, liberals have attacked freedom now. They want to tell us what we can talk about and how.
In your youth you started out as a liberal civil rights warrior. Today you are an advocate of ‘illiberal democracy’. What has happened to you?
I stick to the same line. In 1990, too, we wanted freedom. In 1990 this meant liberalism. Today, 30 years on the liberals are attacking freedom.
What is this illiberal democracy?
There are three things that set us apart from the liberals. The first one is the conviction that family is fundamental. And family is based on one man and one woman. This needs to be protected. The liberals say there is no need for that. For them family is sometimes like this, sometimes like that, like a board game. The second one is that in culture we say that while the cultural life of every country is diverse, a leading cultural tradition is present everywhere. There is a German word for that: Leitkultur. In Hungary this is Christian culture. We respect other cultures. But our own has a prominent role for us, and it is our responsibility to preserve it.
Are the liberals not doing that?
Liberal democrats say something else. They say that every culture is equal, and there can be no differences. Their starting point is cultural relativism. And the third thing that is important is that liberal democrats are pro-immigration. We illiberals are against immigration. You could call us illiberal Christian democrats. But this is combatant language. Liberal and illiberal are like arm wrestling.
So you say that democracy is a mode of procedure that is beyond dispute, and liberal is an ideology.
Yes, an ideology and a practice of government that is based on it. I am an old war horse in my line of business, I still remember what it was like thirty years ago. At the time, a social democrat stood up and said that I am a social democrat, and I want social democracy. And then a Christian stood up and said I am a Christian, and I want Christian democracy. Then a liberal rose to speak, and said I am a liberal, and I want liberal democracy. This is the language we spoke thirty years ago. The liberal network devised a new formula, and built a campaign on it. Those who are democrats must be liberal. This is why in the West both social democrats and Christian democrats say that they are democrats and liberals. This was a battle of languages which the liberals won. The social democrats and Christian democrats lost. And if one fails to win the battle fought for one’s own language, then neither will one win in the wrestling contest about content. If Christian democrats pretend to be liberals, it is a contradiction in terms.
In our minds, liberal means rule of law, while illiberal means authoritarian. Authoritarian in turn means that the free media, the independent judiciary and free science are under the influence of politics. Is that what you mean?
Yes. In Austria the liberals won this linguistic battle. Freedom, freedom of press, freedom of the media are not liberal categories. These are pre-conditions of democracy. These belong to us all. The liberals have hijacked them. Over here the story is even more brutal than in your country. If the liberals lose the elections in Poland, Slovakia or Hungary, they immediately say that it is the end of democracy. Over here you can only be a democrat if you are a liberal. This is the violation of the intellect.
What kind of a Europe do you actually want?
We must be very alert, there is a very serious threat. Unless we are careful now, the fates of Western and Central Europe could become detached. This could happen due to migration and its consequences; not tomorrow morning, but in ten to fifteen years’ time. The children – Christians or Muslims – who are coming to this world today will be adults in 18 years’ time. And in 18 years’ time westerners will not be like us. These will be not simply political, but civilisational differences. It will be very difficult to keep Europe together like that. I keep thinking about how these profound differences could be bridged. We must find a way to European unity again. I am dreaming about a Europe where both Western and Central Europeans feel at home. Meanwhile, their lives do not become detached, but grow together. Do not ask me how this could be achieved. I have not yet found the answer.
Why do you reduce the Christian democratic Jean-Claude Juncker to a mere caricature?
I have a good personal relationship with Jean-Claude. I appreciate his achievements. However, two serious mistakes attach to his term in office. One of them is migration. They continually promised European solutions, but those promises came to nothing. The second mistake is that Juncker had himself elected president of the Commission despite the will of the British. This contributed to the fact that the British felt that they had been ignored.
You mean to say that Brexit is Juncker’s fault?
Do you have to say that in order to preserve your popularity at home?
Paradoxically, the opposite of that is true. The EU has the highest popularity in Hungary. There are spiritual reasons for this, not economic. The Hungarian people are in love with the word ‘Europe’. They perceived Soviet occupation in such a way that we were torn out of the family. When we entered the European Union, everyone thought that we were back at home, in the family. In Hungary this is a very strong spiritual commitment. This is why over here anti-European politics does not stand a chance. Hungarians are incurably pro-European.
Why does this not come across?
They do not like the politicians who lead the EU. They believe that Brussels does not give nation states the respect they deserve. They differentiate between Europe and Brussels eurocrats. They say that Europe deserves better leading politicians. And they see Brussels’ migration policy as positively anti-European. They can see that the Brussels migration policy is destroying the Europe we have fallen in love with.
But with the enforced securing of the external borders Europe changed course regarding the issue of immigration a long time ago. Why do you still stand in its way?
I see and recognise such signs, but there are also signs to the contrary. The Hungarian language is very powerful. We see betrayal, we see that in Brussels there are leading politicians who do not prevent, but in actual fact encourage migration. When at EU summits we adopt documents about migration, we Central Europeans always insist that those documents say that migration must be stopped.
Who are the Brussels people?
The Commission and some EU states. The French, the Germans, the Scandinavians, the Benelux countries. They want to manage migration. We Central Europeans, by contrast, want to stop it.
Critics say that it will not work. Only with force.
This is an important issue. We are not historical materialists. I do not believe one can claim, as a matter of course, what will work and what will not work. You cannot detach human will from it all. If we want something, then there is a chance. Hungary has halted migration by land, while Mr Salvini has stopped migration by sea. So in the Hungarian people’s minds this is very much possible. We have a different explanation. They do not want to stop migration because, in actual fact, the Left is importing electors. Because those whom they bring in as migrants will never vote for Christian democratic parties, and sooner or later they will receive citizenship, sooner or later they will have the franchise. As a result, the Left has access to further large imported voter communities.
You say that for you Mr Salvini is a hero, and the most important person in Europe. We do not quite understand that. What the Italian Deputy Prime Minister wants is completely different from what you want. On the one hand, he supports the distribution of migrants, and on the other, he hinders the EU’s efforts to secure the external borders in the South with reinforced European units.
Let us see what we agree on. We agree that the borders must be protected, and migration must be reduced to zero. We also agree that the borders must be protected by those who are capable of that. We Hungarians protected our own borders, and now the Italians are doing the same. We do not want to delegate this right because we are doing this well. If we need help – as Hungary did – then I will not phone up Brussels; I will make phone calls to Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava and Vienna. And from there I did receive soldiers, and also police officers. Brussels would still be debating whether they can come or not.
You want to take the issue of migration away from Brussels. What next?
You, the Italians and everyone West of us are in a different situation than us. You have lots of migrants, we do not. Our question is not about co-existence, but about how to prevent this from becoming a question at all. Therefore, the debate on migration is divided into East and West. In the West the question is how they can live together with the consequences. By contrast, we say we do not want a repeat here of what happened in your countries. This is a completely different mentality. Those who are on your side, such as the Italians, want to get rid of migrants. I understand that. It is not a good solution, however, if we distribute them among ourselves, and you bring migrants to countries where there are no migrants at all. We say that if you want to get rid of illegal migrants, then we should take them back home, and we will help you. Let us not distribute them, but instead rebuild their cities and regions where they lived. And then we must and we can take them back home. This is a bold plan, but it is possible. This would not divide Europe.
It may be bold, but is it also Christian? The Pope says not. We are asking this question in the former Carmelite Monastery.
Let us put aside that Hungary is also a Protestant country, and therefore the Pope’s opinion here is not as determining as in a Catholic country. Despite this, we respect the Holy Father, and what he says is important for us. But what does he actually say? He says rescue the people. Why do we have to rescue them? Because they are drowning in the sea. The question is how to reduce the number of those dying at sea. We have two methods before our eyes, we can compare them. The friends of migration continually invited immigrants, and many of them drowned. Since Mr Salvini came along, the number of migrants has decreased drastically, and far fewer people have died. Mr Salvini has done more for the policy demanded by the Holy Father than those who support immigration.
You are arguing with a cold logic.
But we are talking about human lives. And those opposed to migration, such as us, are pursuing a policy which claims far fewer human lives. It is not enough to fancy ourselves as a good person; we must also act like a good person.
At the same time, does not a society that isolates itself deprive itself of the development and ennoblement offered by the potential of diversity? Historical experiences show that isolation is a weaker concept.
In this part of the world, there is no such threat as over here we live in enormous cultural diversity together with Serbs, Slovaks, Croats, Ukrainians, Jews, Romanians and Hungarians. Here there is no shortage of cultural diversity. We have Latins, we have Calvinists and those of the Orthodox faith. This is fantastic diversity spiritually and culturally which, however, emerges within a single, Christian civilisation. We do not perceive this as separation or isolation.
Do you suffer from being an outcast, or do you like that?
I see this as part of the Hungarian fate. There is nothing new in it. Spiritually the Hungarians have suffered from this problem for centuries. We are not talented enough in warding off attacks. The Hungarians are not very good at the modern forms of the game of representation, such as PR, communication and branding. There is a Hungarian mentality: if they do not understand us, they do not, that is their problem.
Do you like that gesture?
No. This is a short-sighted mentality, even if it involves a degree of heroism which is attractive, but dangerous. So I am not happy about this situation, and I would like us Hungarians to be more talented at presenting what we are doing and why we are doing it. This is a success story, at the end of the day. We have protected the country from migration, there is no threat of cultural clashes. We are playing a stabilising role in the region. We have good neighbourly relations with the Serbs, Slovaks and Romanians. There is almost full employment, and every year we have a minimum 2 per cent higher growth rate than in the EU. We have achieved all this as an EU member. This could be a European success story.
Why do you not tell this to others?
Because in Brussels they do not want to acknowledge this success out of ideological considerations. There is an old and linguistically brutal joke which illustrates this situation well. It goes like this. What is the difference between the squirrel and the skunk? The answer: the squirrel has better PR.
Hungary is celebrating the 15th anniversary of its EU membership. The country has amply profited from it. What does it have to offer in return?
There is something we do not even have to give because it is taken away from us anyway. I do my sums strictly, I am a village man, I like to know how much money we have in the coffers. Every year funds the equivalent of 4 per cent of GDP come to Hungary, and every year funds the equivalent of 7 per cent of GDP are taken out of the country as dividends by large corporations active here. This means that we do indeed profit, but so do westerners. We are growing, and they are making money from this. We provide a market which is used primarily by the Austrians and Germans to their advantage. I regard this as a win-win situation. Secondly, we have assumed the role of the border. The East-West border no longer lies between Austria and Hungary, but to the East and South of Hungary. During times of migration this is a valuable thing. The Schengen border must be protected not at the Austrian borders, but on the southern border of Hungary. We give Europe security. And we also give Europe culture. Given that our guests are Austrian, let me just remind you of music, of Liszt, Bartók, Ligeti and Kurtág.
Are you a populist?
People in America are proud of this, in Europe this is something to be condemned. I stand on the foundations of an American statement which grasps the essence of that which is called populism in Europe. It is attributed to Abraham Lincoln, and it sounds better in English than in German: Of the people, by the people, for the people.
What do you appreciate in President Trump?
His steadfastness. This is the most important similarity. We do what we believe in, and this way we also preserve the support of the people.
Do you like Vienna?
I respect Vienna.
What is it that is missing for liking it?
I respect and appreciate it, but I would never move from Budapest to Vienna. Not because Budapest is a Hungarian and Vienna is an Austrian city, but because for the Hungarian temperament Vienna is too cold.
Could Budapest not turn into Vienna?
Multicultural Vienna has no attraction for us, if that is what you mean. We do not rate that as a sight. We look at it, but do not want to introduce it. Budapest cannot be Vienna, and does not need to compete with Vienna as on the issue of who is a better Vienna only Vienna can win. Budapest has a different culture, it is more bustling, louder, more creative. Budapest must be Budapest.