BUDAPEST — “Of course it’s not accepted, but the factual point is that all the terrorists are basically migrants,” says Viktor Orbán. “The question is when they migrated to the European Union.”
In his office at the Hungarian parliament, the prime minister points toward the flowing Danube. In another era, an aide notes, the Turks followed this river into the heart of Europe. Behind Orbán hang two maps: One shows a short stretch of Hungary’s border with Croatia and another gives a panoramic view of the Balkans toward Turkey, from where hundreds of thousands of migrants have made their way north this year.
In a wide-ranging 90-minute interview a week after the Paris terrorist attacks, Orbán lays out his prescriptions for Europe’s ailments: An impenetrable external border to boost security and save the Schengen treaty on passport-less travel within the EU; a new EU constitutional convention that strengthens the power of nation states and weakens Brussels; and normalized relations with Russia.
Thinking of Paris and its aftermath, the Hungarian leader posits an “overwhelming logical” connection between terrorism and the movement of Muslims into Europe — in the last few months as well as over recent decades — that to him and many Europeans is “an obvious fact,” whether “you like it or not.”
“The majority of our leaders in the West deny the fact,” he adds. That denial of the “obvious” — which the Hungarian leader blames on political correctness run amok — destabilizes European politics by increasing “the gap between the leaders and the people.”
‘We want to save Schengen’
Whether European leaders like Orbán or not, the Hungarian’s critique of the EU’s migration policy this year changed the terms of the debate. With blaring alarms about terrorism across Europe, the leader of this country of 10 million is again the uncensored Id of the European right, offering ideas that the rest of the bloc can’t ignore (and even, in some cases, pronounce aloud).
Linking terror to migration, Orbán says the “number one job” after Paris is “to defend the borders and to control who is coming in.” NATO and EU countries are “at war” with Islamists in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and, he says, “it’s quite logical” that “enemies” would seek to send fighters with migrants coming into Europe.
We criticize [the EU and NATO] because they are far from perfect, but the starting attitude of the Hungarians to Western institutions is always positive.
“All of them present a security threat because we don’t know who they are. If you allow thousands or millions of unidentified persons into your house, the risk of … terrorism will significantly increase.”
Orbán says he doesn’t presume to tell Western European countries such as Belgium and France how to deal with the offspring of Muslim migrants who in his words belong to “parallel societies,” holding EU passports but rejecting Western values.
But, as calls grow to rethink open borders — with five Western European countries holding preliminary talks about a more limited “mini-Schengen” zone (which wouldn’t include Hungary) — Orbán presents his hard line on frontiers as the best way to silence calls to suspend or bury Schengen.
“We would like to save Schengen,” he says. “We would like to save the liberties … including the free movement inside the European Union,” which, he says, are imperilled by unregulated and porous external borders.
An EU rethink
Earlier this year, Hungary was widely criticized for building a barbed wire fence along its border with Serbia to stop the waves of new arrivals. For Orbán, Hungary was merely upholding the law of the Union that Greece (“a major problem for us”) failed to do by allowing the migrants to continue north unimpeded.
Orbán’s opposition helped torpedo a scheme championed by the European Commission for a mandatory resettlement of migrants across the EU, and flipped the discussion from how best to accommodate the refugees to one of how to stop them from coming at all.
If I disagree with them, they say, ‘You are not a democrat, you are not a good man, you belong to the bad guys’.
For the Hungarian, this year of troubles — from Greece to migration, from terrorism to possible Brexit — calls for a wholesale rethink of the EU. The bloc “is only reacting, reacting, crisis after crisis, instead of having a concept.” Asked if the EU will be here in 10 years, he says, “it’s an open question.”
Orbán says he wants the EU to call a new convention on the future of Europe with a mandate “to modify even the Basic Treaty,” the kind of exercise that the bloc last carried out a decade ago. That convention, overseen by former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, drafted a new constitution for the EU, which was killed in referendums in France and elsewhere.
In Orbán’s proposed reform of the EU, the balance of powers would tilt back toward nation states and away from leaders in Brussels who have “very much the pro-United States of Europe position,” he says.
The Hungarian has no illusions about the ability of a leader of a small Central European nation to force his views onto the EU agenda. Even David Cameron and the British “are not strong enough to generate a European discussion,” he says, and are limited to negotiating terms of a deal for Britain alone.
“Innovation is part of” politics, he says, “but basically it’s an art of reality.”
Although he’s widely seen in Western Europe as a leader who’s turned his back on “liberal democracy” and embraced Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Orbán insists he wants to save the EU and NATO. “Hungary’s place is [in the] West,” he says. “We criticize them because they are far from perfect, but the starting attitude of the Hungarians to Western institutions is always positive.”
In his own telling, he’s not the populist provocateur of EU media lore. “The basic character of all politics is cooperation, not confrontation,” he says. “We cooperate. We confront when it is necessary, not because we enjoy it.”
Putin is someone you can cooperate with. He’s not an easy man. He is not a man who has a known personality, so don’t imagine him as you like to imagine Western leaders.
Getting up from his seat around a large conference table, Orbán walks over to the books stacked on his desk and shelf. He picks up a tract on Europe he’s reading by Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher and proponent of a closer, federal EU. “The most dangerous book,” he calls it.
There are essay collections by the founder of the ultra-conservative Catholic Opus Dei movement (Orbán’s a Calvinist) and the Hungarian Nobel laureate in literature, Imre Kertész. He’s reading about the political theory of Islam and another book on the global sexual revolution — “an anti-gender study,” he says, “about how we destroy freedom in the name of freedom.”
‘The very arrogant mainstream’
At 52, Orbán carries a healthy paunch and says his football-playing days are mostly behind him. He puts on a tie and jacket for a photographer, then quickly dispenses with both. In his part of the world, he says, leaders are more laid-back.
He speaks fluidly in English and cracks jokes, showing off a talent for retail politics that won him three national elections (1998, 2010, 2014) and altogether a decade as Hungary’s prime minister. While critics say he caricatures Muslims, financiers and liberal elites, and uses his majorities in parliament to whittle away at Hungary’s relatively young democratic institutions, Orbán himself defies facile caricature.
He isn’t a “dictator” à la Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, to use the gibe thrown at him by Jean-Claude Juncker. In his half comic, half mutually contemptuous routine with the European Commission chief, Orbán returns serve by calling the Luxembourger “the Grand Duke.”
The Hungarian waves aside comparisons of his ruling style with the autocrat in Moscow and Turkey’s strong-handed leader as “ridiculous” and “a lazy way of thinking” — an insult that Western European politicians use to try to marginalize him.
“If I … disagree with them, they say, ‘You are not a democrat, you are not a good man, you belong to the bad guys’,” he says. Any time he breaks with the “very arrogant and aggressive” Western European “mainstream” on migration or another issue, he says, “we are morally labeled as xenophobic, Putin-type, whatever.”
Liberalism in Europe now concentrates not on freedom but on political correctness. It became a sclerotic ideology. Dogmatic, may I say.
The censures come not just from Brussels and Berlin but Hungary’s ally across the Atlantic. In unusually blunt terms, the U.S. ambassador to Hungary last month criticized the Orbán government’s crackdowns on NGOs, limits on media freedoms, the packing of the courts with allies, the redrawing of electoral districts in ways that favor the ruling coalition and corruption.
Speaking at Corvinus University, Ambassador Colleen Bell noted America’s “concerns about the state of checks and balances and democratic institutions,” the “centralization of power” and “opaque” decision-making.
The ‘illiberal democrat’
There is an oft-noted irony that this pro-democracy dissident of the late 1980s, who co-founded the Fidesz student-led movement and helped bring down communism, is seen in the second half of his nearly three-decade run in Hungarian politics as a threat to its democracy.
Addressing doubts about his democratic bona fides, Orbán says he has been in parliamentary opposition longer — a dozen years — than in power, and expects to “lose again” in future elections. “You can’t avoid to lose because that’s part of the job,” he says.
Yet in this run as prime minister, Orbán has made his name abroad as a prominent critic of “liberal democracy,” someone who pushes an alternative political model for Europe. In a widely circulated speech to ethnic Hungarians in Romania last year, he announced his desire to build “an illiberal new state based on national foundations,” and argued that “liberal democracy can’t stay competitive.”
It was the moment that Orbán most vocally broke with the liberalism that defined his early years in politics with Fidesz and a leadership role in the Liberal International throughout the 1990s.
Orbán admits his thinking and behavior have changed over 25 years — “it would be irresponsible not to change” — but also says that liberalism itself, both in Hungary and globally, isn’t what it once was.
“Liberalism in Europe now concentrates not on freedom but on political correctness. It became a sclerotic ideology. Dogmatic, may I say. The liberals are enemies of freedom” who, he says, want to limit Hungary’s freedom to make its choices as a nation-state.
“Liberalism became a mainstream politics. They fight against everybody who does not belong to the mainstream. But not to belong to the mainstream does not mean that you are not in favor of freedom. Just the opposite now.”
Me and Putin
Orbán’s political journey took its first sharp turn after Fidesz lost seats in a 1994 elections. When another party picked up the urban, youth electorate that Fidesz had courted, he went to find votes on the traditional right and outside Budapest, in religious, rural areas. His former liberal friends call the shifting shapes of Orbán opportunistic and cynical. He says he’s right where he belongs, with the “national-Christian-civic political family.”
“You know, I’m a village boy,” says Orbán, who grew up in Székesfehérvár, a town of 100,000 southwest of Budapest.
People call him a populist.
“Because I am,” he retorts. “The problem is nobody knows what [that] means. It does not sound bad in Hungarian ears. Being a populist means that you try to serve the people. It’s positive.”
Support for his Fidesz party has grown from 40 percent last December to almost 50 percent today, according to polls.
The other notable irony of the modern Orbán is his relationship with Putin. He fought to bring down the Soviet empire and remove Russian troops from Hungarian soil. Putin, a KGB officer who was a cog in the Soviet system that Orbán battled, is now seeking to restore Russian power.
These days, Orbán opposes EU sanctions on Russia over its incursions into Ukraine, though Hungary has signed off on them since last year. He nurtures close business ties with Moscow, particularly in energy. Despite the Russian occupation of Crimea and military presence in eastern Ukraine, Orbán is among the more vocal EU leaders calling for the West to come to terms with the Kremlin.
Given his staunchly anti-Soviet past, does his friendly relationship with Putin give him any discomfort?
“It’s strange, but politics is full of strange things, so it’s not uncomfortable,” Orbán says. “That’s part of the job. And you know politics is basically not a personal issue, and what I represent is not my opinion but the interests of the Hungarian nation. And the point is very clear, without the Russians it’s impossible to manage rightly the future of the Hungarians. So we have to have a good balanced relationship with the Russians.”
He says he has no personal warm feelings for the Russian leader — adding that he would not deny it if he did like Putin, just to please Western opinion, which “you know, does not matter for us.”
“Putin is someone you can cooperate with. He’s not an easy man. He has no personal feelings [for] you…. He is not a man who has a known personality, so don’t imagine him as you like to imagine Western leaders.”
With Russia, Orbán continues, any country can have only a “power policy based on reality,” adding that “if you would like to have a relationship with the Russians based on principles, it will never work.” European and Russian principles are “impossible to harmonize. So put aside principles, ideologies and look at the interest, and find the common sense realpolitik agreements. That’s the Hungarian approach.”
When the EU soon considers whether to extend sanctions on Russia, at least until June, Orbán says he will voice his opposition but won’t use his veto power to stop the extension — “a veto is a nuclear bomb, it’s good to have but don’t use it.”
He says the final decision on sanctions ultimately rests with the Germans.
While Orbán notes that Hungary’s closest ally in Europe, Poland, backs sanctions, he says he finds more than a little hypocrisy coming from Berlin. Germans “like to appear as opposing” him on sanctions on Russia, he says, “but in fact they are doing even more than we are” to work with Russia. Orbán points to Berlin’s support for a second gas pipeline from Russia to Germany under the Baltic, which will deprive Ukraine of billions in yearly transit fees.
Balancing the Germans
“Hungarians are easygoing guys in the European Union,” Orbán says, laughing. “What we are doing, we are saying — and what we are doing is exactly what we are thinking. So it’s not complicated.”
Orbán says the Russia relationship helps him balance a testy one with Berlin: “We would not like to depend on the Germans.”
Angela Merkel is no fan of his, and the feeling seems mutual. Still, Orbán says it’s easier to work with the German chancellor than with Putin: “With Merkel we have a principle-based policy. So if you agree on certain principles, it’s easy to manage the reality. Just the opposite with Putin: We can manage some reality, but never agree on principle. As we Hungarians like to say, it’s a different coffee house.”