Brussels Versus Budapest
An interview with Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga.
“Do you see the pattern?” Judit Varga, the Hungarian Minister of Justice, asks during a sit-down at the Hungarian Ambassador’s residence. “There is a national, sovereign, conservative government, and it is immediately attacked,” the minister says of the current state of Europe, the European Union, and the efforts to stymie economically populist, socially conservative governments like Hungary, Poland, and Italy.
Varga has a friendliness about her, cordial and conversational, but is serious about the struggles Hungary faces in dealing with a Europe adrift, unmoored from the tradition and heritage that produced so many monuments of human achievement.
Europe, Varga says, has changed dramatically since the end of the Second World War. During her recent speech at the Heritage Foundation, she likened the Hungarian experience rejoining the European fold to a soldier who returns home from war and finds his family and community have changed immensely.
I ask her to elaborate on that point. Under communism, Varga explains, the Hungarian people retained a strong “desire for freedom. If you are living under dictatorship, and under tyranny and oppression, your priority is to get rid of this tyranny.”
"We Hungarians,” Varga continues, “we lived under dictatorship, we knew how it was that you were not allowed to speak your mind. Otherwise you were taken to jail, or you were tortured, or you were taken to Siberia, to [the] Gulag. So this is really a serious experience in our history.”
“And this is why, when Hungary finally got rid of the chains of communism, we expected to find a world where there is a real freedom of expression, of free will, of freedom of opinion,” Varga adds. But that’s not the Europe Hungary returned to.
The Europe Hungary was welcomed back to was full of “political correctness,” “woke culture,” and “an ever growing hegemony of opinion putting pressure on politicians, especially by the Western media,” Varga says. “Hungary did not want to shift from one kind of pressure to another one. We would like to just replace dependence [with] independence.”
“We always wanted to go home, because our home is Europe. And then finally, legally, we could arrive, [but] the family was not the same anymore, because they are pressuring us to take the line, especially in gender policies, or migration," Varga said.
For the minister, post-Cold War Europe and its institutions have struggled with the consequences of victory. The European Union’s single market proved to be a better economic system than the Soviets' central planning. (Of course, this market would be impossible to sustain without the help of U.S. security vis-à-vis NATO, a dominant American economy, and American aid.) The West’s victory over Soviet communism, however, meant these post-war and Cold War institutions had to find new justifications for being.
Today’s, Varga says, Europe “come[s] out from one crisis then jump[s] into another one." Often, these crises are of Europe’s own design. “We had in 2008 the economic crisis, then we had the migration crisis, then we had the Covid crisis. Now we have a war in the neighborhood," Varga explains. "And unfortunately, the lessons learned actually were not learned at all. There was only one answer to all of these crises: more Europe.”
And with market integration more or less complete, the European Union and its partner institutions began to shift their overarching goal from the realm of economics to that of culture, according to Varga:
I always say that the European Union should be like a good wine. We say that a good wine doesn't need a label. So if the European Union is invisibly helping to prosper us, member states to prosper—which was the primary goal—let's live in peace. Let's foster prosperity, let's have industrial development, let's have a free trade area. But this should have always been the goal of this whole community. Now, they want to pursue political goals, pursue gender ideologies, pro-migration ideologies. This is too much. The whole framework of the European Union was not fit for this. When we joined, this was not among the rules, that we have to give up our cultural background. And we don't want to give it up. This should remain an economical cooperation.
As Varga said, the leaders of European institutions believe the continent's myriad crises can only be solved with "more Europe." By "Europe," those leaders don't mean the consultation of its nations and their respective populations. Rather, they use "Europe" as a synonym for liberalism—much like how "democracy" has become code for liberalism among the American left. So if “more Europe” isn't brought about by the will of the European member states' populations, who, or what, is creating it?
“The European institutions,” Varga believes, have been “taken hostage by most of these NGOs. Democracy is outsourced to these NGOs, but these NGOs are never elected by anyone. They just have a lot of money at their disposal, but their impact, through their studies, through their advocacy, through the media, they are capable of influencing public opinion.”
“This is a dizzy and very, very gray area,” Varga continues. “It is a nondemocratic area, because we don't know where these NGOs are coming from. And we should, I think, enhance transparency, which we tried in Hungary. There is a law, which was actually attacked by the European Commission, that required transparency above a certain amount of funding from abroad to NGOs in Hungary. It was not an obstacle to receive the funding, we only required to put it on their website that they are an NGO who is financed from abroad above a certain amount of money. This should not be a problem in a democracy.”
“In Brussels, they are always shouting louder for even higher standards of transparency. But, surprisingly, here, in the case of NGOs, they think it is not a good idea,” Varga says, expressing suspicion. The result, according to Varga, is that “member states’ sovereignty is always just taken and taken and taken back by this overwhelming legislation. And the legislation is made by the European Parliament and the Council. And the European Parliament is actually an ideology-driven forum in the European Union, where NGOs can have their say.
"This is now, unfortunately, the state of play in [the] European Union,” Varga laments. “NGOs are determining public opinion and not only in the media.” These “few, very well known, internationally funded, huge NGOs—NGOs, like Helsinki Committee, Transparency International—they have a political mission. And I think this does not belong to civil society, this is politics. They should form a party, fair enough, and they should run in elections, and when they are elected, then they have the right to influence public opinion. Otherwise, they should just assist civil society.”
Varga thinks the battle between the E.U. and its chosen NGOs versus European nations is “a conflict between worlds":
Those guys who think that spreading, through the NGOs, liberal progressive views will make a better world—we don't believe in this. We think that the world will always remain nice if we have our local communities, our traditional communities, our churches, our families. And we will always be aware [of] what is in our national interest, so that our nation can survive.
This is particularly the case for Central European countries, Varga claims. “In central Europe, the concept of 'nation' is not a bad word. It is a very nice word because it was the key for the survival of the country. There was always a threat from outside, and the nation could actually free itself from this external threat,” Varga argues.
But European leaders, like European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, don’t want to hear it, Varga suggests. “Leyen, on many occasions, statements in the past, said that there might be tools to make member states take the line.” Under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, however, “there is no pressure that would change our mind” about pursuing policies that are overwhelmingly popular among the Hungarian people but unpopular in Brussels.
In Varga’s mind, Orban’s tenure as prime minister, which is set to continue until at least 2026, has proven “that it is possible to be a pro-European country, but running our own political way. Not always fitting the mainstream, but always cooperating with our partners in a mutually respectful manner.”
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“We do believe that a strong Europe is made up of strong member states, but unfortunately we see an ever growing centralizing trend in the European institutions,” Varga remarks. “If they criticize the Hungarian government's position,” she adds, “they actually criticize the democratic decision of the nation, which is the primary value for us.”
“I could not be a liberal politician who belongs to anywhere,” Varga says with a roll of the eyes. “I can only belong to my country. This is why I'm right-wing."
“I wouldn't love to be a liberal today. They're losing,” Varga continues, her smile growing wider. “They're losing to the national conservative politicians. They are in a crisis. But we are happy living as conservatives.”