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War and the EU: Hungary's Perspective

An exclusive interview with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó.

TURKEY-HUNGARY-DIPLOMACY
Hungary's Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto gives a press conference after his meeting with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara, on April 19, 2022. (Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images)

Hungary declines to go along. In recent years, the small, landlocked nation of 10 million souls in Central Europe has emerged as a bastion of resistance against global liberaldom. From gender ideology to open borders, and from family policy to Russia sanctions, Budapest increasingly finds itself at odds with the Washington-Brussels consensus.

The Hungarian government’s oppositional posture has proved a hit with voters—the ruling Fidesz party won its fourth consecutive landslide in the spring—but it has also imposed significant costs, most recently in the form of a European Parliament resolution declaring the country to be less than fully democratic. This week, I caught up with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City to discuss all this and more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Sohrab Ahmari: Welcome to New York, Foreign Minister. I suppose we should start with the immediate news. Last week brought a one-two punch of difficult news for you: the European Parliament’s resolution declaring Hungary to be not fully democratic, and the European Commission’s decision to withhold funding on "rule-of-law" grounds. What do you think is motivating this uptick in anti-Hungarian activity?

Péter Szijjártó: Well, this is obvious. We in Hungary are a conservative, rightist, patriotic government with a political strategy based on Christian-democratic values—and on top of that, successful. And this combination simply cannot be digested by the international liberal mainstream.

The mainstream has a very special definition of democracy. According to their understanding, a political system can be considered "democratic" only if liberals are ruling. And since in Hungary this is not the case, they do not consider us to be a democracy. In our understanding, however, the definition of democracy is that you fulfill the will of the people. Brussels does not think so: since we are not liberals, since our political strategy is precisely the opposite of the [one preferred by] the liberal mainstream, they simply hate us. And they hate the fact that despite all the nasty things they tried against us during the last 13 years, they were not able to help the opposition win in Hungary. In the last four elections, we won by a landslide. On the very last occasion, this April, we garnered record political support. This, even though all the opposition parties, from the far right to the far left, had united in one camp, and ran against us in a unified way.... We have more seats in Parliament than ever before.

After spending 12 years in office, you cannot hide anything from the people. And after 12 years in office, the people vote according to your track record. They know what we did, they know what we think, they know what our plans are, and they know what they can count on, because they have a long experience with us. This means that this is the will of the people. And if this is the will of the people, then it must be respected. So we think that Brussels, the European Union, behaved in a very anti-democratic way. Because they simply question the maturity, the will, and the right of the Hungarian people to decide about their own future. According to our understanding, the European Parliament is undemocratic.

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S.A.: How serious are the consequences of the withholding of E.U. funds?

P.S.: You know, this is simple blackmail. Nothing else. It’s a blackmailer saying, in effect, "If you don’t change, we won’t give you your money." And I want to underline your money here. Because this is not the money of the bureaucrats, of Brussels, of invisible structures. This is our money. The European funds don’t come down from the sky. They are the fruit of the productivity of the European people, including Hungarians. Without Hungary, without the achievements of the Hungarian economy, this amount of money wouldn’t have been accumulated. So we have a part of it. And not giving it to us is simple blackmail and goes totally against our common values and the Treaty of the European Union.

S.A.: If Hungary becomes a net contributor to the E.U. budget, that will change the power dynamics at work, won’t it?

P.S.: It must. And we only have a couple of years to go.

S.A.: But your progress is at risk somewhat from the effects of the energy sanctions against Russia, imposed after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. From your point of view, what is the ideal endgame in Ukraine?

P.S.: The ideal endgame is peace. We are close to the conflict. We are in the neighborhood, Ukraine is our neighbor. The impacts of the war are immediate and serious—more serious than they are for more far-flung countries.

We have received 1.5 million refugees so far, and for those who wish to stay, we have provided jobs and equal access to education and health care. Inflation is increasing very rapidly, fuel and commodity prices are skyrocketing. In short, we are severely hit by the consequences of the war. And we all know that there is only one solution to all of these crises, which is peace. And that’s why from the very first day, we have been demanding a ceasefire and peace talks. And we have offered Hungary as a meeting ground for negotiations. If the Ukrainians and the Russians want to come, they are welcome. We will provide all the necessary circumstances for them to come and discuss a solution.

That was my expectation for this week at the General Assembly, but now I see that it was an illusion. The United Nations is the broadest, most appropriate platform for negotiations and dialogue even among countries with hostile relations. This is what the U.N. was created for. It was not created as a meeting place only for countries with shared values—but a forum where everyone can sit together and discuss and debate. But having a look at the developments of this week, we are heading toward escalation rather than peace. I regret that there are no high-level discussions between the Russians and the Western powers.

S.A.: When you say "peace," the Ukrainians and more hawkish nations like your neighbor Poland would say "peace" means expelling Russia, perhaps even from Crimea. Is that realistic?

P.S.: I don’t know, and to be honest, since we are not part of the conflict, I simply don’t want to go into guessing what could be the case. We have to leave it to the Ukrainians and the Russians to negotiate.

S.A.: Sure, but in the meanwhile, if the West continues on an escalatory ladder not just with arms, but with sanctions, that will affect Hungary.

P.S.: Oh, very, very badly. The sanctions introduced by the European Union are more harmful to us than to the Russians. With the first package, we shot ourselves in the foot. With the next package, we shot our knee. And when energy was at stake, we shot ourselves in the lungs. What kind of sanctions end up being more painful for those who impose them than they are for those against whom they’re imposed? Doesn’t make sense.

Moreover, it is a fact—a pure physical, infrastructural fact—that Russia is an important player when it comes to the energy supply of the Continent. Adding to that, there are countries, mostly in Central Europe, that are totally dependent on Russian energy sources not by their own choices, but owing to the determination of geography and infrastructure. Whether you have gas or not cannot be solved by political dialogue. You need a gas source, and you need pipelines.... We are dependent on Russian gas, and we don’t want to give up the supply, because if we can’t heat our homes, that doesn’t help Ukrainians. We don’t want to put Hungarians in a situation where they have to pay the price of the war when they aren’t responsible for it. We don’t want our people to be unable to heat their homes, to cook food, and to bathe with hot water—it’s unimaginable.

S.A.: Yes, how does it help Ukrainians if German manufacturing collapses? What is behind this insistence on maintaining sanctions that don’t work? Is it pure symbolism? It’s one thing to sanction Syria or Libya, where you are overwhelmingly powerful. But when you are dealing with an energy superpower, it seems unwise.

P.S.: Look, of course, we condemn the war. Of course, we stand beside Ukraine. We call for respect for their territorial integrity and sovereignty. That’s not in question. We have said it many times, and if necessary, we will say it again. These are basic principles. But even before the war, it was very complicated to carry out a dialogue in the European Union on a rational, common-sense basis. All issues were over-politicized and over-ideologized.

And now, after the war, the chance for a common-sense-based dialogue is over. So whenever you raise your own national concerns, or try to promote a less ideological approach, you are immediately judged and attacked and considered a "spy of Putin," "betrayer of Ukraine," "breaker of the unity," and so on. There is a hegemony of opinions, instead of allowing everyone to put his own opinion on the table. And again, it will not be better for Ukraine if the Hungarian people freeze.

S.A.: In certain European circles, there is this sense that the United States has a long-term strategic vision of reducing the number of its industrial rivals from two (China and Europe) to one (just China). In this view, the sanctions help advance that American vision. Just this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that many European manufacturers are moving to the United States. That theory strikes me as too conspiratorial, but whatever the motivation, the effect is all too real.

P.S.: I don’t like conspiracy theories. Let’s leave those for filmmakers. But it’s obvious that what Europe has done to itself with the sanctions is favorable to the United States. That’s not a question. The question is whether the Americans’ inspiring Europe to do so was a well-thought-out idea or just done from a purely ideological, moralistic intention. Well, this is the realm of conspiracy theory, but the outcome is definitely there: the European economy is in recession, and the American economy leans on that.

Beyond that: from a Hungarian perspective, we don’t see China as a systemic rival. Simply because we are not in a competition with them. They have their own system. We have our own. What I don’t understand in international politics, to be honest, is why we don’t base the whole thing on mutual respect—on not interfering in the domestic issues of other countries. It’s not our job to discuss what kind of a system the Chinese operate, just like it isn’t the job of the Chinese to discuss what kinds of systems the United States, Germany, or Hungary operate. Let’s leave it to each other. And let’s accept that the Hungarians know best what is good for them, the Americans know what is best for the United States, and the Chinese know what is best for China. And let’s not think that the Americans know what is better for the Chinese, or that the Hungarians know what is better for the Americans.

Let’s look for the points where we can cooperate on the basis of mutual benefit. So when it comes to China, we don’t care about their political system. What we care about is how we can cooperate with them in a way that benefits Hungary. So that’s why we encourage a lot of big state-of-the-art Chinese tech companies to invest in Hungary.... I don’t really understand why big powers, including the United States, pin their foreign policy on such a conflictual approach. I mean, why are we trying to create conflict? Why would we want to boost conflicts, instead of looking for points of cooperation? That’s the basis of Hungarian foreign policy.

S.A.: If the goal is to roll back these damaging sanctions, where does Hungary begin to persuade others in Europe?

P.S.: Europe is like a car whose driver recognizes he is heading toward a dead-end but refuses to admit he made a mistake when he navigated into that street. Instead, he presses the throttle still harder in an absolutely irrational hope that the street isn’t, in fact, a dead-end. Which is definitely there. Whenever the foreign ministers of the European Union come together, the others usually speak about how we have to put effort into convincing outside partners about the rightness of the European narrative.

But I really put a lot of effort in talking with colleagues outside of Europe: Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia, Latin America. They don’t care about the European narrative. They don’t care whether the war or the sanctions are to blame for their challenges. They are simply fed up with what is happening here, and they want this whole crazy thing to come to an end. The European mainstream has blown a communications bubble, in which they want Europe to be closed in, and not to see beyond the bubble. But the world isn’t about just Europe and North America. The vast majority of the world outside Europe and North America does not believe our narrative.

Foreign ministers from all over the world keep on telling me that they follow the Hungarian position, they follow the Hungarian struggle to hew to common sense, instead of going into this insane ideological debate in the European Union. But currently I have to tell you that, within Europe, it’s hopeless to change the way of thinking. Although, the situation could change a bit this weekend. If the Italian right-wing parties can win the elections in Italy, which I hope they can, then rationality might gather some further strength in Europe. Let’s keep fingers crossed. That’s all we can do.

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