JUDIT VARGA is Hungary’s Minister of Justice and one of the best-known members of the cabinet. She has been the architect of Hungary’s strong defense of the country’s — and EU’s — borders. She had a meeting with journalists in the Hungarian embassy in Madrid where she spoke with me and José Antonio Fúster of La Gaceta about Europe, the war in Ukraine, the refugee crisis, and Viktor Orbán.
What is the current status of the negotiations with the European Commission?
We engaged in a very constructive, very positive negotiating procedure. It was a lot of work, but I have to say that all of the remedial measures that Hungary proposed at the end of this time were agreed upon with the Commission services. They requested guarantees from Hungary, and we gave them all the guarantees. In the next days and weeks, we will introduce new laws and amendments to comply with the requirements of the European Commission, so there will be no reason for more blockades. Now, it is in the hands of the Commission to decide [NOTE: the agreement between the two parties was officially announced on Sunday]. The conditionality procedure should really be a tool for prevention, not for sanction purposes, and can not be the hostage of certain political agendas. We also see that the European Parliament wants to be part of the problem, not the solution, but Hungary, the Commission and the member states are part of the solution.
So, there is a change in the Commission, because they have said before that the dialogue, on their part, was closed. Why do you think there has been this change in the Commission’s attitude?
I think we had an election time, a very sensitive period, and what we manage after elections is to decouple ideological issues from professional and pragmatic issues. I do not know what was the trigger for this change, but the conditionality mechanism is very clear and the Commission has to be very precise in what they ask for Hungary, and this is how we went truly down to the practical details. And I do hope that we can come to a very positive conclusion together.
A new resolution against Hungary was passed in the European Parliament; do you think this could affect the Commission’s decision? What price will Hungary have to pay for this resolution?
"*" indicates required fields
I think there is no price at all, because there is a common interest in having a very good improvement. It is true that many voices in the European Parliament, especially the German conservatives, did not want this to happen. But I am confident that the professionalism of the Commission can also reassure many of the criticisms. If the measures are approved by the Commission, the European Parliament has nothing to say.
You remember the reaction of George Soros the last time that the European Union gave funds to Hungary.
Yes, they are frustrated. The Parliament was a big part of the problem and the bigger these networks are, the bigger their frustration is because they feel that we have finally managed to get to the bottom of the issue and be very precise and professional. Of course, they have a very strong voice in the media, but member states and Commission services do not decide by what the media say.
The point is that this procedure has to end. Two years ago, Hungary showed solidarity with the rest of Europe, but all countries were able to use these recovery funds except Hungary and Poland. This is a moral issue, all the more so with the war in Ukraine and the need to free ourselves from Russian energy dependence. These funds are needed to finance our energy infrastructure. We have learned to be European and Hungarian at the same time, although it is sometimes difficult. But I am happy to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
After the EU’s support for Poland and Lithuania in the migration crisis, has there been any change regarding the Hungarian wall, and have funds been made available from Brussels?
Not yet. They have only provided 1-2% of the cost of the wall and hiding the fact that the money is to finance the defence of the border. They cannot say this openly because it goes against their principles. However, I can assure you that from the Hungarian side we will stand strong on our migration policy. S
o far this year there have been 175,000 attempts to cross the border illegally, and for us this is a red line. Before the war, the Baltic countries and Poland faced the same challenge, so reality has knocked at the door and put pressure on European politicians to rethink their position. We accept what other countries decide on migration issues, but we also expect those countries to respect our point of view. We do not believe that mass migration is good for Europe or for the future of Europeans. We want to include in the Treaty that family policy matters and that the EU has to finance not only migration and integration, but also families having children. This is the Hungarian model.
Hungary spends 5% of its GDP on family policies. In 2010, our birth rate was at 1.21, now it is at 1.56. It is still not enough, because we have to reach 2.1, but we are on the right track. Moreover, many Hungarians, who left their country for economic reasons, are returning home.
Do you think Brussels will be able to understand Hungary’s value? Time is proving Fidesz (the government party in Hungary) right, but for the moment you are alone.
Yes, but the world is always changing. Now we have a very cold winter coming, with rising food and fuel prices, and I think this will bring politicians closer to their own reality. What is not normal is that in parliament they are talking about Hungary instead of debating their own problems. Look at the protests in some countries or what has happened in Sweden, this should shake up those who live in the bubble.
I am not naïve, I know that there are strongly rooted structures in society that follow the model of the elite, and that deny the truth through the media. But citizens’ issues can counteract this, especially when we see the trend: Italy, Sweden, even in France, where there has been a change in the National Assembly. Or America, where in November there may be a conservative change in Congress. For us, our main policy is to always tell the truth and not to change, regardless of whether we have friends or not. We now have such a strong democratic legitimacy that whatever comes, we will overcome it.
We give a simple answer to the great challenges of the 21st century, such as migration or gender, and this answer is shared by the majority of Hungarian society. In the elections, Fidesz won more than 50% of the votes, but in the referendum on child protection, which argued that it is up to parents to educate their children, 700,000 additional people voted in favor of the government’s measures, i.e. they were opposition voters. This is a question of cultural identity: are you in favour of the traditional family? Do you want to live in your country with your compatriots? Politicians in other countries will have to answer these questions, and today the answers are to be found on the right.
Just a week ago Fidesz won a local election in a district of Budapest, a city that votes overwhelmingly left-wing.
Yes, in the Buda Castle district. It is a small victory in a traditionally left-wing area and does not allow us to win Budapest back yet, but it is proof that the citizens understand that the rising prices are not the fault of the government, but of the war and the sanctions. It is as simple as that. Our task is to make that clear. The existential threat caused by the war means that citizens are more concerned about the electricity bill than about politicians, which is why the opposition, which only peddles ideology, is becoming less and less popular.
Do you think that one of the consequences of this war, of this clash with reality, is the end of green policies in Europe?
This must serve to ensure that decisions in Europe are taken as a whole, decisions to the challenges of this war must be taken from the bottom up, not imposed on the member states. For example, with the oil embargo, the members were not consulted beforehand. Or in the case of gas, in Central Europe it is not a question of ideology or buying cheaper; it is about having gas at all. It is a question of geography. Look at the map: as much as Western countries want or wish to supply us with gas, they can’t do it. There are no pipelines between Spain and Hungary, or between Belgium and Hungary, and if we want to be realistic and show solidarity we have to think about the interests of all members. When 80% of the gas comes from Russia, even if it comes from an interconnector in Austria or Romania, it is still Russian gas.
In the last ten years we have invested in interconnections with our neighbouring countries, but nothing changes if these countries buy gas from Russia. There was a European project which, unfortunately, has failed so far and now winter is coming, and we cannot get rid of this dependence on Russian gas. These are the facts. Green policies are all very well if a country decides to follow them, but at the negotiating table in Brussels, they have to understand other points of view.
The war in Ukraine is driving a wedge between Hungary and its partners in Visegrad, what can Hungary do to remedy this situation?
V4 cooperation has always been very pragmatic and even with governments with different ideologies. Of course, some media have tried to exaggerate the differences with the Russian issue. Differences that are not ideological, but practical, because we have to secure our gas supply.
The Poles have understood that this is a practical problem, but when it comes to an existential threat or a security issue, we send our fighters to defend the airspace of the Baltic countries. We did this before the war because we understand the nature of this threat, and it has always been the case. And despite what the media say, we always find good common ground. I believe that the future of Europe lies in Central Europe because with our policy of investment and local exception we can offer a different economic policy to get out of the crisis, and our model works.
Your economic model works, is that the key?
There is a good phrase from the prime minister, a good recipe for how to succeed in conservative policies: the truth doesn’t matter if you don’t have power. We are aware of our capabilities, we are a country of ten million people, but we are given disproportionate attention because we have succeeded in our conservative policies. It’s very nice to talk about family and national culture, but if you don’t succeed economically then nothing matters. It is a sine qua non to succeed economically.
In Hungary, we opted for the family instead of migration, we opted for choices that are not those offered by the liberals. That is how the term “illiberal” came about, which has nothing to do with civil liberties and which for us means that it is not in accordance with the liberal recipe. An “illiberal” democracy means that democracy can be different, it doesn’t have to be only liberal democracy, it can be national conservative, it can be Christian democratic. This is the key to understanding the economic and social recipe that Hungary has successfully followed, and which could be dangerous for liberals in Europe because, if it works and succeeds, it could be copied by others. Conservative economic policies can succeed, create jobs, and support families.
Is there going to be any change in the abortion law?
No, there is not going to be any change. Listening to the baby’s heartbeat is a practice that was already being carried out and which has been formalized in a decree of the Ministry of Health, but which has served to start another hate campaign. The truth is that nothing has changed. In Hungary, we have many preventive plans against abortion, and many family support NGOs that offer their services so that mothers have an alternative to abortion, through financial support or adoption.
Viktor Orbán is one of the most popular politicians in Spain among conservatives. You know him, what is Viktor Orbán like?
Viktor Orbán is a politician who has consistently led popular support for twelve years, and his personal credibility is greater than that of the party. It is not just about charisma; he is a politician with more than thirty years of career who was a freedom fighter against dictatorship and rallied against Soviet troops. He is a true Hungarian with a big heart and love for his country.
Even those who hate him in Hungary say they believe in him during a crisis because they know he is the only one who can save the country. His proven ability to lead the country is widely accepted by society, and this is democracy. I have known him since I entered politics and every choice he makes is guided by a very simple logic: What is good for the country? And he has the capacity to think three or four steps ahead of the majority. It is as simple as that, he is a person who loves his job and his country, and he is a great strategist.
There is a Hungarian card game called “ulti” and he is a great player, and he always says that politics is like “ulti” because every game is unexpected and different, and you need a combination of rational thinking and intuition. He also says that if you make many decisions in a day and 60% of them are correct, you can be satisfied.
Is the big difference with most European politicians that Orbán thinks about what Hungary will be like in 20 or 30 years’ time?
Yes, Orbán has a vision, and he has a lot of experience in politics, because he has been in opposition for 16 years and in government for 16 years. Along with Rutte, he is the politician who has served the longest in the European Council.
In the face of this crisis that diverts our attention in many directions, as conservatives or national-conservatives, we cannot lose sight of our goals. Even at this time, we must continue to take decisions, such as investing in modernizing our army or defending our borders. And at the same time, we have received a million Ukrainian refugees, a real humanitarian catastrophe that has nothing to do with mass migration. These are real refugees who want to return to their country when the war is over, and Hungary is doing everything it can to help them.
Álvaro Peñas is a political analyst specializing in Eastern European countries. He writes for El Correo de España and several European digital outlets. He is deputy director of two programs on Decisión Radio and a regular contributor to the television channel 7NN.