The prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, tells The Telegraph why his country agrees with Britain in its campaign against the ‘creeping’ power of Brussels.
Viktor Orban has just had a good meeting with David Cameron. It was easier than his first with Margaret Thatcher (in 2001). “I am not satisfied with you,” were, he recalls, her first words. She was angry that Hungary was not doing more to help protect Nato’s soldiers from Serb aggression.
Despite this rebuff, Mr Orban is a Thatcher admirer. His political career began in 1988 when he was one of 37 young students and intellectuals founding a party to attack Communist rule in his country.
“Her role was very important: she was always in favour of freedom, always anti-Communist. She said, ‘There is no such thing as society.’ I like that remark very much because in European politics people were always talking in artificial sociological language. Social engineering was very popular.”
When he attended Lady Thatcher’s funeral in April, he was pleased that the Bishop of London explained what she really meant by those famous words. “The funeral was very moving and very British – not tragical, as it would be on the Continent – more of a tribute.”
Young Viktor, a clever boy from a country background, won a George Soros scholarship to Oxford to study civic society as seen by liberal political philosophers such as John Locke. He loved the “electrifying dance” of ideas there; but this was the autumn of 1989 and the Berlin Wall was coming down. Here was the chance actually to build a liberal civic society at home. “I said to myself, ‘Viktor, what are you doing here?’ and I took the occasion of our first free elections in March 1990 to go back.”
He became prime minister for the first time in 1998, until 2002, and then, after wilderness years, returned to power with a landslide in 2010. His time in office has been controversial. He has been accused, often by European Union officials, of too much nationalism, of suppressing media freedom, politicising the judiciary and the central bank, and even of stirring up ethnic tensions. Has the great liberal freedom-fighter narrowed? Is there a risk that he could become an authoritarian strongman, the Vladimir Putin of his country?
“The risk is there,” Mr Orban rather surprisingly admits, though it is much smaller if Hungary is economically successful. He thinks that circumstances have changed.
For 200 years, the “No. 1 motivation” for Hungarians was to catch up with more competitive Westerners. Until the credit crisis, Mr Orban believed that this could only be achieved by the “ever-closer union” of Europe. Now he has his doubts.
The crisis shows that it is not obvious that the EU can do better than independent nations. Unlike the British, he cannot rule out joining the eurozone, because of its centripetal pull for a small country like his, “but I don’t urge it. To stand alone on your own feet is more important than ever.” Hungary certainly should not join until it reaches 90 per cent of the GDP of those already in, he believes; right now it is in the low sixties.
“As I get older [he is still only 50], I tend to be more sceptical. Values are more important than money. National sovereignty is more and more important in my mind. The question ‘Who is governing us?’ is the key question.”
So he supports David Cameron’s efforts to change the European rules: “We shall need a new basic treaty eventually.” He wants to join Britain in resisting “the creeping movement of Brussels to eat up national sovereignty”.
The old answer that everything Westerners did was better is now “stupid”. In the 1980s, the question Hungarians faced was “how to get rid of things” – Communism, state oppression, over-regulation. Now that should stop. There are things which should be upheld in the interests of civilisation, not jettisoned: “It would be a sad story to get rid of religious belief, national identity, family and even sexual identity. That’s not freedom.”
In some schools on the continent, the idea has got about that “children should not be brought up as girls or guys”, but to choose their sexual identity later. “Sometimes there is a separate changing room for those who don’t know who they are,” he exclaims.
What does he say to accusations that he is stirring up old ethnic, territorial passions in the region? Some blame him for the rise of the fascistic Jobbik party in Hungary. His answer is based on his belief that “Xenophobia is dangerous; but patriotism is a good thing”. Ethnic disputes, often about land, are “a part of life in Eastern Europe”, he says.
“How do we live with this?” he asks, “The solution is not to lie.” Radicals of both left and right get about 15 per cent of the vote between them. That is too high for comfort, but “far away from being a majority”.
At the heart of the problem in Europe, Mr Orban believes, is the fact that the Communists were never fully defeated. Communism as an ideology “has no message for our future”, but, unlike Nazism, it prevailed for so long (40 years in Hungary’s case) that its leaders, who “were not stupid guys” created a culture which maintained their power. They upheld envy “as a perception of life”, making people “disagree with the world as it is and try to destroy it”.
They also inculcated a belief in “entitlements without any personal effort”. In Hungary, Communism brought about what he calls “a learned helplessness”, a deliberate destruction of personal responsibility, which crushed the middle class.
We discuss the row here about Ed Miliband and his Marxist father. Without commenting on the Labour situation, Mr Orban says that there is a family tree passing from Communism through “the ’68 generation” (such as the former revolutionary, now MEP, Daniel Cohn Bendit) to Brussels bureaucrats and the media today.
“The Communist heritage has a marriage with the radical liberals today. That genealogy exists in Europe.” He detects it in the doctrine of European human rights and the attempts by the European Commission to impose cultural and constitutional uniformity on member states.
For conservatives, he goes on, this is difficult, because “we find we must argue, and conservatives generally prefer just to live. We are shy to invest the energy, but we must do so at a European level.”
Personally, Viktor Orban is not shy. He is up for the fight. “Boxing is a noble sport,” he declares pugnaciously. In the West, politics is often “just a career”. For him, he says, it is much more. He remembers the hard times in the late 1980s when Fidesz, his then tiny party, was opposed by the Soviets, by trade unions, militias and the state apparatus. “We were surrounded, and we won. Compare the risk now – it’s nothing. It’s just a peanut.”
Source: The Telegraph