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“The entire European Union is in a state of reconfiguration”: Exclusive Interview with János Lázár, Head of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office

János Lázár is the Minister of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). In an exclusive interview last month with Hungary Today and Ungarn Heute, Lázár spoke at length about Hungarian-American relations, Hungary’s place in the EU, the ongoing “Lex CEU” controversy, and other current political issues.

This interview has been translated from Hungarian, and edited for clarity.

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The Friends of Hungary Foundation is made up of well-known, opinion-forming citizens of their respective countries, for whom the fate of Hungary is a cause near and dear to their hearts. This May, the Foundation will be hosting its fourth annual conference in Budapest. What is your opinion of the Foundation’s activities?

The point of view of the Hungarian government is that the Foundation performs an extremely important task. There is a tremendous need for the work performed under the leadership of [Chair of the Board of Trustees] Dr. Vizi, because the best and most authentic voices to get across the Hungarian government’s point of view, as well as to represent our national values, are the voices of those who live in the communities where these discussions are being held. The people who can most authentically introduce our homeland in western countries are those who have one foot here in Hungary, but their other in the given communities in which they live. What I see is that, in western European countries, if there are questions regarding Hungary, these are most often posed to those Hungarians who have been living in the West for decades. Those who have been living in these communities since 1945 or 1956, who are members of either the first or even second immigrant generation, are seen as the most reliable sources of information. It is very important for us to be able to provide information as to the current state of the country, as well as what the most important national goals are, where we would like to form consensus regardless of party affiliation or political belief. In this as well we rely on these Hungarians living abroad; in this sense, they are not only friends of Hungary, but our ambassadors to the world as well.

A sizeable number of Foundation members live in the United States or Canada. We have received, and continue to receive, numerous questions regarding the state of American-Hungarian relations, as it is rather difficult to get a clear view of the issue.

Hungary very rarely finds itself at the center of European or world attention, perhaps every 50-100 years or so. In the recent past, I would describe the change of regimes in the 90s as one of these turning points, which was preceded by 1956, and earlier still by 1920. Generally, the world begins to pay attention to us when there is some sort of uniquely Hungarian issue. Now we live in an era, when the entire European Union is in a state of reconfiguration. The withdrawal of the British changes the European power map, while at the same time Russian-European, as well as European-American, relations are seeing a realignment of responsibilities and roles. In these times, Hungary’s role becomes more important, since geopolitically speaking, we are in a location in Central Europe that is a gateway between East and West. Since 2010, the government has been strongly pursuing policies that protect national interests and sovereignty. This hurts the interests of many, and for this reason very many people are now interested in Hungary, despite the fact that we are not on the map of the world’s most important countries. Europe today is in a state of change, and for this reason the approach and attitude of each country is interesting.

How is the American-Hungarian relationship? We are talking now about Hungary’s twelfth-largest trading partner, meaning that in an economic sense American capital has a great deal of significance. Undeniably, the Clinton, and later the Obama, administrations had continuous problems with Fidesz, and many worked to discredit or bring into question our politics. A Democrat administration could not identify with a national-Christian-conservative political line, and this led to differences, and occasionally to tensions as well. We hope that has come to an end, and that we can count on fair and unprejudiced judgement of our actions in Washington DC, which is not only our economic partner, but our chief national security ally as well. We expect that, when the new US administration comes fully to its feet, it will judge Hungary’s situation, positions, goals, and efforts fairly and justly, without bias.

Hungary was a “country of informants”—those who left the country know what I mean—and unfortunately it remains so to this very day, with the difference that now they aren’t undertaken by fascist or communist building superintendent. Today, instead of sending complaints to the [Communist] Party Centre or Party Committee, they send them to Brussels or Washington, on the basis of untrue accusations. We hope that in Brussels, Washington, and Berlin as well, they evaluate these complaints fairly and justly.

Will there be a meeting between Trump and Orbán in the foreseeable future?

It is naturally to be expected, that there where will be discussions at the highest level as well between Hungary and the United States. At the same time, we must keep in mind the fact that the American government has problems beyond learning about, coming to understand, and judging the situation in Central Europe.

Why is it necessary to switch ambassadors?

Since a new American ambassador will be arriving in Budapest, we feel that the Hungarian side is in need of a new top diplomat to work with the new US administration. The Prime Minister has thanked [former Ambassador] Réka Szemerkényi for her work, and has tasked Deputy Foreign Minister László Szabó with the task of representing Hungarian interests in the United States going forward.

From abroad, and from an academic point of view, the intense political and ideological conflict surrounding CEU and other institutions supported by George Soros are particularly incomprehensible. Chairman of the Board Dr. Vizi likewise always stresses the importance of academic and research freedom. Why was it necessary for Hungary to modify the higher-education law? What is going on in this question?

This issue really has caught the attention of European and international public opinion, first and foremost because George Soros has a huge amount of influence. We are dealing with two things hear. If you are asking if the government has a problem with CEU, the answer is that it does not. The Hungarian government recognizes the academic achievements of CEU, and values its educational work. The government’s issue is that a university is operating in Budapest, under the name of CEU, where 70% of the students come from abroad—in addition, this university enjoys privileges that Hungarian institutions do not. Must a foreign university operating in our country obey Hungarian laws, or does it stand above them? That is the point of this debate. We are talking about a regulatory question: what rules apply to Hungarian universities, and what apply to foreign ones that operate in Budapest. In our view, every foreign university that operates in Budapest needs to follow the same rules as their Hungarian counterparts.

As to the Hungarian government’s disputes with George Soros, that is a question entirely separate from the issue of CEU. Soros’ point of view is that immigration will solve all problems, and for this reason, instead of stopping it, immigration must be organized into Europe. This is completely incompatible with Hungarian values, we will never agree with this. We believe that organizations supported by George Soros, pose a danger, rather than providing an advantage, to Hungary. We have no need for someone to organize half a million illegal migrants to come to our border, and then try to sneak them into the country, or into the European Union. We don’t think that this helps Hungary or the European Union.

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Hungary has been a full member of the European Union for going on thirteen years now; nevertheless, there are few member states that one can read such negative, tendentious articles about in the western press as about Hungary.

That is because few member states have governments as innovative, and at the same time willing to come into conflict in order to defend itself, as we have!

Here in Hungary, we can read government advertisements saying that “Let’s Stop Brussels.” Why are you engaging in such loud conflicts over political and economic disputes within our own alliance system?

Europe is in a state of transition. The question is, should there be more, or less, ‘Brussels’ in the future. Hungarian citizens are very strongly pro-EU, but at the same time they reject the bureaucracy of Brussels. Hungarians do not have a problem with the idea of Europe, nor with the European Union, but rather with Brussels itself. We now have to answer questions such as, do we need more or less integration? What member state powers do we still need to hand over to Brussels? We believe that national values should be given greater consideration. This is what we are debating. There are countries that think similarly, that don’t want to hand ever more power over, while there are others who would hand over all their independence for the creation of a “United States of Europe.” We don’t think of “Let’s Stop Brussels” as being anti-EU. All this is about, is that we don’t want to cede more powers to Brussels. We want to decide how much taxes or welfare will be in Hungary, how we can support employers, how many migrants we allow in. The Hungarian Parliament and Hungarian voters need to decide these things, not Brussels.

If you open a modern history book, you will find that, in general, the history of the EU is one of ever-increasing integration, from the Treaty of Rome all the way until the 2008 financial crisis. At the same time, in 2011, when Hungary took up the presidency of the EU, its motto was “Strong Europe.” Do you believe that Europe can be strong without the EU moving further along the path to greater integration?

Yes, especially since member states have already ceded many powers and decisions to the European Union. It is impossible to build a strong Europe with weak member states. Integration does not excuse countries from working to be strong and competitive in economic and cultural spheres. There is no such thing as a competitive Europe if member states are in a bad shape. The European economy can’t grow, if member states’ societies, educational systems, and economies are not in good shape. There are certain things that you can only solve locally. Integration is not the only important planning principle; so is subsidiarity, when we give member states and communities the right to make decisions regarding their own fates.

Many are concerned by the remarkably good nature of Russian-Hungarian relations, since this is also nearly always mentioned in a negative tone by the international media. Why is it worthwhile for Hungary, a member of the EU and of NATO, to build a friendly relationship with Russia, when EU-Russia and American-Russian relations are both at low points?

Geopolitically speaking, we are at the border of East and West, meaning that it is in our interest to have balanced and good relationships with everyone. On the one hand, we have a foreign policy strategy based in the fact that, of course, we are NATO and EU members; at the same time, we need to open to the East as well, and make use of opportunities for cooperation in the East. On the other hand, there are some basic conditions at play, such as the fact that, in this past year’s -20° C weather, four million households kept warm using Russian natural gas, which of course comes from the East. It could come from the West as well, except for the fact that, at the present moment, Russian gas is coming from the West as well as a result of Russian-German energy cooperation. The EU and the US have done nothing in the last 20 years to provide Hungarian households with an alternative source of gas. In addition, Russian gas is the cheapest. Ultimately then, our cooperation is pragmatic, not emotional. We believe in the continuation of Europe, democracy, the rule of law, and Hungarian historical traditions; in many situations, these are antithetical to Russian expansion.

Can this “pragmatism” be seen in Hungarian-Russian energy cooperation, particularly in the Paks 2 investments? Why is this investment necessary, and why in particular does it require Russian support to be realized?

Keeping up the capacity of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is necessary in order to keep electricity in Hungary affordable for both residential and industrial purposes, since the nuclear plant provides 50% of our electricity. The operation permit for the nuclear plant expire around 2030. Naturally, this does not mean that we are only thinking of nuclear energy; the long-term plan is to have half of the country’s energy come from Paks, and the other half come from green energy. The idea of “only green energy” is a luxury of rich countries. More than 100 nuclear power plants operate in the United States of America; these play a great role in the fact that America is one of the world’s most economically competitive countries. There are many arguments in favor of nuclear technology, first and foremost of which is inexpensive electricity. For Hungary to be competitive, we need to ensure even cheaper electricity for economic actors. We must look at European electricity costs: they are higher than American costs. This places Europe at a competitive disadvantage.

 If we accept that there is a need for nuclear energy, then Russian technology is also necessary, since at the present there is only one nuclear plant operating in Hungary, and it was built with Russian technology. It would be an unacceptable security risk if, on one side of the fence there was a Russian nuclear reactor, while on the other side there was one built with American or French technology. There is no chance for something like that anywhere in the world. The EU said in a statement that in the sphere of nuclear power “technological determination” is at play in Hungary. We have a power plant built with Russian technology, whose capacity we would like to upkeep. We signed an agreement with the Russians that ensures our independence in two ways: the Russian credit line can be returned at any time, while the nuclear power plant will be operated with independent, that is both Russian and American, fuel.

In 2018, Hungary will hold elections for the National Assembly. If the current governing parties win the support of voters for an additional four years, what would be the chief goals, plans, and programs of the next governing cycle? What are those things that you would do differently or better, than what you have done since 2010?

There is a very intense campaign ahead of us in the next 12 months, perhaps the roughest in the last 30 years. We are expecting it to be a large, drawn-out struggle. First and foremost, the governing parties have to show the work that they have achieved over the last 8 years. We have plenty to show, we should not be ashamed of our achievements. The will and wisdom of the voters will ultimately decide if we continue to have their trust, or not. Over the past 7 year, we have done two things: we have strengthened the country’s economy, and strengthened its independence. The question is what we can use these for in the coming years. The main goal is to make Hungary into Central Europe’s strongest country. We have much work ahead of us to achieve this, but if we continue along the path that we have been going down over the past few years, it is not an unachievable goal.

Can Hungary support autonomy movements on the part of Hungarian minorities as effectively as in an economic issue, when it supported a “Székely David” against a “Dutch Goliath” [a reference to the conflict between the Transylvanian Igazi Csíki Beer and Heineken, and the Hungarian government’s controversial ‘Lex Heineken’ law—eds.]

Hungarians abroad are not in an easy position. When we look at the political and economic statistics of neighboring countries—particularly demographic statistics—we can see that Hungarians are dwindling in number virtually everywhere in the Carpathian basin. In the case of Ukraine, we are talking about a war-zone. Since there is essentially a civil war going on in one half of the country, essentially the only hope of survival for Transcarpathian Hungarians is direct assistance from Hungary in their everyday lives. Today, in Transcarpathia, the state would essentially not operate in Hungarian-majority counties, if it weren’t for financial support from the Hungarian government.

In Romania, the past two years have seen government policies come to the fore that deliberately attack Hungarian interests: churches, communities, schools, individuals. It has violated the rights of civil society groups, the independence of universities, the self-determination of churches, just as it has not respected private property rights. In Vojvodina, the lucky thing is that Hungarians there are able to cooperate well with both Budapest and Belgrade. For Belgrade, Budapest is a very good ally for Serbia’s hopes of becoming an EU member, and for this reason we can find common ground. In Budapest, we must always plan national politics in conjunction with Hungarian minorities, in the interest of Hungarian minorities.

Reporting Tamás Székely and Balázs Horváth

Translated by Tom Szigeti