Interview with Katalin Novák in the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera
Almost a year has gone since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Hungary is against sanctions on Russia and sending military aid to Kiev, but it does not veto EU decisions. What are Hungary’s goals and what does Budapest propose?
The question for me is how we can stop Russian aggression while avoiding the outbreak of a third world war. The goal of Hungarians is for all of us to live in peace. As a member of NATO and the European Union, Hungary stands by its allies. As Ukraine's immediate neighbour, perhaps we feel the threat and reality of the war even more keenly. One hundred and fifty thousand Hungarians live on the other side of the border, on this side of the Carpathian Mountains. We are not only pro-peace in general; we are striving to achieve the earliest possible ceasefire here and now as well. We stand by Ukraine, we help Ukraine beyond our means. Last year, one million refugees arrived in Hungary because of the war. We are also continuously taking aid supplies to Ukraine. In Kiev, I personally conveyed the support and the message of the financial contribution of the Hungarians to the shipment of ten thousand tons of grain to Africa. What should Europe do? I think it is right to firmly say: no more! Putin has crossed the Rubicon. A unified and strong stand is needed. The differences between our countries are in terms of the chosen means – and there should be such differences. The opportunities we have are also different. In this time of war, we need strong European leaders, frank closed-door discussions, joint strategic thinking and respect for each other.
2022 was a year of war. I wish 2023 to be a year of peace!
What must prevail: unity or the freedom to assert individual interests?
I see no contradiction between the two. In fact, a strong identity and national advocacy is essential. The true task facing Europe is to find unity while accepting that our history, our local conditions, our culture, our ways of thinking are different in many respects, while also being the same in the essentials. I see the common ground in the Judeo-Christian roots, in Christian culture. The European Union can still prove to be a success story in the historical perspective, if we do not abandon our Christian culture and if we can continue to take unanimous, common decisions. That there are disputes from time to time? Nothing could be more natural! I would not like to live in a country or in a world where there is no place for a difference of opinion. As for national interests and identity: Italy itself is an excellent example of how strongly people need these values.
How much do relations with Putin’s Russia matter?
Is there such a thing as Putin’s Russia? For me, there is only Russia, and Russia has been led by Vladimir Putin for a long time. Russia is a vast country, at a distance of a thousand kilometres from us, playing a role defined by its history, a rich culture that is in many ways different from our own. It is two hundred times larger than Hungary, more than fifty times larger than Italy, in fact, it could hold the whole European Union four times over. The Russian economy is one of the strongest in the world. We Hungarians respect Russian people, as we generally treat other nations with respect. Russia was, is and will be. Just as is the case with Hungary. There were, there are and there will be relations between the two countries, as between Europe and Russia or Ukraine and Russia. Let no one imagine romance in the Russian-Hungarian relations! Right now, 55 % of Hungary’s oil and 80% of Hungary’s gas consumption is supplied by Russia. We are working to significantly reduce this vulnerability as soon as possible.
We do not wish to interfere in Russia’s internal politics, but when another sovereign country is under armed attack, we can no longer remain silent. And we have not remained silent.
We Hungarians and I personally still have vivid recollections of Soviet imperial mentality and the way power was exercised. We wanted to have none of that in 1956, in 1989, and would want to have none of it today, either.
Relations with the Italian government and Prime Minister Meloni.
Today, Italy has a government of national sentiments that is pro-family and committed to Christian values. We are pleased and find it easy to cooperate with leaders who stand up for the interests of their nation and with whom we can speak in a tone of mutual respect. Italy is a key player in Europe also due to its size, historical background, richness of culture and strategic position. It is no secret that we have had a friendly relationship with Giorgia Meloni for years. She was not yet Prime Minister and I was not yet President when we met. I know her as a strong, family-oriented person of Conservative values, open to the world but who would give her life for her country. She is a trustworthy and reliable person. The interests and the intentions of Hungarians and Italians point to the same direction also in fields like taking a firm stance against illegal migration, the need for EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, the protection of Christians and standing up for the values of the family. These are only a few of the areas where we have a close cooperation. I have arrived in Rome on an official visit at the invitation of President Sergio Mattarella. I look forward to meeting him and I am hopeful about our discussions.
Who are Hungary’s allies in Europe today?
I consider the whole of Europe as our allies. We are closely united with the countries of Central Europe because we share the same geographical position and a common history, and this forged us into a community of fate. We also have economic potential in taking a stand together. The Visegrad Cooperation is a strong thread within this fabric. The countries of the South, having first-hand experience of the daily pressures of migration, perhaps understand better why this is a key issue for us as well. More and more people will realise that the natural decrease in population is far from being a matter of course, and we need to address why young people in our developed world cannot have as many children as they would like to have. We share energy supply problems with countries that do not have access to the sea. And concerning the countries of the Western Balkans, it is our shared experience that we need them within the EU and must therefore speed up their accession.
Many European governments, including the Italian, are asking for more cooperation on the admission of migrants.
We Hungarians have been ringing the migration alarm bell for the eighth year now. We have long been met with deaf ears, incomprehension and rejection. By now, the former (and present) Hungarian position is almost general. Mass illegal immigration is a phenomenon that illustrates what it is like when Europe makes tactical rather than strategic decisions. Many thought we could cope with such a huge migration pressure, and there are those who can still hardly see the negative consequences. Our position is straightforward. The EU needs strong external and permeable internal borders. Refugees must be helped, the reasons for their flight must be eliminated, irregular migrants must be turned back, we must take firm action against the human trafficking networks, and the number of economic migrants arriving legally must be kept within limits. And we must accept that European people do not think in the same way about this matter. In some places they want to see more economic migrants, in others less. Coercion cannot be used in this respect.
The EU has sanctioned Hungary on the rule of law: how do you intend to proceed with the reforms and manage relations with Europe?
I started my career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs twenty years ago. For years, my job was to inform the Hungarian people credibly about the benefits of Hungary's then imminent accession to the EU. I was pro-European then and I am pro-European now. We prepared for EU membership with excitement. Many thought that accession would solve all our difficulties. For ten years, we had to keep asserting that Hungary was worthy of finally becoming a full status member of the community of European countries once again, in legal, economic and administrative terms alike. I take the term „full status” very seriously. Hungary has been a Member State of the EU for nineteen years. We have learned the logic of operation and the rules, we are not novices. We demand the same „full status membership” for the Hungarians as is due to the citizens of the founders or those who joined later. A seat at the table in Brussels. And sovereignty in Budapest, in Hungary. We have honoured our commitments so far and will continue to do so. We speak our minds, we participate in joint decisions. This is how I see European cooperation. As President of Hungary, it is my duty to protect Hungary’s constitutional order, guard our Fundamental Law and represent my country. Hungary is a democratically governed state based on the rule of law. No one has succeeded in refuting that in merit yet. I follow the debates between the Hungarian Government and the institutions in Brussels, and support the legislative changes in accordance with the agreements between them with my signature.
For the sake of the Hungarian people and for the sake of Europe, I wish to see an end to this undignified tug-of-war as soon as possible. We have concerns enough, this endless debate is a waste of time, energy and resources. Instead, let us reflect together about how to bring the war in our neighbourhood to an end, overcome the economic difficulties, provide for Europe’s energy supplies independently of Russia, organise our defence together, guarantee the security of Europeans, speed up the accession of the Western Balkans and restore trust in European institutions eroded by a series of corruption cases.
What does Europe mean for you?
My home, including my country, Hungary.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has theorized about the need for illiberal democracy, do you agree?
The Prime Minister interpreted it enough times already. For me the emphasis is on democracy, an order and a functioning based on the will of the people. In terms of values, I am a Christian, Conservative woman who accepts and in fact expressly wants to hear opinions and ideas different from her own.
Viktor Orbán also attaches great importance to Hungarian minorities in other countries often evoking Greater Hungary: propaganda or a political project?
It is a fact of history that in the wake of the peace dictate of Trianon that ended World War I, Hungary lost two thirds of its territory and one third of its ethnic Hungarian population. The Western alliance system condemned it to death. We survived, but the consequences of the decision are severe. We were deprived of a major part of our resources, our hands and feet were cut off, figuratively speaking. In a hundred years we have acknowledged that in the case of the Hungarians, the borders of the nation and the country do not coincide. Hungarians live in every country neighbouring Hungary. Their well-being in their homeland is of key importance to us. We are responsible for each other. Those who see revisionism in this are exorcising demons. It is a substantial achievement that we have been able, almost without exception, to agree with the leaders of neighbouring countries on the conditions for peaceful coexistence. I cannot accept that it is exactly in war-ridden Ukraine that special energy is now devoted to making the situation of the national minorities living there impossible. While the use of the mother tongue and minority rights are indisputable.
The Visegrád Group has effectively fallen apart on Russia and Ukraine, how is it today?
Even if not thriving, the Visegrad Group is alive. A strong Visegrad community is in Hungary’s best interest. Therefore our position is that we need to put our differences, the points where our approach is different on the back burner, and we should show: people in Central Europe have strength, have potential! There is a lot of domestic political excitement in our partner countries. In Slovakia, the government fell again, Poland will have general elections in the autumn, and the vote of no confidence against the government was unsuccessful in the Czech Republic. Over the weekend, however, a new president was elected with a high turnout. I hope that as until now, we will cooperate closely with President Duda, President Caputova and President Pavel in the future as well.
You were Minister for Family Affairs. How would you summarize the Hungarian recipe to increase birth rates?
Young people can be encouraged to start a family by decisions that support childbearing and the raising of children, and a firm stand for families. And perhaps also by relating our own experiences. Like the Prime Minister of Italy, I also became a high-ranking leader when already a mother. We are raising three children with my husband, the oldest has already grown up, the youngest is eleven years old. I know very well how difficult it is to make the decisions in favour of our children when our career is also important to us. I also have first-hand experience of the daily sacrifices and difficulties in balancing family and work-related tasks. But I also know from experience that that there is hardly a greater source of joy in our lives than our children.
We in Hungary have set it as our goal that no one should be worse off only because they decided in favour of having children. The more children someone has, the less taxes they pay. Women who bring up at least four children never pay personal income tax in their lives. We support young people in building a home and starting a family as soon as possible. We forgive the student loan if a woman has children during or after university. I have been working for Hungarian families for ten years with an undying passion, and I could go on and on about what we have done. Suffice it to say that as a share of GDP, we spend the most in the world on helping families. Marriage rates have doubled, divorce rates have fallen, and also the willingness to have children has increased the most in our country. Yet the task is not easy. The coronavirus pandemic, the war, the economic challenges have made many uncertain. But we must stand by families even in difficult times.
The traditional family model and the opposition to what you call gender ideology exclude other family models. How do you reply to the accusation that Hungary discriminates women and Lgbtq people?
Everyone can live freely in Hungary, regardless of their gender, religion, nationality, political conviction or sexual orientation. Our laws protect sexual minorities as well. The Fundamental Law gives special protection to traditional family values, and it also clearly states: the father is a man, the mother is a woman, and marriage is a community of love based on the mutual decision of a man and a woman. Our goal is that children should grow up with a loving mother and a loving father, and if this right of theirs is somehow violated, they should get the appropriate support. As for opportunities for women: the employment of women has grown at a record rate in Hungary. More women than men earn a higher educational degree, the number of women entrepreneurs and leaders is on the rise, while many women choose to mainly focus on their children in the years after the baby is born. This choice is available to Hungarian women. And just as you, the Italian people, have elected your first female Prime Minister, in Hungary it is also the first time that the occupant of the presidential chair is a woman.
What will you do specifically to enhance women’s role in society?
I help Hungarian women what they want to be helped with. As the family bond has been traditionally strong in Hungary as well, yet more and more women wish to achieve substantial results in their profession at the same time as raising children, they need the most support in preventing the one from being an obstacle to the other. The aim is that no one should have to give up on starting a family because they want to have a career, and no one should have to give up on having a career because they want to have children. Talented women, families raising sick children, single parent families are key areas of my support and I also feel it is my duty to pay attention to women interested in public life. But the most important thing is to encourage girls and young women who are afraid that a family and a career may not fit into their lives at the same time. It is not easy. It was not easy for me either. But it is possible.
Women in power: what have you learnt up to now?
Power is a means, not an end. What can my being a woman add to this? Primarily an attitude that starts with listening to the other party. My experience is that if the intention to understand the partner precedes the will to persuade, doors that have been closed until then may open up. Especially if all this is accompanied by a smile.
The full interview, published in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera on 31 January 2023, can be read in Italian at the following link: https://www.corriere.it/esteri/23_gennaio_30/ungheria-kiev-putin-5cc1d338-a0d2-11ed-b6cb-0e3019005a4f.shtml?fbclid=IwAR1IobVHkXgxuE9H-dxKXGJaSZH1QUkVTzpzQ1thWrtH9YvoPW1TGzGyF4s