While the EU deploys all its diplomatic resources so that Hungary supports the ban on imports of Russian oil, including an express visit to Budapest this Monday by Ursula von der Leyen, the Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Péter Szijjártó, insists undaunted in which his country will not vote in favor unless Brussels offers him “a solution” to the costs necessary to achieve energy independence. Szijjártó (Komáron, 43 years old) rejects that his veto protects the interests of Russia, his historical ally: “We are used to it; we are always presented as friends of the Russians and spies of [Vladímir] Putin”.
Considered at home as the possible successor of the ultra-conservative populist Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian chancellor disdains the process initiated by the European Commission to block European funds to his country due to the deterioration of the rule of law, which he considers “blackmail”. “They cannot digest that we are a right-wing, successful and patriotic government,” he said Tuesday at his country’s consulate in Malaga, after attending an international conference on terrorism.
Ask. How are the talks on the Russian oil embargo going?
Response. The EU Heads of State and Government reached an agreement in Versailles that made it clear that we Europeans want to diversify energy sources and supplies in order to get rid of this high level of dependence on Russian energy. But it must be done taking into account the very diverse energy structures of the countries. Hungary is landlocked and, due to the historical determination of infrastructure, we are dependent on Russian oil and gas. This Commission proposal creates a huge problem for us. Our refinery is designed for Russian oil. To refine another, we would have to make investments of between 500 and 550 million euros that would take about four years. To replace the oil pipeline from Russia, it is necessary to expand the capacity of the one that comes from the Adriatic Sea, which would mean 200 million euros and it is not known how long. The gas price increase in Hungary would be 55%. What we told the President of the Commission on Monday was that her proposal creates a problem for us. We cannot vote in favor unless we are offered a solution.
P. What solution are you looking for?
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R. To finance the change of technology in the refineries, for the capacity to be increased by the pipeline in Croatia, someone has to pay. And we also have to pay for the modernization process of the entire energy system to avoid a 55% increase in prices, which is unbearable for the population. So far no such plan has been presented. The rational thing would be for the ban on Russian oil imports to be made on maritime deliveries. But pipeline deliveries should be exempt.
P. As for money, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, warned that any attempt to associate the embargo with the recovery fund would be unacceptable. Has there been any connection?
R. Absolutely none. In the event of an oil ban, our energy system would have to be completely overhauled, and that would cost money. But that has nothing to do with other issues.
P. Are you concerned that their refusal to endorse the sanctions plan could portray them as Putin’s endorser in the EU?
R. This proposal would cause much more damage to us than to the Russians. For us it is a Hungarian question and not a Russian one. We have become accustomed to the fact that, whatever we do, whatever we say – even if others feel the same, but do not say it out loud – we are always presented as friends of the Russians and spies of Putin.
P. What is your relationship with Putin at the moment?
R. Before we had a pragmatic relationship. Since the war broke out, Prime Minister [Viktor Orbán] had a conversation with President Putin at the initiative of this [tras la victoria electoral de Fidesz, el partido mayoritario en Hungría, el 3 de abril]. And basically, that’s it. The prime minister offered Budapest to host any peace talks. This war poses a serious risk to the security of Hungary. We have condemned the military aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine. We are in favor of Ukraine, without a doubt. And we are currently carrying out the largest humanitarian effort in history: we are a country of less than 10 million people, but the number of refugees who have arrived from Ukraine so far has reached 700,000.
P. But most leave later. How many are left?
R. After a while, one part leaves, another part stays. [Los segundos] They are in the 100,000s.
P. Have the recent attacks in the Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia, with a significant Hungarian minority, made you reconsider your decision not to send weapons?
R. We do not want the Hungarian-Ukrainian border to be a scene of arms deliveries. Those attacks were on highways and weapons stores. We will not send and will not allow the transit of weapons through Hungary.
P. How is your relationship with Ukraine? A few days ago, a senior Ukrainian official suggested that Putin had warned Orbán of the invasion in advance, and before that his country’s prime minister said that President Volodymyr Zelensky was an adversary.
R. Before the war, we had a not very nice relationship due to the continuous violation of the rights of the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia. But immediately after it broke, we put all these issues in parentheses. It was not pleasant, to say the least, that they tried to interfere in our election campaign. And these kinds of provocations, like the last one you mentioned, that we knew about it beforehand and wanted to occupy part of their territory, are stupid. Why do they criticize us? Because we don’t deliver weapons. It doesn’t seem fair to us because, in the meantime, we welcome all your refugees and we don’t want to be thanked. We are a Christian nation, so it is obvious to welcome people fleeing war.
P. In this case, yes, but those fleeing from Syria were not welcomed.
R. They are totally different issues. Between Syria and Hungary, there are at least seven safe countries. And those people, who attacked our border, had no right to come to Hungary.
P. Brussels has for the first time initiated the procedure to withhold EU funds due to concerns about the rule of law in Hungary. What will be your next step?
R. It is a bit suspicious that we won the elections overwhelmingly – the fourth in a row with a two-thirds majority, and with 55% of the vote – and two days later, the Commission has launched this procedure.
P. The Commission had said that in order not to interfere in the campaign it would wait until after the elections.
R. All these allegations and accusations against us are purely political. They should not blackmail us with this type of legal procedure. They cannot digest that we are a right-wing, successful and patriotic government. We go against the liberal current on many issues and we have the support of the people. We understand that democracy is when the will of the people is fulfilled. Brussels understands that this is when the liberals govern. On specific issues we are always willing to debate, but on perceptions it makes no sense.
P. The Commission’s concerns are very specific: corruption, the independence of judges and the efficiency of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
R. We have record growth. If there is systematic corruption in a country, you can’t get record growth. There is no systematic corruption in Hungary. The judiciary is free.
P. In relation to the future of Europe, what do you think about the reform of the treaties and the end of unanimity to make certain decisions, which are being debated?
R. The EU can be strong if the Member States themselves are strong. We do not believe in the United States of Europe, but in the European Union of Member States. The correct way to make decisions is consensus so as not to violate or harm the interests of any State. Once you move towards a majority system, the strongest countries, with the most influence, can decide everything. Unanimity must be preserved.
P. Poland has distanced itself from you because it considers your position to be pro-Putin and the Visegrad group [V-4: ambos países, más Eslovaquia y República Checa] is on hold. Are you worried about being isolated and weakened in the European Union?
R. Between Hungary and Poland there is no friendship, there is a brotherhood. There are a much larger number of issues on which we agree. The strength of V-4 is that we cooperate on issues where we have a consensus, and where we don’t, we respect it and set it aside. With the war in the spotlight, everything is becoming more spectacular, more visible. We will survive.
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