- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2018

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

Hungary has no intention of joining the “U.S.-bashing chorus in Europe,” in part because Budapest and Washington now are singing from the same page on issues such as immigration, security and the right of sovereign nations to set their own policies, Hungary’s foreign minister said in an interview.

Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto said the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a “natural ally” of the Trump administration, one that is willing to challenge the liberal orthodoxy within the European Union that has been sharply critical of his government and the Trump administration. He spoke at the end of a Washington visit Wednesday that included a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — the first face-to-face bilateral meeting of U.S. and Hungarian foreign ministers in six years.

He noted that Hungary has often been a lonely voice in Brussels blocking EU measures critical of the Trump administration, such as Budapest’s recent stand against a resolution critical of Mr. Trump’s decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

“There is a hysteria in the European Union against the United States and especially against the current administration,” Mr. Szijjarto said. “With this visit, I wanted to stress that Hungary is not joining this hysteria.

“We always respect the decisions of other countries to set their foreign policies and internal developments, and we expect the same kind of respect toward our decisions, which we did not feel we always got from the [previous] Democratic administration,” he added.

An unapologetic nationalist, social conservative and a critic of unchecked immigration and open borders, Mr. Orban has long sounded many of the same themes that helped propel Mr. Trump to the White House in 2016. It has also made his government, which won a smashing victory and a parliamentary supermajority in elections in April, a target of particular criticism from some of the EU’s leading powers, including Germany and France.

Migration fight

Rights groups have slammed Mr. Orban’s government for what they say is an increasingly illiberal agenda that includes intimidating critics and shutting Hungary’s borders to streams of refugees seeking asylum from the violence and chaos of the Middle East and other global crisis spots. The Orban government has even erected razor-wire fencing along its borders with Serbia and Croatia, while defying EU dictates that it accept tens of thousands of migrants.

As Mr. Szijjarto was in Washington, the Hungarian parliament was taking up a government bill imposing new restrictions on asylum-seekers and harsher penalties on organizations that promote or facilitate “illegal immigration.” The U.N. refugee agency said the package of bills being pushed by Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party would “deprive people who are forced to flee their homes of critical aid and services, and further inflame tense public discourse and rising xenophobic attitudes.”

But Mr. Szijjarto, a 39-year-old former spokesman for Mr. Orban who has been foreign minister since 2014, made no apologies for his government’s agenda or the determination of a country of just 10 million people to defend what he called its “Judeo-Christian heritage.” The proposed laws, he said, are targeted at punishing those who consciously violate Hungary’s immigration and asylum laws and help others do so.

He noted that Greek officials now say the crush of migrants seeking to get into the EU is as heavy as it was in the peak crisis period of 2015, with reports of large numbers of people crossing the Balkans on their way to Europe.

“We simply cannot allow anyone to encourage these people to come to Hungary,” the minister said. “The Hungarian people made a very clear decision that our national security comes first. We have spent a lot of money protecting our border — which is not only our border but the border of the EU as well — and for foreign-funded NGOs to go against that, that is not acceptable.”

Mr. Szijjarto said the recent success of conservative parties in larger countries such as Austria and Italy show that many of the themes that Mr. Orban and Fidesz have long championed are being embraced by voters across the continent.

“The parties that have an anti-migration policy have been doing very well,” he said. “We have to understand that the people of Europe consider security as the No. 1 issue.”

Sounding another Trumpian theme, Mr. Szijjarto said it’s not just Hungarians who are getting tired of being lectured about their values and cultural traditions by liberal elites.

“There’s been a hypocrisy and political correctness that has spread over European politics,” he said. “People are getting fed up with that and they are looking for politicians and political movements which speak honestly and straightforwardly.”

A strong EU

While Mr. Orban has been the most prominent of a group of Central European leaders challenging EU orthodoxy, Mr. Szijjarto insists his government is not out to undermine the bloc. What Budapest wants, he said, is a change in priorities.

Hungary can only be strong in a strong EU,” he said, noting that nearly 80 percent of Hungary’s exports go to other members of the bloc. “We are pushing for a strong EU, but there’s a very big debate about the future of the EU.”

The old consensus, he said, argued for a strong central authority in Brussels with less and less authority for the individual nations — a so-called United States of Europe.

“Our position is totally in the other direction,” he said. “We say that the EU can only be strong if the member-states are strong. Call it a ‘sovereigntist’ approach.”

It’s another issue that dovetails nicely with the approach championed by Mr. Trump, who has said he prefers bilateral relations to dealing with multilateral forums and complained specifically of the clout the EU wields as a bloc in trade talks.

The bilateral approach is paying off for Hungary, said Mr. Szijjarto, crediting A. Wess Mitchell, the new U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, for helping thaw relations after the chill that settled in during the Obama years. “We have a feeling that Central Europe is once again on the map of the leaders of the State Department,” he said.

During his visit this week, Mr. Szijjarto said he informed Mr. Pompeo that Hungary is prepared to take part in the NATO stabilization mission in Iraq. A contingent of Hungarian troops is being mustered, and talks have begun on when and where they will be deployed. The minister was also expected to sign a cooperation agreement with U.S. energy giant Exxon Mobil to export natural gas from a field in Romania to Hungary.

He acknowledged that refusing to sing in the anti-U.S. “chorus” within the EU can be taxing at times, but said Budapest feels no pressure to bend given the strong support at home the government enjoys.

“We are under criticism for so many issues that it doesn’t matter if there’s one more or one less,” he joked.

“But seriously, it is a matter of principle from our perspective. We say what we think and we act accordingly. Maybe that’s the reason we won three elections in a row and now have a supermajority.”

Mr. Trump’s unexpected electoral victory should be given more respect by those who claim to be America’s allies, he argued.

“As far as we were able to follow from Hungary, Donald Trump was pretty open about his plans during the campaign …,” Mr. Szijjarto said. “So the American people were in a position to have good information when they made their decision to elect him. The world must respect that, and we do.”


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