- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2020

When President Trump was elected in 2016, the foreign ministers of every European Union country held an emergency meeting to plot their course of action. Only two declined to show up. One was Britain’s Boris Johnson, now prime minister of the newly Brexited United Kingdom. The other was Hungary’s Peter Szijjarto.

“Why should we? Let’s leave it to the Americans who they elect. I didn’t see the point of debating the results of a presidential election that wasn’t even in the European Union,” recalls Mr. Szijjarto, who is still Hungary’s foreign minister and also its trade minister.

Mr. Szijjarto, only 41 years old and already in his seventh year heading up his Central European country’s foreign ministry, made a one-day trip to Washington this week, and granted an exclusive interview to the Washington Times.

Mr. Szijjarto may have been blase about the results of the 2016 presidential election, but he’s taking a keen interest in this year’s proceedings.

Under Mr. Trump, relations between Washington and Budapest have blossomed. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was recently granted a bilateral meeting with the U.S. president, the first in about a decade. Economic ties are strengthening. What the Hungarian government considers to be meddling in its internal affairs has largely ceased.

“Under the Obama administration, there were open attempts to interfere with the domestic issues of ours,” he says, citing, for instance, how the highest ranking official in the U.S. embassy in Budapest “openly took part in opposition rallies” and the visa bans placed on Hungarian government officials.

Under Mr. Trump, by contrast, Hungary and the U.S. enjoy a bilateral relationship “based on mutual respect [and] strong economic cooperation.” Mr. Szijjártó fears that should the Democrats take the White House in November, “the same approach [will] come back.”

Yet even as Mr. Trump has embraced closer ties with Hungary, ostensibly on a principle of non-interference in domestic affairs (a principle that occasionally vanishes where left-wing governments like Venezuela’s are concerned) the government in Budapest remains something of a pariah.

Its policy of accepting precisely zero migrants from the Middle East and Africa has put it at loggerheads with Brussels and Berlin. Its social conservatism — Christianity is mentioned in its Constitution and marriage is defined as the union of a man and a woman — puts it at odds with dominant cultural trends in the West. Its very public campaigns against by far the most famous living Hungarian, financier George Soros, have been accused, not entirely without merit, of dabbling in anti-Semitic tropes. And Budapest has been repeatedly accused of backsliding on democratic freedoms.

Mr. Szijjarto, urbane and fluent in English, dismisses each of these accusations, saying they are untruths promulgated by a “liberal media.” Just because a government enjoys little political opposition doesn’t mean it is anti-democratic, he says, pointing to the massive majorities the incumbents won in 2018, giving them two-thirds control over the Parliament.

The attacks on Mr. Soros, meanwhile, are not motivated by religion, he says, and in fact, Judaism is thriving in Hungary. “The Israeli ambassador to the U.S. has said that Budapest is the safest place for the Jews to live in Europe,” he points out. “The government has announced a zero-tolerance policy. We have the biggest Jewish population in Central Europe.”

As for migration? The Hungarian government simply wishes to protect its identity as a Christian nation, Mr. Szijjarto says, going to so far as to praise his culture’s cultural “homogeneity.” Mr. Szijjarto argues that the reason that other European countries are experiencing a rise in anti-Semitism is due to their liberal migration policies, which he says are importing populations hostile to Jews.

Critics of Budapest’s government seem to conflate two distinct qualities: Its conservatism and its arguably anti-democratic behavior. The Hungarian government’s approach to, for instance, migration, might be unpopular in certain quarters, but it is the prerogative of a country’s democratically elected government to set its own course on a matter as grave as national sovereignty and borders.

The Hungarian government’s approach to governance itself seems a more legitimate question. Yes, it’s true that the government is popular, and has for three consecutive elections been voted into office by massive margins. But as the Hungarian journalist Gabor Horvath pointed out to me in a 2018 interview, “In his eight years in office, Prime Minister Orban constructed a well-disciplined, monolithic power structure, which used all available means to influence the elections. This includes … hidden campaign financing and the coordination of party and government campaigns. The latter was obviously paid for by the taxpayers. Legal manipulations included one-time cash payments immediately before the elections to families using gas heating and pensioners.”

Mr. Horvath also pointed out that the media are in a precarious position because by far the largest advertiser in Hungary is the government. The state therefore has a great deal of leverage on which media outlets make money and survive, and which don’t. And even though Jews are thriving in Budapest — a welcome development — the imagery of Mr. Soros featured in official government pamphlets and billboards contains eerie historical echoes.

Since Mr. Orban came into office in 2010, mini-Orbans have taken over in other Central European countries. The Czech Republic, Poland, and Austria are now all ruled by parties in the Hungarian model. In the event that Mr. Trump is reelected and the EU opts to hold another emergency summit, expect more opt-outs this time.

⦁ Ethan Epstein is editorial editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at eepstein@washingtontimes.com or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.

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