Verhofstadt: Orbán is today neither a Christian nor a democrat
Are you in one person the European Parliament's pro-migrant majority as the latest Hungarian governmental campaign claims?
The European Parliament's vote in September was about the state of democracy in Hungary and nothing to do with migration. Over two-thirds of MEPs reaching across the aisle including Orbán's own EPP did find the situation alarming and ripe for Europe to intervene. It was only Fidesz who made the wrong interpretation of this historic vote and did everything to portray it as a vote about migration, not about the rule of law.
In your answer you state that Orbán spends taxpayers' Forints and Euros to spread lies. Is this not one of the biggest problems those listed in the Sargentini report?
The report is a long catalogue of problematic issues about which the Orbán government ought to take a moment for critical self-inspection. One of these issues is indeed striking fear, hate and intolerance via bogus public consultations and highly deceptive media campaigns doing everything to cement Fidesz's position in power. If you look around Europe no other government has allowed itself to drift away so far from reality by building a lie factory funded in big part with taxpayers money. Enough to watch the evening news on the Hungarian national broadcaster MTVA to get a picture of the parallel universe Fidesz would like to make its voters believe they are living in.
Do you support immigration to Europe?
What I have always supported is controlled and legal ways of letting foreigners come to live here and contribute to the European economy. It doesn’t mean immigration needs to be accelerated or facilitated, as the latest fake news propaganda video of the Hungarian government is claiming. But I do think we need to have a look at what other successful nations, the US, Canada or Australia are doing in this field and create our own system to attract top talent to Europe.
Orbán's government claims that the EU threatens to take away the right of border protection. Is this true?
One thing is clear: Europeans want to continue to enjoy the benefits of board-free travel throughout the EU. In order to keep Schengen alive the EU's external borders must be watertight and we have an agency (Frontex) which can do a very good job there, but only if we give them the necessary mandate and resources to carry out this task. Boarders are national but at the same time they are also European, so it's only right that the all Member States can count on the same constant and reliable support from the Union to police our common borders. This does not take away Member States’ rights, it only enhances their capabilities.
Orbán says that you hate Hungary. You said you loved Hungary and you had a lot of knowledge about it. What is the reason for this debate becoming so personal?
The debate is becoming personal because Fidesz wants to make it personal. The constant look for the next enemy has defined Fidesz's politics for the past 8 years. As probably the loudest critique of Mr Orbán in the European Parliament, I am an excellent candidate for his propaganda machine to vilify. If my speeches against Mr Orbán are personal, it is because he is the ultimate representation of the illiberal state. But my critique is much broader, Hungary's problems won't go away with Orbán, it's the style of government that needs to change.
What do you think is the most basic problem with Hungary?
It is one thing to have a mandate to govern a country, ruling a nation is quite another. Fidesz have been using their supermajority in parliament since 2010 to single-handedly overhaul the constitution, upend the independence of the judiciary and severely restrict the freedom of expression - everything in order to silence opposition and make democratic change almost impossible. These are circumstances reminiscent of Russia rather than what is acceptable inside the EU.
Is it clear in the European public discourse – because in Hungary it is not really – that this is not a debate about migration but about the rule of law?
It is difficult to take the pulse of European public discourse as such, but in those countries where there is independent media providing fair and balanced information - and most EU countries are like that - the public understands that our focus is the rule of law.
Is the European Union prepared to enforce the rule of law in Hungary or in other member states with autocratic tenedencies?
The EU’s options are indeed quite limited, and that is a design flaw of the current system. Launching Article 7 procedures is the furthest we can currently go and we know that the Council will be devided on this. The European Parliament has recently set up a Rule of Law Monitoring Group - I hope in time they will come with recommendations for possible legal changes in order to strengthen the Union’s grip on governments with illiberal tendencies.
What consequences can the Sargentini report have?
The consequence can be everything or nothing but the decision is now with the Austrian presidency. The matter must make it on to the agenda of the European Council without further delay. In case of a unanimous decision, Hungary could be stripped of its voting rights - it would be strongest possible signal to Mr Orbán that he must change course.
More specifically: could the EU stop Orbán with this process?
The EU can voice its criticism, but ultimately it will be up to the Hungarian voters to stop Orbán and put an end to his illiberal dream. What we need to make sure is that Orbán doesn’t destroy the EU in the meantime.
Do you feel the risk that Orbán and other populists or even extremists friends are turning this case to their own benefit?
What are we supposed to do? Stay silent and pretend it’s all fine with Hungary, Poland or Italy? Populists are finding each other and making alliances before the upcoming European Elections. But we are building our own progressive alliances too, attracting voters who are increasingly seeing through this cheap right-wing rhetoric.
Orbán is preparing his European parliamentary election campaign based on attacking the Sargentini report, Brussels and using the migration crisis for the his own benefit. How can the eyes be opened in these topics?
We need to help of all democratic forces to reach out to the voters and get through with their own version of the story contesting the government’s narrative . We at ALDE are trying to do our own share of informing the public, be it about corruption, academic freedom or migration. And the EP election campaign is only about to begin, you can expect to hear about our standpoints loud and clear.
You have often warned not only the EU institutions but also the European People's Party against protecting Orbán and Fidesz. Have they finally recognized the danger?
The EPP as a whole hasn’t yet changed its position, but voices are growing within their own ranks to push Orbán out. It think that’s the only responsible position the EPP can take at the end of the day. What do they still have in common with a man who is today neither a Christian nor a democrat?
Are the EU's institutions too late?
The EU waited way too long to respond. We should have acted faster but for years there was no parliamentary majority for that. Now there is.
And what should the European People's Party do?
Cut Orbán loose and send him where he belongs: the dunghill of politics - together with his new populist friends.
If the EPP were to exclude Fidesz, would it not create its own competitor?
I don’t think the EPP should be afraid of competition.
Are Brexit, Orbán, and the erosion of the rule of law in Poland related?
Yes, inasmuch as they offer the same simplistic solutions to complex socio-economic problems. Finding a new role for the outdated notation of the nation state in the 21st century is a challenge that UKIP, Fidesz and PiS decided to answer in similar ways. A strong and united Europe is their ultimate enemy.
Has the cohesion of the European community not suffered too much damage yet?
The last 10 years hasn’t been among the best for the EU but it has given us the opportunity to shed lights to our common weaknesses. I am convinced that a new generation of progressive Europeans, including leaders like Macron, Rutte or Rivera or Hungary’s Momentum will offer a real alternative and make our union stronger.
Can there be real consensus among member states for example in the case of Brexit?
Ask any EU ambassador, they are all closing ranks. The bottom line is that we must uphold the cohesion of the single market with all its benefits for citizens and businesses alike. The departure of the UK will not change that, there is consensus to the fullest extent about this.
Is Hungary a key issue from the point of view of EU-unity?
Loosing the UK was not our wish, it makes everyone’s life more difficult and our Union worse off. We cannot afford this to repeat, neither with Hungary nor with others. We must find common ground to hold Europe together, future generations wouldn’t forgive us if we did otherwise.