Viktor Orbán’s stamina is remarkable. He left for China on May 11, where he had a busy schedule of meetings, and returned to Budapest on May 17. Yet the next day he gave a very long speech at the annual meeting of Daimler AG, held in Budapest. On Friday, May 19, he gave a 30-minute interview to Kossuth Rádió in the morning, and by the afternoon he was in Zalaegerszeg, an almost three-hour trip by car, where again he spoke. The following day he attended the congress of the Slovenian Democratic Party in Maribor, another one and a half hours by car from Zalaegerszeg.
I have carefully read all of Orbán’s spoken words since his return from China. Did I learn anything new from them? Yes and no. On the one hand, Orbán, like everybody else, has certain topics, ideas, and notions about the world that keep recurring in all his speeches. Those passages are of no interest to anyone who’s familiar with the main thrust of Orbán’s thinking about the world. On the other hand, here and there new ideas appear, which allow us to look at the Hungarian prime minister in a slightly different light.
My general sense is that the Chinese trip and the Chinese leadership’s vision of the “Belt and Road Initiative” made a great impression on Orbán and that he feels privileged to have an agreement with the Chinese to construct a railroad between Budapest and Belgrade as part of that modern version of the Silk Road, connecting the East and the West. As he put it in his interview on Kossuth Rádió, the Chinese invited only those countries that “will have a role to play in the growth of the world economy in the next two or three decades,” which is an excellent piece of news for Hungary.
Orbán is impressed with the Chinese in general. In his eyes, “the Chinese are serene people with a philosophical bent and a goal of achieving harmony.” In contrast, it is “the pursuit of freedom which is at the core of Western political thought.” One would think that giving freedom center stage would be positive, but for Orbán freedom “leads to conflicts.” Westerners are “constantly alarmed about dangers to freedom.” The Chinese, on the other hand, “are concerned with problem solving, trying to find a balanced result, which they call harmony,” and therefore “it is good to negotiate with them.” For example, the Chinese would never say what the leader of the European People’s Party said: “The ball is in your court, if you react the proper way you are a team player, if not there will be consequences.” In Orbán’s opinion, EPP’s reaction “shows how deformed European politics is.” Of course, many other topics were covered in this interview, but these words struck me as intriguing and perhaps even significant.
Orbán’s lengthy speech at the general meeting of Daimler AG also had a few noteworthy parts. One was a strange sentence at the very beginning of his speech. It reads: “When you chose Budapest [to hold the meeting], you made the right decision. It is a fashionable place in addition to being a place of a certain excitement. When one opens foreign newspapers and reads about Hungary, one is not sure whether they are talking about a black sheep or about an outstanding economic success. That creates a kind of intellectual excitement around Hungary. So, we are happy that you came here to see with your own eyes what’s happening in Hungary.” These sentences lead me to believe that the European Parliament’s resolution is a genuine embarrassment for Orbán. The arrangements for this meeting had to have been made months before, when no one could have foreseen the Orbán government’s being reprimanded by the majority of the European Parliament.
It always amuses me when Viktor Orbán, who knows mighty little about economics, shares his high-flown ideas about the future of the world economy. Again, he couldn’t refrain from offering his golden thoughts. The starting point of his assessment of the economic situation in the European Union began with China. “I just came back from China. If one sees the future and looks at Europe from that vantage point, it is especially urgent to reform Europe so it can regain its competitiveness.” That’s a strong beginning, but it is not entirely new in Orbán’s repertoire of stock thoughts.
It’s possible that I missed it before, but this was the first time I heard him “reinterpreting” the causes of the 2008-2009 world financial crisis in economic terms. He said that
It must be accepted in Europe that the 2008-2009 financial crisis was not cyclical but structural. Some European leaders believe that economic crises are part and parcel of a modern market economy. There had been trouble in the European Union before, economic indicators dropped, the economy corrected itself, and the indicators improved. No structural changes were necessary because the system could repair itself. This was true in the last 40 years, but it is no longer so. What we suffer from now is not a cyclical crisis. The simple truth is that other emerging economies are more competitive than we are, and therefore this is a structural crisis of competitiveness. So, our response should be formulated accordingly. I’m convinced that because this paradigm shift is now taking place in the world economy, we should give a European response to it instead of thinking in terms of a cyclical crisis.
I have no idea what kind of structural corrections Orbán is thinking of or what paradigm shift he has in mind. Traditionally a paradigm shift means a fundamental change in basic concepts, which leads me to believe that Orbán is simply mouthing his “right-hand” György Matolcsy’s unorthodox economic ideas, which most responsible Hungarian and foreign economists reject. The Chinese economy, as is the case with all emerging economies, can produce an incredible rate of growth initially, just as East-Central Europe is at the moment ahead of the West as far as economic growth is concerned, but as time goes by these countries’ growth will inevitably slow. It is a mistake to claim that China’s impressive economic growth is due solely to the different structure of its economy and that if the developed West simply adopted its largely state structure, the EU or the United States would produce a 6-8% yearly economic growth.
I found two more short passages worth noting. The first is from the speech delivered in Zalaegerszeg at the opening of a large complex for testing self-driving cars. This is the only recent major construction project that was financed exclusively by the Hungarian government. Orbán said: “This test ground is living proof that we are not on [economic] crutches; we have our own resources; we have our talents; and we are capable of achieving world-class performance. I would like to remind everyone that under the leadership of [Finance Minister] Mr. Mihály Varga during our first government between 1998 and 2002, when we were not yet a member of the European Union, we achieved an economic growth rate of over 4% due to our sound economic policies. In fact, there was one quarter when it was over 5%.” These words were interpreted by the independent media and commentators who are critical of the government as a reformulation of Orbán’s earlier quip: “There is life outside the European Union.” A bad sign, they said. Perhaps he is thinking of eventually leaving the EU.
And finally, in Maribor at the Slovenian Democratic Party’s conference, Orbán said: “As you have heard from your chairman, there is a lot of talk about European values nowadays. They talk about them as if they were guarded in a safe somewhere in Brussels whose key is in the breast-pockets of a very few privileged people. The truth is, however, that there are indeed safes in which European values are stored. These safes, however, are not in Brussels but in the hearts of European citizens, Slovenians, Hungarians, Poles, Germans, French, Slovaks, because European values are not carved into lifeless stones but are written in living hearts.” These words cannot be interpreted in any other way but as a rejection of the fundamental values of the European Union: “Respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. These values unite all the member states—no country that does not recognize these values can belong to the Union.” This is the first paragraph of the description of EU “values and objectives” published by the European Parliament. If these values can be reinterpreted on a national or individual level, we no longer have a union.
Taken together, these last two quotations may be an indication of Viktor Orbán’s thinking about the future. In the short run, it means that the tug-of-war between the European Union and Hungary will continued unabated.