In her first Israeli media interview, Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga, a senior member of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Cabinet and official in charge of the country’s E.U. affairs, expressed staunch opposition to European attempts to pass laws that hamper Jewish life in Europe.

“In the past 10 years, our government made every effort to guarantee the life of the Jewish community in Hungary. It is an issue of utmost importance. We think that other European governments should do the same,” said Varga.

The European court ruling to ban kosher slaughter “is an attack not only on the freedom of religion, but equally on our Jewish-Christian heritage in Europe and on Jewish communities living in Europe,” she added, noting that the Hungarian government “condemns this harmful decision and we will speak out against it in every possible international forum.”

“Europe positions itself as a defender of values and of freedom of religion, but then sometimes it makes decisions that go against this values-based approach,” said Varga.

“The Hungarian government has made it clear in all international fora that the preservation of our Jewish-Christian heritage is the key to the survival of European culture and the European future. The recent terrorist attacks in Europe were not aimed against European culture alone, but also against the Jewish communities of those countries,” she added.

This, she said, is the reason why at the last meeting of the Council of Ministers, held on Nov. 10, 2020, the issue of western anti-Semitism was put on the agenda.

“Anti-Semitism is always a card played against Hungary in debates over the rule of law, as if we were an anti-Semitic country. If you look at the facts, however, very minor incidents happen in Hungary in comparison to the situation in the big cities of Europe, mostly in the West,” she said. “Unfortunately, the phenomenon of anti-Semitism exists everywhere. We have to do everything possible against it, and we have to talk about it honestly,” she added.

“We have the impression that in the debates over the rule of law, E.U. institutions tend to forget that these principles apply to them, as well,” said Varga.

“While the E.U. requires 100 percent compliance from certain member states, especially eastern European ones, it overlooks its own functioning: what the European Commission is doing, what precedents the Court of Justice sometimes adopts, not to mention the European Parliament, which adopted a decision on Article 7 contrary to the Treaty and its own Rules of Procedure. We challenged this decision at the Court of Justice, which hasn’t decided yet. The E.U. however, had no problem continuing the procedure without waiting for the final judgment of the court,” she said.

‘A day of loss for the future of conservatism’

Varga also discussed the major dispute that has developed between the European Union and the conservative governments of Hungary and Poland over claims that the latter have violated the rule of law.

A source of tension between Hungary, Poland and the European Union was the two countries’ objection to the E.U. policy on refugees. In 2017, the European Commission decided to enact sanctions against Poland, and in 2018 made a similar decision about Hungary. However, thus far the European Union has taken no practical steps to implement those sanctions, in part simply due to the E.U.’s complicated decision-making process, but also partly because Hungary and Poland could hold up other important E.U. decisions.

Last week, things moved to a new level when the conservative faction in the European Parliament announced its intention to oust Hungary’s ruling Fidesz Party. Orban beat them to the punch and announced his party would be leaving.

Varga says that Fidesz’s departure marked “a day of loss for the future of conservatism in Europe,” and reflected “that the last hope in the European People’s Party had died.”

“I had been working with the EPP group in the Fidesz delegation for nine years as an adviser for environment and climate [issues]. Already in this less politicized professional field I saw a constant approach by the EPP towards the left when it came to very black and white questions, such as whether the EPP is a pro-industry party or not, whether it stands by the conservatives on a daily basis,” she said.

“There were always internal debates, which were fine-tuned to liberal positions so that they would not lose votes. It was an opportunistic approach, especially coming from the western members of the group. Look at what’s happening in Spain, in France, in Italy. The results of the last elections are proof that conservatives lose by following the liberals. They should stand by their own values and not move toward the left for short-time political gains. Otherwise, they will be extinguished,” said Varga.

“If the conservatives’ answers to their voters come from the left, then the voters might turn to the far right or to parties that are more to the right than the conservatives. Look at the AfD in Germany, or the far-right parties in France or Spain. It’s already happening. The departure of Fidesz was a success for the left. We were the first target. Later, they will target other parties,” she added.

Q: How do you see the future of conservatism in Europe?

A: The EPP should have looked at its core values: Are we Christians, are we standing by the Judeo-Christian heritage of Europe, or by a Europe of strong nations? The answer was yes during the era of [former European Chancellor] Helmut Kohl.

Today, they cannot answer these questions easily. They always want to obey the left. The result is that the EPP is becoming smaller, less significant and characteristic. For us, it’s a new world of opportunities. We say that we represent the EPP as it was 20 years ago, when we joined this family. We didn’t move. The world has moved. It’s a battle of worlds between those who want to preserve the status quo, like us, and the progressives. If one looks at the political landscape in some countries—even in central Europe—it’s not so easy to be the defender of the status quo, because there are no one-party governments.

One has to govern together with Greens, Socialists—like the grand coalition in Germany. One cannot be oneself anymore, one has to take into account the considerations of the partners. In Hungary, our situation is easy in this regard because in three consecutive elections our citizens have made it clear that they have approved the conservative policy of the two parties making up the government.

Our guideline is to stand by the Hungarian people, by the European people, by the conservative image of Europe and the image of strong nations in Europe. Without strong nations, the community cannot be strong. It cannot act like a multinational company, which is directed from above without any affiliation, no respect for traditions, no respect for national or constitutional identities. This position is not nationalism, nor is it radicalism. It is normal conservative thinking, which has dominant support today in Hungary, and we do our best to preserve this majority. We always have to be aware of our acts: Are they deeply rooted in the wishes of our voters, are our policies on economy, social care or family in line with our voters’ needs—or are these imported from abroad by the liberal mainstream, which is imposed on the nation without any connection to the Hungarian nature?

That’s why Prime Minister Orbán always makes his policy decisions according to the nation’s will. We have a very good tradition of consulting citizens. I think it’s the only government in Europe that has dared to ask its citizens sensitive questions directly: What do they think about immigration, do they want Europe to be a migrant continent or not? Do they want to give up Hungarian sovereignty over issues like taxation or energy policy to the European Commission, or do they want to keep it in the hands of the Hungarians? The citizens answered and we base our policies on this opinion of the nation. It’s quite new in Europe, and it doesn’t fit the mainstream. So we became the black sheep.

Q: There are mounting tensions between the E.U. and Hungary on many issues, some of them related to rule of law. Do you feel that the E.U. has become a burden to Hungary? Are there regrets about joining the E.U.?

A: I wouldn’t put it this way. In the preamble of the Hungarian constitution, the Fundamental Law, it says that Hungarians are proud of the fact that throughout the centuries, we have fought to protect European values and borders. We have always belonged to Europe. Due to political reasons, however, for decades we were not in a position to be part of the more fortunate side of Europe. We fought so that the E.U. will embrace former socialist countries.

Since 2010, there has definitely been a change in Hungary’s policy on the E.U. Before that, under socialist governments, the idea was that we should silently sit at the E.U. table, give up our national interests and be happy that Europe embraced us.

After 2010, the Fidesz conservative government said: Let’s take care of our interests first, sit at the table as a proud and equal nation and use the same rules as the others do—especially the big nations and the founding members—for our interests. They look out for their own interests first, make alliances and work to achieve their national goals. So do we.

I am very enthusiastic about the European project. If one looks at the polls, Hungarians are above the E.U. average in their positive estimation of E.U. membership. The French and the Germans are less optimistic about the European future. So blaming us for E.U. skepticism is hypocritical. It reflects the frustration of the old member states that we have grasped the rules of the game and use them for our own interests. This is the essence of the Visegrád group. We do the same as the Benelux group or the Mediterranean countries.

If you don’t have a joint stand with your neighbors or those who are in a similar position, you have no chance of succeeding. This is why the Visegrád cooperation, which is now 30 years old, is so successful, despite the fact that the governments concerned come from different parties.

When we are attacked based on ideology, for example over immigration, of course we defend ourselves, but we never criticize others. Hungary has a different historical perspective: we have always defended the European borders. We do not think that one can solve labor or population challenges by immigration. Other countries see it differently. This is their own choice. This is why Prime Minister Orbán said that when it comes to immigration in the E.U., we don’t need compromise, but rather tolerance and mutual respect between countries.

Q: In Israel there is a very lively debate about the balance of power. Where do you see the limits between the branches of government in a functioning democracy? At what point does democracy become rule by judges and bureaucrats, instead of by the people?

A: The rule of law is a concept. It’s not a concrete definition. Based on the traditions of each country and its constitutional heritage, citizens of each country are in a position to decide whether or not rule of law prevails in their countries or not. Judicial independence in Hungary is an achievement of a historical constitution, as during communist times, this kind of independence only existed on paper.

The regime change in the 1990s resulted in a complete structural independence of the whole judiciary being declared. The executive branch, like myself, has no influence at all on the functioning of the judiciary. It is totally independent. But there is no one-size-fit-all answer to all these challenges, and I wouldn’t comment on the situation in other countries.

If a government does not do its job within the rule of law, I believe citizens will judge it in elections. This is democracy. Democracy is also a value in itself, not only rule of law. The power of the executive branch comes from the people, and nothing is possible without the people. The problem comes from the opinion bubble of the liberal media. If people consume nothing but the liberal mainstream media, they have the perception that something is wrong. I always recommend looking outside this bubble, out of the box. Critics should live in a country they want to criticize, then they can decide what to believe or not.

Q: The Hungarian government was harshly criticized for an anti-Soros campaign during the last general election. It was interpreted by some in the West as being anti-Semitic. To what extent do foreign-financed NGOs intervene in Hungarian domestic affairs?

A: The accusation that the campaign was anti-Semitic was unfounded. We always said that if Soros was attacked because of his religion or origin, the Hungarian government would be the first to protect him. When the Financial Times declared Soros Man of the Year in 2018, it stated clearly that he was chosen because he executes his own foreign policy. This is exactly what we are talking about. Only democratically elected governments may define foreign policies for nations. If somebody has a big influence through his financial assets and uses these assets to subsidize NGOs who are acting like political parties, then they are no longer part of civil society, but making policy.

If he wants to be active in politics, he should say so and not hide behind philanthropy. If somebody wants to influence public opinion or foreign policy, not only in certain countries but in the whole E.U., he should comply with the same rules as a political party. They have to find a party, run in an election, be brave enough to present their political positions in a very transparent manner and participate in the competition just like any other party. If they win, then they can influence foreign policy.

The problem is that they are coming through the back door. I was very happy that last summer the Court of Justice of the European Union delivered its judgment on the Hungarian transparency law. The law requires NGOs that receive foreign donations above a certain amount to make it public. This law was declared “anti-E.U.,” so we’re working with the Commission to change the law. But the court also declared that there were some NGOs that were capable of influencing public life through the financial means at their disposal. So they are a different category than ordinary NGOs, and in order to provide full transparency there is a legitimate reason to put transparency limitations on them.

Q: The opposition in Hungary has united to try to topple Orbán and Fidesz. Left-wing and liberal parties are collaborating with former neo-Nazi party Jobbik. How do you view this unnatural alliance?

A: It surprised and shocked me. We saw this in the interim elections last autumn. They had no problem making a coalition with an anti-Semitic party for the sake of political gains.

The Hungarian opposition also proved its moral level during the pandemic, when they attacked the government during the first wave in Hungary and in Brussels, while our government was busy with protecting our citizens’ health and the economy. They wanted to weaken us internationally for political gains. This is what I call very low morals. For the sake of victory, they do not even bother themselves with the moral side of forming alliances with anti-Semites. So I pose the question, as they always criticize us about the rule of law and values: Is it a value to ally with an anti-Semitic party?

We are facing a very tough election. But I always say, I know why I took this job. I worked in Brussels and I saw what the left/liberals were doing to my country. I came home to defend our position. We are working for the sake of the Hungarian nation. We know that what we are about to achieve is a good thing. And the people should ultimately decide. The people who throughout the last 11 years have felt the constant economic progress: the minimum wage was doubled, businesses were flourishing, and before COVID, we had one of the best GDP growth rates and lowest unemployment rates in the E.U. I think that this is what matters, and we should let the citizens judge this achievement. I know that I get up every morning to do good for my nation.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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