Viktor Orbán is having his cake and eating it – Timothy Garton Ash

By Sandor Zsiros – Euronews

Timothy Garton Ash is a British historian, writer and professor of European studies at Oxford University. He is generally considered a leading expert on European history, politics and current affairs. Over his extensive career, he has written 10 books of political writing. He is also the Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His work appears regularly in many publications and he writes a column on international affairs for the Guardian.

At the House of European History in Brussels, Timothy Garton Ash gave euronews his insight into the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the European Union’s values, the sovereignty of its member states and the politics of Angela Merkel.

Do you think that NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will get its own page in the history books?

“I do think so because, in a curious way, President Joe Biden has made the case for what all Europeans are talking about, namely strategic autonomy and European sovereignty. But the curious thing is that most European leaders reacted by talking about refugees and fear of a new migration crisis, rather than saying what they should be saying, which is, this makes the case for greater strategic autonomy. There were 2500 American troops stabilising Afghanistan. France and Britain alone have 10 000 troops in a rapid reaction force. Why didn’t we have a European conversation about what we could have done about it?”

Does this withdrawal mean that NATO’s 20-year mission was all for nothing?

“Well, it’s a massive defeat and a terrible betrayal of all those people to whom we have said you can have a free and equal life, particularly the women and the girls. It’s a terrible betrayal. It’s a defeat and the terrorists are coming back. So, yes, it has to be said and two trillion dollars down the drain. It’s very hard to see the pluses from this story.”

Can we continue to export our western democracies to other regions in the world or should we just stop?

“Well, it’s not nothing that a whole generation of Afghans grew up knowing relative freedom, particularly more equality for women, education possibilities and work. So, frankly, I’m not prepared to say that we shouldn’t do that in certain circumstances. But you have to do one thing or the other. Either you go in there, you get the really bad guys and you get out 2003 or 2004 or you say we’re in for the long haul, as we do in other places in our near abroad. I think there’s a strong case for the long haul. If we just kept five, ten thousand troops there, another generation of Afghan women might have had a much better life.”

Do you think that the west lost credibility with this issue?

“Massively, the American, British, German, French embassies are closed. The Russian and Chinese embassies are still open. Need I say anymore?”

Let’s discuss values, why don’t we have a common understanding in Europe about the very core values of the European Union?

“So I think the European Union, which put values into Article two of its basic treaty without defining them clearly, has actually now defined those values. So we do have European Union values which are being massively violated in countries like Hungary and Poland. And I think we need to stand up for those values.”

How should we stand up for them?

“Viktor Orbán is having his cake and eating it. He is winning elections by saying stop Brussels, campaigning against the European Union, but taking billions of European taxpayers’ money. Therefore, the key to an effective response is to establish a linkage between the Europe of values and the Europe of money. And that’s what the European Union has so far failed to do.”

What do you think? Is it a reasonable exchange to connect European values with money?

“Of course it is. Of course it is. It is absolutely outrageous that you have a member state of the European Union, which, in my view is no longer a democracy, which has destroyed media freedom, which doesn’t have fair elections, free but not fair elections, which has kicked out the best university in Central Europe, which has indulged in outrageously xenophobic propaganda, the treatment of migrants and so on, which is still receiving billions of euros in EU funds. That’s an outrageous state of affairs.”

Do you think Viktor Orbán’s illiberalism is a real threat to the EU?

“Without question. He’s one of the most important. One has to go back a long way to find a period when a Hungarian leader was so important in European history. We’re sitting in the House of European history and that is because he has become the symbolic leader of the other Europe, the conservative anti-liberal, ethnic nationalist, Christian, socially conservative Europe. Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders are all with him. So he represents not just one medium-sized member state of the European Union. He represents a very important tendency in the entire European Union.”

Millions of voters are saying the same as Viktor Orban, that we should get back sovereignty from Brussels. This might be a good argument for this political movement. Do you think that Brussels should act on this particular question?

“Of sovereignty?”

Yes, giving back some sovereignty to member states.

“You have the honest stupidity of the Brits who have said we want more sovereignty and have left and the dishonest cleverness of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary which speaks about having more sovereignty but stays in the EU because of all the benefits. So in a way, you know, the stupidity of the Brits in leaving is in a way more honest.”

Do you think Angela Merkel will also get her own page in the history books?

“Well, heavens above, it’s the most extraordinary period of leadership. So she’ll have a whole chapter, not just a page. I think the balance sheet will be mixed. She personifies the best Germany we’ve ever had, civil, moderate, liberal, feminine, in all the positive senses. But there have been many sins of omission, starting with the failure to react decisively to the eurozone crisis, reforms that haven’t happened both at home and abroad, the lack of an effective European foreign policy. Still, the eurozone is not totally secured, because everyone is still saying that the recovery fund is temporary. So there’s a big to-do list for her successors.”

What will be her legacy in terms of the European Union’s values?

“So that’s a very interesting question because, of course, in every possible way she personifies positive, liberal, liberal-conservative actually European values, including her initial response to the refugee crisis. On the other hand, if we ask why those values have been drastically eroded in Hungary, then the single European, West European politician most responsible is Angela Merkel because she actually, as the German chancellor, had the power to stop it and she hasn’t used that power. So it’s a mixed record.”