Marton Gyöngyösi doesn’t respond well when I bring up fascism. If he isn’t offended, he seems genuinely disappointed – we’ve had a good rapport throughout the interview, touching lightly on his Trinity education and how his Hungarian party, Jobbik, is now on the cusp of power.
Repeatedly, as our interview continues, he seems shocked that I’d even raise the idea, as if there is little evidence to suggest that Jobbik – established in 2003 – has elements of the far-right bully-boy tactics now spreading across Europe.
We don’t meet in person, with our interview taking place over the phone throughout the day as Gyöngyös juggles his daily commute, a press conference and the range of meetings that afflict the lives of senior politicians.
Yet Gyöngyös is no nativist. He is a man who has seen the world and reaped the benefits of globalisation, as comfortable in Ireland as Iraq and Afghanistan. The son of a diplomat, he attended Trinity in the late 1990s, graduating from BESS. “I loved it”, he says now.
In Trinity, politics was his passion. He joined the College Historical Society, attending debates every now and then. But it was in seminar rooms and among friends where he really talked. “If you had an opinion, you were basically encouraged to make it known and make it public and make it clash with other opinions”, he says.
Gyöngyös didn’t let Trinity’s liberal politics go to his head. At home, Hungarian politics was still his bread and butter: “In the course of our diplomatic mission, we preserved this Hungarian identity, so I think regardless of the fact I was outside of the country, I have always followed the political sense in my homeland and the Hungarian politics in Dublin.”
For anyone not in the know about Hungarian politics, the current government is led by Viktor Orban, a man once famed for his fight against authoritarianism in Hungary in the dying days of the Soviet era. Now, he’s gained European notoriety – coining the phrase “illiberalism” and reaping the political rewards of a hardline response to Europe’s immigration crisis.
But Gyöngyös isn’t a fan. A lot has changed since the first Orban government, which Gyöngyös wholeheartedly supported. “He led that type of liberal-conservative government based on Christian values, conservative right-wing economic policy”, Gyöngyös tells me, which appealed to him. From Ireland, where he worked in a range of big-four finance firms, he looked at a Hungary that was moving beyond the shadow of the Soviet Union.
He was a “fanatic”, he tells me, flying home to vote in the second round of elections when it looked like Orban would lose.
But now? There is something of a scorned lover in how Gyöngyös talks about Orban, a kind of never-meet-your-heroes attitude to the man he once flew home for.
Since returning to power, Orban has consistently disappointed Gyöngyös. “He has come to the conclusion by 2010 that actually he doesn’t need to govern the country at all”, he tells me, instead running a “war machine” communications office that would put Leo Varadkar to shame.
Gyöngyös speaks in perfectly accented English. I find it hard to stop him talking about Trinity, about Ireland and about the peculiarities of our politics. He even manages to identify my accent – Northern Irish, heavily disguised – at the opening of our interview.
But as good a conversationalist as Gyöngyös is, it’s difficult to escape the shadow of far-right, xenophobic politics that hangs over his party. Because while he might repudiate Orban, he admits that it’s his party that pushed Orban to the more extreme fringes of Hungarian politics.
Everything Orban has done with regards to migration was conceived and inspired by our programme, he tells me.
And this is where things get complicated. Because Jobbik is a party in flux. For a party that has flirted with the trademarks of fascism – a paramilitary-style wing and anti-semitism – it has achieved remarkable success in recent years, soaring up the polls and talked up as a possible contender for government.
Gyöngyös is quick to rebuff all suggestions of fascism when I bring them up. And while those repudiations might be sincere, there is something not quite right about them. For they come from a man whose party is trying to find an inside track to the right-wing rhetoric of Orban, trading places on a political spectrum that is becoming increasingly fractured by the day.
For years now, Hungary has been the outlier of European politics, receiving column inches bemoaning a slide towards authoritarianism and nativism. And Gyöngyös seems happy enough to keep it that way.
He is one of the most pragmatic politicians I have ever interviewed. And he has an answer for everything. Listening to Gyöngyös, I can see why the skills that made him a top tax advisor also made him an excellent far-right politician. On every topic – why the EU is flawed, why immigration is bad for Hungary, his country’s corruption – he speaks with a patience that must have served him well in the complicated world of financial regulation. For Gyöngyös, every accusation of anti-semitism, xenophobia and violence can be explained away with reference to Hungarian history, to media bias and a lack of understanding of what the Hungarian people want.
Before our interview, I watch a video on Youtube of Gyöngyös at a rally. In a black, leather jacket, on a stage in Budapest, he berates the government’s support of Israel, raging against the injustices committed in Palestine.
He has form in this area. In the Hungarian parliament in 2012, with the conflict in Palestine raging, he called on the government to draw up a list of Jews. “I think such a conflict makes it timely to tally up people of Jewish ancestry who live here, especially in the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government, who, indeed, pose a national security risk to Hungary”, he said at the time.
Today, if he’s not obviously contrite, he does seem apologetic: “I apologised for the statement which was, I must admit, not correct. But at the same time, the statement was taken out of context and certain words were added to it which were not there”, he says.
Gyöngyös denies that his words helped fan the flames of anti-semitism in Hungary. Or, indeed, attract anti-semitic, violent members. Towards the end of our interview, I ask him if he’s willing to condemn anti-semitism and xenophobia in the party’s past. “In cases, where we have, with the best intentions, said something whereby we want to draw the attention to a critical problem, which others were sweeping under the carpet, and the media take out of context certain phrases, certain words and put labels of xenophobia, fascism, nazism, whatever, in front of our names or in front of the name of the party, in this case we cannot apologise”, he says.
“I think in a democracy, and in the western world, which is so proud of dialogue and freedom of speech and whatever, it is a complete shame that the majority of the media in Western Europe is busy producing propaganda.”
The lack of real criticism is telling. Again and again, he returns to the idea that his party is going through a transition, that accusations of xenophobia and anti-semitism were simply symptoms of a party’s growing pains. “Everything is in motion, even political movements and individuals as well. I mean, they go through a life cycle and somebody at the age of 30 thinks very differently about the world than somebody at the age of 40. Somebody in his third or fourth year of college politics thinks very differently about politics 10 years down the road”, he says. Gyöngyös goes on and on like this, again and again using history, immaturity or simply electoral calculus to defend his party’s history.
“It’s very, very difficult to say what exactly a party is and what it stood for at the time and what it stands for now, because it’s a learning process”, he says. Political scientists, journalists and Jobbik’s opponents might disagree.
At the start of our interview, Gyöngyös told me about a debate he remembers in Trinity. The topic is long forgotten, but the feeling remains. “I was not the one conducting the debate, but kind of observing it from the side.” Today, as Hungary edges to the right, Gyöngyös is the man behind the podium. For the rest of Europe, all we can do is listen.