Márta Fraunhoffer: A few hours ago the citizens of Zalaegerszeg witnessed some ceremonial moments as you attended the laying of the foundation stone of an automotive industry test track worth some 40 billion forints, which will be unique by European standards. How important is this project? It is clearly of great importance for Zalaegerszeg, but I believe it is not only important for the city, but also for the entire country.
Indeed, I am here because I was invited to the foundation stone ceremony. I was happy to come, as from time to time my fellow parliamentarian László Vigh, the Mayor and my acquaintances in Zalaegerszeg – I lived here on two occasions, for a year and a half in all – tell me that with the shrinking of Flextronics’ operations, Zala County has become a region with too few jobs, and that there is a need for a major project. For almost three years now we searched for such a project. Zalaegerszeg has a number of advantages, and Zala County, too, has major assets, but also some drawbacks – and so you are not in a particularly good position when searching for sites for foreign investments. So we finally decided that, rather than seeking to find a foreign investor to come to Hungary, Zalaegerszeg should be the site of a major new Hungarian development, and then everyone would be happy: the project would be implemented, we would be able to deliver on an old promise, and the local people would also receive the clear message that the future is not leaving Zalaegerszeg, but is coming to Zalaegerszeg. The future has found Zalaegerszeg as, after all, we’re implementing a state project here which you, the local people, are clearly happy about, but which is also very important for the national economy. It will give Hungary a competitive advantage in the automotive industry which our rivals do not have. The nearest similar track is somewhere on the other side of Spain, and even that one is not as modern as this. So we’re creating an industrial site of European importance, which means that its catchment area is not Zala County and not just Hungary, but almost the whole of Europe. In addition, specialists have envisaged a test track which is also able to deal with and test the great technological innovations of the future: digitalisation, autonomous cars, driverless cars, and cars using electricity rather than petrol. This track will also be suitable for testing these inventions and innovations, and at the same time propel Zalaegerszeg into the world of the industrial revolution ahead of us. Many engineers will be coming here, and a stream of people from cultures and backgrounds entirely different from what we are used to will descend upon this city: development and research engineers, people imagining and planning the future, people experimenting with the future. I think life in Zalaegerszeg will be exciting.
To be precise, at the foundation stone ceremony you said that this project will open the gate to the future.
Yes. Our schools are important, and your schools here are good. Vocational training is good here, too, as is the standard of secondary education, but the industrial environment young people leaving school find themselves in is important, as are the challenges they need to rise to. Construction of the test track will lead to a number of smaller and bigger businesses settling here, and this will create job opportunities for the most hardworking and committed young people in Zalaegerszeg and Zala County, and will propel them into the new industrial revolution.
A great deal of hard work is still needed for this dream to come true, however, and, as you mentioned at the beginning of our interview, so far a lot of projects have bypassed Zalaegerszeg – due to the lack of a dual carriageway, for instance. But this will be solved now…
I was here two years ago, it may have been you I was speaking to in this studio, and back then I came to an agreement with the Mayor, who is one of the country’s most talented mayors. If I look at his performance, his plans, the degree of development, the amount of careful consideration and quality that went into those plans, I have to raise my hat to him. The city has a young and dynamic leadership. We were like that once ourselves – but that’s a different story. In this Zalaegerszeg culture and political leadership there is sufficient dynamism and energy to create great things that truly matter. We no longer have to make new plans, as now we must implement what we agreed on with the Honourable Mayor in the Modern Cities Programme. I am not complaining, because a prime minister should not complain, but it will take a fairly long time to complete the public procurement procedures, separately provide for the planning work for public procurement, and then the construction works. And although two years ago we came to an agreement, and many things have started, we have not yet completed anything. The next two to three years will be about completing these projects. And they also include our plan to connect Zalaegerszeg to the motorway, the route of which will also provide a link to the test track. The vehicles exiting the test track will also be able to supply data to manufacturers and developers in real-life traffic environments, as we are linking the M7 motorway to your city: there will be a special section of road equipped with all sorts of cutting-edge equipment providing designers and developers with the most accurate information on the passing vehicles. So not only will the test track be special in terms of its quality, but so will the IT system installed on the road section connecting the city of Zalaegerszeg with the motorway.
This may be a smart road then; it is featured in the plans as the R76.
It is good if the road is smart, but first and foremost drivers and test drivers must be smart. When your city agreed with the Government that this project should be implemented here I believe that you acquired one of the most promising projects for the future: not quite the jackpot, but near enough. As I said today at the foundation stone ceremony, we cannot yet see with perfect clarity every facet of this whole new industrial revolution, symbolised by digital, electric and autonomous cars: we do not yet see it in its entirety. A future has opened up before Zalaegerszeg, the exact scope of which we are not yet able to gauge, but everyone feels that something important has happened.
At all events this was a momentous event today, and we’ll have two reasons for remembering 19 May: it was a year ago today that you announced that this vehicle industry test track could be built in Zalaegerszeg; and today, with the laying of the foundation stone, the work can begin.
We live by delivering on our promises. There are many different types of political forces in Europe and in Hungary, and each one relies on something different for its support base. We have our virtues and our faults. I believe it is important that Hungary has a government which is brave and full of initiative, a government which is confidently open to the future, and which also delivers on its promises. I am happy that the coincidence of dates symbolises the fact that we do not just talk, but if we agree on something, we see it through.
We have already mentioned construction of the R76 dual carriageway promised as part of the Modern Cities Programme. There were several projects: the Alsóerdő Sports and Leisure Complex, the Mindszenty Memorial Museum, and the logistics centre and shipping container terminal to be built in Zalaegerszeg will also be very important. What is the current status of these projects?
If we were living back in communist times, I would say that they are all on schedule and everything is going to plan, or something boring like that. The truth is that as public procurement processes comprise several stages, there are some which are already in the public procurement phase of construction work; others are in the planning phase; there are still others for which we have only recently been able to provide the funds. So these projects are at different stages of implementation. On the whole I can say that we will be able to keep to what we agreed on with the Mayor. For me the most important priority is for the engine of the economy to roar: if we want sports projects, cultural projects and a leisure park here, then behind all of this there should be a vibrant economy. And for that we need roads and transport links, so I believe that the dual carriageway between Zalaegerszeg and Vasvár is also important. I think it will generate greater economic growth than most people think. In that project we will soon close the planning phase in the public procurement process. A lawsuit has been launched in Alsónemesapáti, and as a result the court has contested the route or the environmental permits, and therefore construction of the road has slowed down somewhat. I would like to ask the residents of Alsónemesapáti to come to an agreement of some kind with each other or with the settlements in the neighbourhood, so that we can implement this project as soon as possible.
The economy in Zalaegerszeg is indeed booming, I think I can say that with confidence. Since we last spoke here in this studio two years ago, some 3,000 new jobs have been created in the city. If you’ve had a little time to travel through Zalaegerszeg, how do you see its development to date?
I once spent here a year, and later another six months in national service. Even though they didn’t often let me out of the barracks, I know this city quite well. It has always been a beautiful city, it had a historic atmosphere, or at least some parts of the city had the historic atmosphere that makes a Hungarian city unique. Our modern buildings are what they are, they were built in the sixties and seventies, and we try to modernise and refurbish them so that the families living in them can feel more at home. On the whole, coming and going in this city one feels that it “has an owner”, so to speak. Which doesn’t mean that the Mayor is the owner, but that each of its elements shows signs of ownership. On the buildings, the staircases, the roads, you can see that this city is being looked after. And on the whole the people of Zala County are orderly people – I noticed this even when I was young. This is not generally the case across the whole country. So this is what I see. There are still problems with wages. I believe that in terms of jobs Zalaegerszeg is beginning to find its way back to the earlier times, when Flextronics took on everyone, without limits. What we still have to work for is the issue of pay rises, so that people living here can earn more. In essence we must concern ourselves with those in the low wage range, because the better-off will take care of themselves – they will make their own way. This is why, both in 2017 and in 2018, the most important thing is to raise the minimum wage: the minimum wage for skilled workers. This policy has already affected Zalaegerszeg as well. Pay data for the first quarter has just been released, and I can see the results: in most of the country there were pay rises above ten per cent. We have to push for more. Now there are jobs, and if there are jobs there is everything. All we need now is to make it more worthwhile to work, and so wages must be increased.
And no doubt when you come back to us next time you’ll be able to give good news in this department also. When can we expect you next? There will be a general election next year.
There will be an election. I owe much to our own supporters in Zalaegerszeg, as the people here have always stood by us – even in the most difficult times, when we did not do well nation-wide. We have always been able to rely on the people of Zalaegerszeg. And we have some fond memories of this place from the end of the eighties: there was a parliamentary by-election which was an important factor in crushing the communist regime. I remember that we elected my fellow-parliamentarian Dr. Marx as Member of Parliament for the constituency at a time when he could have be a candidate for any of the opposition parties. Those were good old days of glorious unity. So I have good reason to come back here before the election, but to be quite honest with you, it’s wiser for me to go to places where there are problems. So I will have to spend most of my time in parts of the country where there are not enough jobs yet, where there are some obstacles, where there have been no investments. You know, in politics too, one devotes more time to one’s opponents than to one’s friends, as one always has to deal with trouble. But the end of the election campaign will allow us to escape from all that – it will surely take at least two to three months. And then, if the Mayor and my friend László Vigh invite me, I will be happy to come.
Thank you for the interview, Prime Minister.