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Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Kossuth Radio programme “Good Morning Hungary”

The virus is still here. Eight to ten new infections are being diagnosed every day, but there’s also a continuous easing of restrictions. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is in the studio. Welcome, good morning. When can we expect the state of danger to end and our lives here in Hungary to return to their original condition?

A very good morning to the listeners. Well, here the law and reality are two different things, because the state of danger will be terminated by Parliament, but the virus won’t be affected by that. Just as a curiosity I’ll mention in passing that there is one country in the world that banned the virus by presidential decree. But I don’t think that approach is possible in Hungary. So it’s good that we’re preparing for a situation in which there’s no need for a special legal order. Therefore the Prime Minister’s and the Government’s powers to take action on matters and issues of lawmaking, or to amend laws by decree, must be withdrawn. This is no longer necessary. What is needed, however, is the maintenance of preparedness for disease control. This means three things. The first is that we will maintain the functioning of the Operational Group. And within the group we’ve set up a rapid deployment unit, so that if somewhere in the country the virus rears its head in any form, we can take immediate united action – because the virus is still here, and it is infectious. You’re always reminding everyone that it will be with us here until there’s a vaccine, for as long as we’re unable to destroy it with a vaccine. So this is why we’re maintaining the Operational Group. We’re maintaining the hospital command system, so that our hospitals are prepared for the second wave expected in the autumn and are able to deal with it, and we will strengthen the Chief Medical Officer’s authority. This is disease control preparedness. But this is already happening within the normal legal order and not in the special legal order. I have to say that our defence operation has been more successful than that of many other European countries. It’s widely thought that money makes you happy. But it not only doesn’t make you happy: it doesn’t even necessarily save lives. Countries which are richer than us have fared worse than us, they’ve suffered. Meanwhile the Central European countries of more modest means – I was at the V4 summit just yesterday – have defended themselves extremely successfully. It’s clear that the combined effects of citizens’ discipline, dedication and exemplary compliance, swift government decisions and determined doctors and nurses are often worth more than money. And this is why we won the first battle. That victory is already in the bag.

The fact that, for example, it’s now possible to have greater access to care homes and open clubs for the elderly, subject to social distancing, shows that measures can be eased even for the most at-risk groups, as it’s very difficult to endure this lockdown.

Yes, but we’re doing this very carefully. And now again, the emphasis is on what you were touching on: compassion and insight. So basically it demands from all of us the innate intelligence to know which groups are at risk and which are not. Older people must not be forgotten. So even in the current joyous mood – when people are bursting with a zest for life and one can see everyone greeting the possibility of being able to once again live life normally with a sense of freedom or liberation – we must not forget that the virus is still here, and if it spreads its primary target will once more be elderly people. We’ve saved the lives of many thousands of elderly people; and now we must not put all that risk again through irresponsibility. Therefore certain rules for the protection of the elderly must be maintained. I call on everyone to pay special attention to and show consideration for the elderly: our parents and our grandparents.

On the subject of the national consultation, the opposition is again saying that it’s not needed. Why does the Government think it’s necessary?

What does a successful defence operation depend on? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not primarily about good governmental work – although it doesn’t hurt for that to be available. It depends on the dedication of doctors, nurses and health professionals in general. But what it depends on most, and the key to everything, is people accepting the rules aimed at protecting against the threat. The protective rules that work are the ones that people accept. No matter how clever, well thought-out or useful it may be, a rule will not work in reality if it is not accepted. So as we expect a second wave in the autumn, we need to create points of agreement. We have experience, this global pandemic – which was also introduced to Hungary – has crashed down on all of us. We’ve tried many things; some of them worked, some of them didn’t, some of them met with more approval from people, and some of them with less. We now have time – a good few months – to create a consensus on protection measures, or what we call “points of agreement”. These will be the pillars of our work in the next period of the defence operation. And the effectiveness of that defence operation can be even better than the current outstandingly successful one.

On a daily basis the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry for Innovation and Technology are monitoring how many jobs are being saved – and how many jobs can be created – by the economy protection measures providing development support to investors who have applied for it. In the competition that’s clearly developing here in Europe, how do you see the economy returning to its original course – or doing even better? How will Hungary stand?

Every other day I receive a comprehensive report on the labour market, on unemployment; and I also get a report on how effectively government measures are working. This two-day report always shows how many people’s jobs we’ve saved so far with our government measures. This figure is now well over one million. So there are one million jobs that would most probably have been lost without government intervention, without that support and protection. So what we’re talking about is not insignificant: the livelihoods of a million families. So I think these measures are working. Our goal is completely clear: we don’t want to give welfare benefits, but we want everyone to be able to acquire the money and income they need for their families.

Obviously wage subsidies also help in this.

There are wage subsidies, but we have plenty of instruments. There are wage subsidies, and then there’s investment support, for which almost eight hundred companies have applied, pledging to create jobs by the middle of next year. So my optimism isn’t conjured out of thin air, so to speak: I see the numbers, I see the facts, I consult regularly with actors in the economy, I see the numbers being produced, and I know what will come of all this. So I have an advantage over other citizens, because I’m standing at a high vantage point, and from there it’s clear what will happen over the next year. And if we want to compare ourselves with Westerners, we can do so with confidence, because now we’re strong enough to look them in the eye, talk to them at the same level and behave accordingly. Although we can learn from everyone, there’s no need for us to look up to them – that’s no longer the right posture for us to adopt. The healthcare and defence operation against the pandemic has clearly proved that at least as much can be learnt from us as we can learn from others. So now, instead of our previous approach, which was centred on “how to catch up with the West”, the position we’re in now is like an adult looking back on their childhood.

The time has now come to plan for our future based on our own interests, standing on our own two feet and trusting in our own achievements. Well, now that I’m talking about the economy, I can tell you that the link between governance, good governance, and the economic situation has not been as strong as it will be in the next year and a half. People are right, of course, to think that government economic policy affects the way the economy works – because, after all, Parliament sets taxes, the Government issues decrees on investment support, and so on. State management is an important part of the economy; but it’s not the most important, because the economy is essentially in private hands, and therefore an economy can somehow carry on regardless of how the Government functions. Of course we remember how, under left-wing governments, a well-functioning economy could be ruined; but people still think that government and the economy are two different things. And in general they’re right to do so; but not now. Now the situation has been reversed. So over the next year and a half there will be a clear link between government action and the state of the economy, as we’re now in a period of economic protection: the economy can only be protected by the Government, or with the leadership of the Government. I know it’s a big responsibility, but I don’t want us to shirk it. So if we do well now, if we pursue sound economic policy for the next year and a half, we will achieve fantastic results. And in the battle called “how to get out of the crisis”, or “how to handle the economic crisis”, we will overtake those who are stronger than us. But the Government will not succeed if it doesn’t do its job well, if it falls behind the pace, if it promotes stupidity, if it fails to find common ground with actors in the economy and if it doesn’t develop broad-ranging cooperation. So now clearly economic success and the quality of government work are more closely linked than ever before.

The budget is being debated in Parliament. You’ve had to reckon on less revenue in the budget, because a tax exemption – a moratorium on loan repayments – is also helping people make ends meet and not have to spend money on debt repayment. So the budget has to reckon with this. Is this why the Government has in effect split up the budget, so that one part of it is devoted to protection of the economy, which is perhaps the most important?

I’m optimistic that there won’t be less money, but more – although one has to be careful when planning. However it’s not the amount of money that’s most important, but the rational spending of it. And since the world’s scientific and medical communities are being completely open in talking about a second wave of the pandemic, we must prepare ourselves to deal with it. At the same time, no one yet knows what has already happened: the extent to which the first wave of the pandemic has depressed economies. The day before yesterday I saw an OECD report that paints a fairly dark picture of this. I’m more optimistic than they are, but the OECD contains a group of the world’s best macroeconomists, so we should pay attention to them. All in all, I have to say that we won’t be able to counteract the economic effects in a few months in 2020. So ’21 will also be a year of protection of the economy, meaning that we still need to have two large allocations: a disease control allocation to deal with the second wave; and an economy protection allocation. Money must be spent according to this logic. Since 2010 we’ve managed to deal with a very difficult economic crisis better than most European Union countries – or perhaps better than anyone else. We have the experience gained from that, we understand its logic and interrelations, and I could say that we have the dossier that I just need to take down from the shelf to see what we did then. We can see what worked and what didn’t work. Very many things worked, and we have the instruments: public employment instead of welfare benefits, state job creation, training, tax reductions and investment support. These are tried and tested tools, these are good weapons which have worked in the past, and now the goal is no different from that in 2010: to protect jobs and, if possible, to create as many new ones as possible. So we know the goal and we have the tools. This is why we can take full responsibility for the successful implementation of next year’s budget.

Experts say that the loan repayment moratorium has worked very well. It was interesting that in Hungary the Government stepped in very quickly. We’ve had a chance to compare this with other countries, and this opportunity wasn’t given to everyone in Europe – and where it was given, it was only given to selected groups. What lies behind the fact that so many people here in Hungary have taken advantage of this opportunity? And additionally somehow it seems that many people have undertaken to continue to repay the loans, because fortunately they have reserves. Nevertheless more than 40 per cent have taken advantage of the opportunity – businesses as well as individuals.

You see, there’s an economic policy think tank supporting me, and its members are largely responsible for drawing up the current measures. Of course responsibility should be borne by the Prime Minister, and even though others originated the concept, the responsibility still lies with the Government. This group has proposed new measures in addition to those which were successful in 2010: partly central bank measures and partly government budget measures. One such is the debt repayment moratorium, which I think has brought a fantastic result: more than HUF 2,000 billion has been left in people’s bank accounts. This opportunity has been taken by a very large proportion of businesses and a very large proportion of the population. I see the social content of this, because when I look at the data, I see that applications have particularly come from those with less money: the less money someone has, the more likely they are to have taken advantage of the debt repayment moratorium. So this is hugely helpful, especially for people with less money, who after all are the majority in the country. So I can say that this is a major opportunity for most of the country. I’m also pleased to be able to say that there is a third of the country that hasn’t needed to take advantage of it. They’ve said that there are troubles, of course, but they have financial reserves so that they can pay off the loans they took out earlier without the need for any kind of debt repayment moratorium, and they can cope with this situation independently. So both sides of this coin are heartening. And this measure is unparalleled in Europe. Incidentally it places a heavy burden on the banks, so there is huge resistance from them. Nevertheless I should mention that even in crisis situations we’ve enjoyed cooperation with the banks since 2010 and the introduction of the banking tax, when it proved to be a sensible measure which truly resulted in us spending the money taken from banks on crisis management. Although it hasn’t been without debate, this cooperation is an existing reality. So I’m not saying that they’re happy to have to hand over their money: that’s not typical of banks. And neither are they believers in interest rate cuts and interest or debt repayment moratoria, because they like interest very much. This is the essence of their business, and this is something which we need to understand. But one can talk to them. And now also we’ve found a solution by suspending loan repayments, so that it doesn’t result in borrowers paying compound interest. Of course banks would have preferred the latter, but that wouldn’t have been right, and in the end we were able to come to agreement. We’ve also adjusted the banking tax slightly, and in the end they can bear it, and so they’re also contributing to tackling the crisis. So if there’s a strong government, if there’s national support, strong voter support, and if in the Government there’s a sense of national consciousness, then it’s possible to act even in opposition to the interests of the world’s great financial capitalists and big banks, and – if there is strength – meaningful agreements can be reached with them. If there is no strength, then of course this is all just a fantasy.

How will funding for local government be dealt with in next year’s budget? Opposition Members of Parliament are already doing the rounds here in the capital’s districts. Indeed the Mayor of Budapest himself is complaining about how much money the Government is taking away from the capital.

All in all, I have to say that this year – we’re talking about 2021 – will be a year of defence, and everyone must contribute. So I understand that everyone thinks, “Of course everyone must contribute – except me”. We know this way of thinking, and I see it from some municipalities. But that’s not how things work. We’re in the same boat: “crying together and laughing together”. In our lives local governments are not independent units, separable from the rest of the country: they’re part of the great pattern of Hungarian life, and so everyone – economic actors, healthcare workers, the Government, political parties, local governments – must contribute to the defence operation in some way. Otherwise we will not succeed, because, and I repeat, the key to the defence operation is not money – which is indeed needed – but cooperation. This is because there will be money only if there’s unity and no one seeks to excuse themselves from involvement in the defence operation. If someone starts to evade their responsibility in this, and it’s permitted by those with governmental powers – in this case, the Prime Minister and the Government – then everyone will want to evade their responsibility. So everyone is involved in the defence operation, and the phrase “we’re in the same boat” applies to everyone. Furthermore, the overall budget allocation to local governments will increase in 2021 – and increase significantly. So they’ll be managing their budgets with access to more money. What’s more, if the Government performs well in relaunching the economy, there will be more tax revenue – not just at national level, but also at local government level. So there’s no reason for the tone that we’re all hearing now. I put this down to the usual lobbying we see when a budget is being drawn up. If that’s what it is, it must be managed accordingly. And one must acknowledge that the developments in Hungary aren’t located up in the clouds, but every one of them is within the area of a local government. So every development also supports a local government, and supports the people living there. And there is a lot of development: we have the Hungarian Village Programme, we have the Modern Cities Programme, and there are one-off developments. So I can say that local governments will continue to develop and will be strengthened in 2021.

After the municipalities, let’s turn to the European Union budget and the fund for recovery after this pandemic. How do you see this, now that the prime ministers of the V4 countries have just met? Will it be possible to reach agreement on a common position on these issues just as rapidly, and will this position be acceptable to everyone?

First of all, we’ve succeeded in reaching full agreement within the Visegrád Four. In Europe there are countries which approve of the proposal developed by bureaucrats in Brussels which is now on the table, and there are countries which don’t approve of it. There were voices in Western Europe hoping that now there would be a bitter reckoning, with disagreement prising apart cooperation among the V4 countries. This has not happened. Indeed the Slovak prime minister is coming to Hungary today in order to strengthen Slovak-Hungarian cooperation. By the way, over the past ten years we’ve been lucky with Slovak prime ministers, because they’ve also been friends and solid supporters of Hungarians living in Slovakia. This is also true of the current prime minister. Yesterday I received confirmation that he’s a decent person. In essence the issue of minorities – one’s attitude towards a minority – is not a financial or political question: it’s a question of whether or not you’re a decent person. In Hungary we also treat the minorities living here well, because we have to treat smaller, less populous groups decently. And I see that there has been a succession of Slovak prime ministers – including the current one – with goodwill in their hearts, and consequently an understanding of this whole problem. Of course he expects us to treat the Slovaks living in Hungary well; and we have a record of succeeding in this, because we believe that they’ll enrich us and add to us rather than take something away from us. So this Slovak-Hungarian arm of the V4 is also functioning well. Returning to the question of money, on the table is an EU proposal, the underlying concept of which is completely at odds with our Hungarian way of thinking. How do we think? We – or at least, I hope, the majority of us – think that money should first be earned, and only later spent. Because Hungarians have learnt to their cost that all money has to be worked for – either sooner or later, but it still has to be worked for. There’s no such thing as money for free, even though it seems as if a lot of money simply falls from the sky in the form of credit, and it seems that this is good; but we haven’t worked for it yet, and later repayment will be squeezed out of us. So the essence of prudent and responsible Hungarian thinking is that the money must first be earned, and only then spent. If someone feels that they’re doing well, can trust their future and has faith in receiving an income in the future, they can accept the risk of taking out a loan first and then working to pay it off. If someone decides to do this it must be at their own risk; this applies to everyone, both individuals and countries. One mustn’t involve others in one’s own risky manoeuvres and ultimately force them to pay the price for a bad decision one has made. This is the Hungarian way of thinking. We think that this is right, and that it also applies to countries. I don’t like the idea of taking out a loan with others and jointly guaranteeing its repayment, then paying our share, and when others don’t do the same we end up having to pay their share too. The EU is now setting off down this path, however. So this is completely contrary to our philosophy of life, the Hungarian sense of life, experiences of life and instincts. But now, despite the fact that this proposal is not who we are, I see that we have to do something; and we have to do something together, because there are countries which are in very big trouble. These are not Central European countries. Of course the crisis has also knocked us sideways, so we can’t say that one half of Europe has been badly affected and the other hasn’t: the Czech, Polish, Slovak and Hungarian economies are also suffering. It’s simply that, in terms of debt levels, these economies are in a better position than the others: France’s public debt has slipped above 100 per cent of gross domestic product; the Italians were already at 135 per cent before the crisis; and the Greeks owed more than 165 per cent of their annual income to various banks around the world. And I could continue the list. So if the downturn that has occurred is felt in full by these countries, they may not be able to withstand it. The situation we’re now faced with is that the Central European countries are withstanding the pressure, but other countries are not sure that they’ll be able to. So something needs to be done now, and this is why there is the conception that now we should take on debt together. Of course we’re trying to limit the risk of this, to make it manageable for Hungarians and make it bearable; but we need to realise that even though I bridle against it, now for once we have to use this tool on an exceptional basis. So be it. But this mustn’t be done by using this money unfairly and selecting uses that result in a favourable distribution of money only for some countries and not for others. So Central European countries must not be taken for a ride. We mustn’t be seen as pushovers. We may have joined the European Union later than others, but we weren’t born yesterday. So a fair and equitable distribution needs to be established, and this is possible. The internal content of this plan needs to be changed on some points. The V4 countries have made suggestions for this, which will make the whole thing tolerable. And then let’s say our prayers.

We still have half a minute, Prime Minister. When the Slovak prime minister arrives today, will you thank him for the fact that, on the anniversary of [the Treaty of] Trianon, he actually apologised on behalf of the Slovaks for Trianon?

Perhaps I wouldn’t put it that way. In politics an apology is a very difficult thing, and I don’t think that’s what we require. So any one of our neighbours apologising for something won’t cause me to sleep any better. I would rather say that we should strive for fair and equitable relations. We’re not beyond reproach either – much though we’d like to be. So we must recognise that we’re not without our faults, and neither is our history. What happened a hundred years ago was undoubtedly an unparalleled injustice, but no apology will remedy it. So I’m not aiming for us to issue statements to each other about the past that would alleviate the pain of such wounds, because it wouldn’t get us anywhere. It’s not the past that we need to change, and that’s something we cannot do. So comments about the past are fine gestures, but nothing will come of them. What we’re interested in is the future, because that is what we will win. On behalf of Hungarians also I will say that we lost the 20th century, but Hungarians will win the 21st century. We are a rising, strengthening and triumphant country, and this is what we will be in the coming period; and, as time goes on, this will become clearer by the year. So I hope we can look on ourselves as a rising Hungary in a rising Central Europe, with greater self-confidence and greater self-respect, valuing ourselves, acting with integrity and cooperating with other countries in the region. Therefore I value the remarks made by the Prime Minister of Slovakia about the future: about how we Hungarians and Slovaks will be successful together, and how we can win together. This is the great consideration, not remarks about the past. Whether or not a few sentences alleviate our feelings about the injustice of a hundred years ago – and they won’t particularly alleviate mine – is a matter for us Hungarians. I’m not saying that I don’t notice sentences like that, but that’s not what interests me. What interests me is how and on what points the Slovakian and Hungarian peoples will cooperate, and how we’ll help each other. What interests me is not only how, in the light of the past hundred years, we allow each other to live, each according to their own nature, logic, culture and language – although that is a fine thing in itself. But now we have the opportunity for more than that: we have the opportunity to join forces and win together. This is what I expect from our meeting, and this is what I expect in general. And furthermore, our responsibility demands that we think about the future. This is because we’re once again the most populous country in the Carpathian Basin, and the whole world can see that we’re getting stronger: in spirit, soon in demography, and in military, financial and capital strength. We are a strengthening people looking for companions for a successful future.

Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.