Katalin Nagy: Yesterday the Chief Medical Officer announced that the pandemic has entered a static phase. There are fewer new infections and fewer deaths. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Budapest’s district mayors and the Mayor of Budapest were asked to give – by three o’clock on Thursday afternoon – their opinions on whether or not restrictions could start to be lifted in the capital. Have those suggestions arrived?
Good morning. We did indeed ask them for their opinions, as now more people are recovering than are falling ill, which means that the number of infections is decreasing. There are already some countries where beacons are being lit in celebration; but all I am saying is that while the conditions for the relaunch of life are in place, we must not call a halt to the defence operation. Geographically we must divide up this defence operation. Two weeks ago we were able to ease the restrictions in the provinces, and now we’ve reached the point at which Pest County can share that fate – if I may put it that way. The big question is Budapest. It’s not only the big question because this is where most people have been infected and most people have died, although that is important; but also because its population density is very high, and this is where it’s most difficult to correct bad decisions. So if, say, a relaxation in restrictions sees a return of the infection in a village, town or even a small region we can correct it relatively easily, because it can be contained and physically isolated. So it can be solved there. But if we’re not disciplined enough in Budapest, and after such a relaxation the infection rate starts to increase again, we cannot physically separate districts; so then we’d have to make the correction across the whole of Budapest, in order for the city to get back to where we want it to be. This is why we must always think of Budapest differently, as it’s the country’s only metropolis. But the way in which the number of infections has developed undoubtedly shows that the conditions for resumption of life also exist in Budapest; we simply all need to behave responsibly and abide by certain rules. As I see it, that responsible behaviour is no longer a matter of staying home, but of maintaining a safe distance and covering one’s face or wearing a mask when on public transport and in catering establishments. If this is successful, there won’t be a problem in Budapest either.
When is a decision on this expected? We were very hopeful that there would be some easing of the restrictions this weekend.
Yes. Believe me, as this is a matter of people’s lives, one must act with due care and responsibility. I know the opinion of the Operational Group, and I’ve also been given the opinions of mayors. In addition to this, on Saturday morning I also want to conduct a straw poll among non-government professionals. As a matter of routine one precisely knows the opinion of those within the Government, but on Saturday morning there will be a consultation, to which I’ve invited other advisors, specialists, virologists, doctors and professors whose opinion I would like to lean on. They will come to me on Saturday morning, and afterwards I will inform the Operational Group of what they have said. This means that a decision will be made early on Saturday afternoon.
In relation to education, the leader of the Teachers Council has said that from June children from the first year up could go back to school, meaning that the first four years would be back at school. When will the Government decide on this?
This is what I fear the most. This will be hard, a very hard decision, and from every person I’ve talked to I’ve heard a different opinion. Let’s proceed in the other direction: now we’re opening the playgrounds in the provinces, so I think that parents being able to take children to playgrounds is already a great help for mothers. We need to develop a standby system in nurseries and kindergartens, because the situation now is that if mothers want to take children to kindergartens and crèches, they have to go to newly designated ones and not to the usual location – or if they are taking them to the usual place, they’re not putting them in the care of the usual carer or kindergarten teacher. So everyone is being very cautious. So that would be good, but here I’m circumspect, because these institutions – especially kindergartens – belong to local governments and form part of their decision-making responsibility, and we cannot take that away from them. But it would be good if everyone could take their child to the usual kindergarten or crèche if they want to. I’ve asked Minister of State Maruzsa, who is in charge of education, to take steps in this direction and to try and reach agreement with the mayors. It won’t be compulsory to take children to these institutions, but whoever wants to may take them to where they usually do in the course of normal life; this would be a great help. I think that after this will come school – first the lower elementary grades, then the upper elementary grades, and then secondary schools. But until the situation in kindergartens and crèches has been normalised I don’t think that we can leapfrog them and start with the schools. So we will turn to schools when we’ve resolved the situation of kindergartens and crèches. But today no person alive can say whether that will happen this year. In a few days’ time the situation may change, and here what I’m asking everyone for is decision-making capacity, so that if necessary we can form a standpoint on this within a day or two. We need to be prepared, and it’s not impossible, but on this I’m being very careful. What we’ve seen of the infection so far indicates that this probably won’t cause problems for children. Of course that’s probably not enough for a parent, and that’s also how I feel: when it comes to your child you want to be sure that there won’t be a problem. But what we can say for sure is that a child won’t have a problem as long as they don’t have some underlying illness. But they could take infection into the home, and once it’s been taken home it could be transferred to parents, and possibly to grandparents. So grandparents could be in danger. So now we also have to be careful with children in order to reduce the risk to parents and grandparents.
Life outside the capital increasingly resembles what it was like before the pandemic – although everyone is careful, and they’re trying to keep apart from one another by this certain distance, one and a half to two metres. People involved in provincial tourism have been pleased to report that bookings are being made now, and so we’re already seeing the recovery of the economy – or its initial steps. How do you see this? We’ve just heard that next year’s budget has already been discussed this week.
So let’s stay with decisions in the provinces. Next week in the provinces it will be possible to eat and drink inside restaurants and cafes, but keeping at a distance from one another will still be mandatory. From 1 June it will be possible to hold weddings with no more than two hundred guests, and hotels and pensions will also be allowed to reopen. So in essence we should envisage Budapest following the changes outside the capital, but with a time lag of two weeks; so whatever happens in the provinces can happen in Budapest about two weeks later. But here again, over and above any economic considerations, I want to underline that we can move on to the second stage of defence if everyone acts responsibly. This is true for mayors, and also for the Mayor of Budapest – because running care homes still places a huge burden of responsibility on his shoulders. This is not an easy position. You, too, know this type: there are people who are somehow innately theoretical, and there are people who are innately practical. How shall I put it? If such a person marries into your family, you can be sure that when they buy some flat pack furniture you’ll have to go round to assemble it for them. Or to put what I’m talking about into a rural context, when there’s a traditional pig slaughter this is someone who only turns up right at the end for dinner; but this doesn’t bother anyone, because at least he’s not in the way throughout the rest of the day while everyone else is working. So theoretical people write excellent studies, and no doubt the Mayor of Budapest will also write an excellent study about infections in the Pesti út care home; but in the meantime more than forty people have died. So if, say, someone like [former mayor of Budapest] István Tarlós is mayor, he goes to the front, steps forward to take control of the defence and restores order. So I ask everyone – including those of our mayors who are theoretical by nature – to now be practical and take practical responsibility, because this is a precondition for the success of the reopening process. No one can afford to be half-hearted in assuming this responsibility.
The economy. If we can continue with the increase in the number of provincial tourism bookings, the signs are that those who lost their jobs in March are now there at hotels and have been taken back: hotels can now open – with caution, being disinfected continuously; and tables in restaurants are being designed so that people aren’t sitting close to each other.
Europe’s industrial production fell dramatically in March, and the sector you’re talking about – the hospitality and tourism industry – has disappeared. As well as industrial production, tourism is important Hungary, being capable of producing 10–12 per cent of gross domestic product. In addition, we had grand plans, some of which aimed to develop tourism and hospitality up to a level of 16 per cent of gross domestic product. Industrial production in Hungary, however, is far above this: more than 20 per cent, almost 30 per cent. Anyway, in proportional terms we’re in second or third place in Europe, so this is a serious matter. I’m primarily looking at industrial performance, and there I see that for the European Union as a whole, industrial performance has fallen by 12 per cent, say: 14 per cent in Germany in March; even more – 17 per cent – for the French; and 30 per cent for the Italians. But even for a tiger cub like Slovakia, the drop was 20 per cent. For us it’s been 10 per cent, which is a lot. We’re talking about minus 10 per cent! This is also a lot, but I feel that so far – at least in March – we’ve somehow cleared the hurdles better than others have. I think the numbers for April will be appalling, those for May will give some hope, and I think that in June we’ll explode out of the starting blocks and race back to the previous growth trajectory. This is my hope. Well, no matter which industry we’re talking about, the question now is one of who thinks which problem is the most serious. There are prime ministers, governments and economists who generally consider the biggest problem to be the slump in economic growth. This is not a small problem, but I’d put one of its subsidiary aspects in first place: job losses. I’ve been manically repeating that Hungary must be a country that is able to create one new job for every job destroyed by the virus. Now, in policy terms the tasks within this project combating unemployment can be organised in two ways. There are countries that believe in long-term relief for the unemployed – by extending the period of eligibility for unemployment benefit, for example. This is alien to the Hungarian way of thinking: in Hungary the economy is based on work, ours is a work-based economy and society, and so we’re turning to job creation. So this is true for tourism, the hospitality industry, and industrial production in general. But it’s also true for agriculture, and we’re looking everywhere – regardless of sector – for how people can be given work. We’ve already enacted such measures in the past; and since I’ve already seen such an economic crisis, which we remedied by creating a work-based economy, I’m sure that this will also work now.
Within the space of a few days more than thirty thousand people applied for free IT training. We’ve heard that a call for applications has been launched to ensure the survival of small and medium-sized enterprises. Large companies have undertaken to invest, precisely so that they can retain their workforces. We’ve also heard that there are ever more efforts to create new jobs, with the Foreign Minister announcing a new investment twice a week.
Yes, we have the instruments for this. I have a list of them which we run through at every Cabinet meeting, and I see how many jobs each instrument has produced. Let’s run through this. So we have a state job creation programme. One of the elements in this is public employment, which enables us to employ 100,000 new public employees tomorrow morning, if necessary. So we have capacity for up to 200,000 people, and if that isn’t enough we can free up more resources. The Hungarian Defence Force has started preparations to recruit able-bodied, physically fit young people. We’ve introduced a system of wage subsidies, comprising two types: research and development wage subsidies; and general job protection wage subsidies. As I recall, the most recent data shows that 5,400 businesses – mostly small and medium-sized enterprises – have already submitted such requests. This means wage subsidies for around 72,000 people. So the state is supporting the wages of that many people. In such circumstances we always introduce tax cuts, in this case from 1 July. Social security contributions will be further reduced by 2 per cent – to a level of 15.5 per cent, as I recall. Few people add up the annual figures for tax cuts, but this produces an exciting result: since December 2016 we’ve reduced this form of taxation by 11.5 per cent. And another job-creating instrument is the concession for tens of thousands of distressed businesses, which will have hardly any taxation burden over and above their wage costs. Tax relief for four months is also available for those in the agricultural, tourism and hospitality sectors. This is our toolbox. I check this every week to see what results have been achieved in these areas, and which tool has proved to be most effective. This should be enough. So, together with support for investment, together with the creation of new jobs, I think that the job protection measures I’ve just listed will enable us to support or recreate jobs struck down by the virus. And I consider this important, because we need to constantly reinforce the concept of national unity, the feeling of community, and the message that “no Hungarian will be left behind”. Pensioners mustn’t be left behind either, and protection plans for families and pensioners are needed. Despite the crisis, we’re also reinstituting the 13th month’s pension, in four instalments. I think that all this together also gives us the chance to win the second battle. The first battle has been about containing the epidemic. We have won this. Professor Béla Merkely is carrying out a national testing programme, which is using a representative sample to give an accurate picture of the actual infection situation, and of how we’ve defended ourselves. We have partial results, authoritative partial results, and I think we can venture to say that we’ve won the first battle, and we’ve contained the epidemic. The second battle is to save and restore jobs. Using this toolset, everything I’ve been speaking about, I think we’ll succeed in this.
What do you think about the fact that the President of the European Parliament ignored your request as the Hungarian prime minister to be represented by Minister of Justice Judit Varga, rejecting this and refusing to allow Judit Varga to say what she wanted?
This doesn’t surprise a Hungarian. We grew up in the world of Péter Bacsó’s film “The Witness”, so we all know the phrase, “This isn’t the accusation, it’s already the verdict”. This is what the European Parliament is like: the verdict is delivered before the parties have been given a hearing. Indeed it may even be the case in the European Union – or in Brussels – that a witness isn’t heard at all. Here our situation is a little worse than the one in Bacsó’s film. Well, the basic situation is really dramatic. We can live with the fact that such nonsense is happening in the European Parliament now, so it doesn’t matter much. We can tolerate the fact that some frustrated liberal parliamentary representatives need an outlet for their anger, and can’t find a better place for it than the European Parliament, and a better pretext for it than Hungary. What’s really worrying is this: we are, after all, still in the middle of a pandemic, and I think that in Europe there could be around 150,000 fatalities. In Belgium the number of deaths per 100,000 is somewhat more than 70, in Italy and Spain 50 to 60, in the Netherlands and Sweden 30, and in Austria 7. In Hungary the figure is a little above 4. So in terms of defence we’re one of the most successful countries, and this is at a time when real European cooperation is needed; because the impact of the problem is not on one country, but on everyone. The institutions, the world of Brussels and the Brussels bureaucrats are paid by us to deal with important things – to protect people’s lives in a time of pandemic, for example. The worrying phenomenon is that – instead of using the money we pay them in salary to help the people of Europe – they spend their time giving a tongue lashing to Hungary, one of the countries defending itself most successfully against the virus. This is definitely wrong. Now this is not about whether or not this is bad for us Hungarians, but about the fact that this is not why we created the European Union institutions, and this is not why we employ bureaucrats in Brussels. We expect them to help us, not hold us back. This is the true problem.
Do you think it’s a coincidence that the decision of the European Court of Justice on the Röszke transit zone was published on exactly the same day as this particular plenary debate on the rule of law in Hungary?
Unfortunately I’m no longer young enough to believe that. The Hungarian people usually have a benign attitude towards European institutions and Brussels, and if you’d asked me this a few years ago, then perhaps I’d have answered that of course we shouldn’t spread conspiracy theories. But I’m not so young now, I’ve seen a lot, and I think it’s impossible that the Brussels bureaucrats’ dates coincided by chance. This is a coordinated attack. I always say that now, of course, there’s a pandemic, and there’s also economic competition in the European Union; but deep down what moves European politics, the thinking of European leaders today and the decisions of bureaucrats in Brussels today continues to be migration. There the question is whether the Brussels bureaucrats can manage to force the Member States, including Hungary, to admit migrants against their will. Now the ruling of the European Court is aimed at trying to bypass Hungarian laws and the Hungarian Constitution so that in the end they can send migrants in to Hungary. They won’t be able to trick us: the Hungarian team’s defenders have strong legs, we’re good at winning the ball, and so I don’t think we can be outmanoeuvred. And it’s absolutely clear that if the European Court of Justice makes a decision that conflicts with the Hungarian Constitution – and now this is the situation unfolding before our eyes – then the Hungarian Constitution must have priority.
Hungary’s Curia [the Supreme Court] has made a ruling on Gyöngyöspata and the [compensation] payments, stating that this sum of 100 million forints must be paid. Now here’s another situation in which this particular segregation existed between 2004 and 2011 – so much of it happened under a previous government, under a socialist-liberal government. No compensation was sought back then: for some reason it only became important now, under a civic government. Obviously there’s another side to this. Will this decision bring peace to Gyöngyöspata?
Indeed it’s true that the period in question fell largely within the mandate of the previous government, but I don’t attach importance to that now, because this question is more important than one of which government we should apportion responsibility to: it’s a question of principle, independent of the particular government in power in Hungary. This question must be approached in terms of principles. Very simply, my approach is to ask whether Hungarians can feel at home in their own country – including in their own towns and villages. Is there an environment in Hungary in which a minority is able to build a system, a network, which regularly forces its will on the majority? Or do we want to live in a country where there is, of course, both a minority and a majority and where we must show consideration to one another, but where the majority is still the majority. And where the majority must feel at home. We must not allow a situation in which, in order for a minority to feel at home, the majority must feel that they are strangers in their own town, village or homeland. That is not acceptable. And as long as I am the Prime Minister, that will not be the case. Because, after all, this is our country, we native Hungarians. I can see that Soros organisations launched this case, so it didn’t simply fall out of the sky. It was started by organisations funded by George Soros, with highly qualified lawyers being paid a lot of money. This is working as a money-making operation, but there’s also a cutting edge to it, wielded against the majority. It was started by George Soros’s organisations, and George Soros’s representatives from the European Union, whom he supports, are following it, showcasing it and amplifying it. Well, I’m also someone with a law degree, and I have to say that, as it stands, this court verdict is an unjust one. It has been made in the service of legality, but not in the service of justice. And I can see that justice in Gyöngyöspata is not visible from the Supreme Court in Budapest’s 5th district. But we shall seek out that justice.
Yes, because the people who live there say that “up there in the capital the Curia doesn’t know what’s happening down here”.
Now the most important thing to do, and we’ve already done much of this work, is for us to bring about legislative changes that prevent this from happening again. Perhaps we’ve already submitted them – or if not, we’ll be submitting a legislative amendment in the near future. We will wait for a detailed account of the judges’ verdict, of the Curia’s verdict. We’ll study it thoroughly and then decide on how to comply with it.
Thank you. You have been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.