Katalin Nagy: There have now been 17 million COVID infections worldwide, and in Hungary’s immediate vicinity the virus situation appears to be deteriorating. This is the case in Ukraine, Romania or Serbia; but recently the number of infections has also risen in Austria, and the Czech Republic. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. How much longer can we hold out, how much longer will it be before the number of infections also begins rising in Hungary?
Good morning. This is the one-million-dollar question. If I were able to answer it, I wouldn’t be prime minister, but a fortune-teller or some kind of oracle. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen; I can only tell you what we should do. The first thing is that we mustn’t abandon our carefully planned, calm and predictable defence operation. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be carried away by emotions, enthusiasm, our hearts, the summer, Lake Balaton and holidays: we should keep in mind – somewhere at the back of our mind – that the virus is here with us. There’s no vaccine yet, and so we can’t rid ourselves of it. We must live with it, and if we live with it in the wrong way, there will be consequences.
Meaning that even if face masks are inconvenient, we should still wear them.
And we should maintain our distance from one another, and so on. How can the Government help? First of all, the Government is trying to adopt predictable decisions. Therefore at the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday we spent several hours discussing the pandemic situation, and we made decisions. The Operational Group is continuing its work, incidentally, and we also have a disease control task force; people don’t generally know this because they’re on holiday and are focusing on their own affairs, but behind this calm or relatively good situation there are hundreds of people on continuous standby. Sándor Pintér also starts work early every morning. He consults with the appropriate sections of the Operational Group. Miklós Kásler is monitoring the healthcare situation, and giving instructions to healthcare teams and hospitals. So, in the background, without any fanfare – as we are now past the peak of the epidemic – we have a defence system which operates like a well-oiled machine. So the Operational Group is continuing its work. Every Tuesday they make recommendations to the Government if any changes are required. The Government is able to make decisions on these on Wednesday, and our decisions come into effect on Friday. This is primarily important for those crossing our state borders, because right now the danger is that the virus will be reintroduced into the country. I ask everyone to follow the latest country categorisations: we’ve put countries into green, yellow and red categories. It’s safest here at home where we can look out for one another. Let’s do that. But of course some people will go abroad. If they choose to do that, they should choose green countries, countries in the green category, not yellow or red countries. If they choose to travel to yellow or red countries they may not only harm themselves, but also people who have stayed at home and who are showing discipline in following the defence measures. If we look at the situation in the world around us, we can see that many places have seen the onset of a second wave. As you’ve said, the situation in our neighbouring countries is deteriorating. And it’s also deteriorating in Western Europe, where the situation is clear, but less dramatic. The Hungarian defence measures have paid off. Now I feel that the intensity, the effort and regulatory system in the defence operation have been gauged well. If we carry on living as we have so far, and as we’ve lived with the virus, there won’t be a problem.
Is this what has necessitated your decision to extend beyond 15 August the prohibition on music or dance events with attendances of more than five hundred?
First of all, let me tell you the good news that today we’re not in the situation that we were in during the first wave of the pandemic. In Hungary today we have everything we need to defend ourselves against the virus. People had good reason to be more concerned and more alarmed around March, when the whole world – including Hungary – was unprepared for such a pandemic. Later, during the emergency caused by the pandemic, the Hungarian healthcare system – which for some mysterious reason we always denigrate and disparage – proved to be one of the best performing in Europe. Not only has the country as a whole performed well, but its healthcare system has performed outstandingly. We have very good doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants. Although not everything in hospital management is as it should be, by European comparison our hospitals are well-organised and well-administered. And it’s also true that we’ve just given many billions of forints to our healthcare industry, so that in the long run we can independently manufacture the widest possible range of healthcare equipment – everything that we need to defend ourselves against an epidemic. Up until now our hunters and scouts have had to roam the world to collect the supplies we need, and they’ve succeeded in doing this. By contrast, today the situation is that we ourselves are manufacturing the equipment necessary for the defence operation. So we have enough ventilators, and we’re making them. We have enough face masks, and we’re making as many as we need. We’re making as much protective equipment as we need. So today the situation is different, and this is a much safer situation. Getting to the situation in which we are today, when we can speak about it confidently, is the result of work over many months by very many hundreds of people – or rather several thousand people. But equipment won’t be worth much if regulations and the rules for everyday life are poor, if they’re not precise, and if people don’t comply with them. The national consultation is also important in enabling us to start our defence against the next wave without any disputes about anything: we’ll have discussed all the issues, and we’ll have decided on all the important questions. The Government will have adopted decisions on this basis. And there’s just one thing the Government and the public need to do: follow the rules consistently. So we see that the present condition is favourable, it’s static; and any change we might implement could bring with it the risk of worsening the situation. I wouldn’t like to take that risk. I start my day’s work every morning by checking whether any more Hungarians have died. Then I check whether any more Hungarians have been infected. Older people, our parents and grandparents, continue to be most at risk. Let’s look out for them and make sure that they don’t come to harm. Of course young people can also fall ill with the disease, but they recover, while the elderly could die. So it’s very important that we show our love for our parents and grandparents not only in fine words, but also in disciplined behaviour. I don’t want to see a situation in Hungary in which we believe that things are going well, we relax the rules and in consequence people die – people who would otherwise survive. Therefore I ask everyone to accept this: that as the level of our defence has been well calibrated, and any change would pose risks, then let’s not take risks. Let everything stay as it is. Of course this is a serious, existential, financial burden for many people – especially for those whose livelihood involves people gathering together to give us culture, to give us art, and to lift our spirits through their art. There will be fewer opportunities for that now – or at least no more than we’ve had so far. Earlier we transferred to the Hungarian Academy of Arts a package worth billions of forints for the purposes of classical music, for classical genres. As I see it, the conditions for survival exist there. Now that summer and the festival season is upon us, we must provide for people in the popular music industry, and we must create cooperation of some kind with them. At its Wednesday meeting the Government set aside more than five billion forints, and the Tourism Agency developed a programme, as part of which we are offering garage concerts. We’ll record them, and later they’ll be shown on the Hungarian media. So artists can perform. This is important, because when we talk about pop musicians, we only see the people on stage. At the Cabinet meeting I was also surprised when I read the submissions describing how many dozens of people are required for such a performance, people we don’t know and don’t see: lighting engineers, sound engineers and stage directors; there is a lot in the background. Such a series of garage concerts can help these people. And there’s a special genre that’s close to the hearts of many Hungarians, and I’m one of them: many of us love Gypsy music. Now those performers are particularly badly affected. So within this sum of many billions of forints we’ve specifically allocated eight hundred million forints to assist Roma musicians, and help them to survive this difficult period. I believe that the Government has done everything it could have, and I hope that this will help artists.
If we look at the latest figures, we’ll see that today 4,457,000 people are in work. This is only 38,000 fewer than before the pandemic.
Yes, but it’s still fewer.
Does this show that the economic protection measures and the relaunch of the economy have been successful?
After waking up every morning this is the third figure I start my day with. How many have died? Fortunately, now we’re doing well on that score. How many new infections are there? And how many people are in work? Hungarian labour statistics are like a jungle: there’s a variety of different indicators, calculated according to different criteria. If you look at a report, you’ll see figures from four or five different perspectives. It takes quite some skill to understand them, and personally I don’t always succeed. This is why I concentrate on a single figure: how many people were in work yesterday or last week, depending on the data supplied. Before the pandemic some 4.5 million people were in work, and now 31,000 fewer people have jobs. Incidentally, more people are in work right now in July than were in work in January. So on the whole the momentum of our increasing employment – the rise in the number of people in work – was lost, but we’ve already managed to restore it. I think we’ll need a few more weeks before I can say that we’ve achieved what we set out to do. The Government made a very serious commitment when it said that we would create as many jobs as are destroyed by the virus. I don’t know of anyone else in Europe who has made such a commitment. This is the commitment we’ve made. And we didn’t say that the same number of people will have jobs at some unspecified point in the future: we said that, as a result of our measures, this would happen soon, within the foreseeable future. We’re very close to being able to tell you and interested members of the public that this has happened. We’ll need a few more weeks, but we’ll make up that ground.
But, Prime Minister, sceptics are now saying that the number of people in work always rises in the summer, with seasonal workers. Maybe this is what’s improving the statistics.
Undoubtedly there are seasonal fluctuations throughout the year. This is why I described the situation in comparison with January. Naturally one always needs to look at the data for a given month in comparison with the data for the previous month, and one must also look at that data in comparison with the data for the corresponding month in the previous year. This is how one gets a fair picture. But let me repeat: what matters is for us to create as many jobs as the virus destroys; and then things will look good from whatever angle we look at them.
What if a second wave arrives? Will you have to renew the economic protection measures or adopt new ones?
First of all, let me say that we’ve created a special system for protection of the economy. In the midst of battle, one doesn’t normally talk about how the history of that battle will be written. That can wait for later. But I can tell you that one looks at the measures and working methods used by others. Our profession – governance and state administration – is an international one. This is what gives it one of its beauties and its intellectual horizon. So this is beautiful creative work, because everything one does today was already done by someone else yesterday, last week or many years ago. You just have to find it, understand it, read it, comprehend it and adapt it to Hungary. So there’s an undeniable intellectual depth and beauty in this. I look at who uses what measures. And it’s very important to know what goals we should set ourselves. [Central Bank Governor] György Matolcsy helps me a great deal, and I regularly consult him on issues relating to the state of the European economy and the Hungarian economy. This is because he’s a brave man – a very brave man intellectually. It was he who once said something that I carry with me at all times: he said that one must overtake on the bend. This means that I shouldn’t be content with simply adopting the measures successfully implemented by our neighbours, or by economies bigger than ours or blessed with a more fortunate history than ours. We should also devise special measures, crisis management approaches that are specific to Hungary and with which we can gain a competitive advantage during the crisis – with which, in other words, we can overtake on the bend. Therefore our crisis management toolkit is not identical to that of other countries. There are differences – differences on very important points. I’m not going to bore the listeners with the entire range of these, but the most important difference is that we’ve mobilised very large sums and have implemented major regulatory changes in the field of investment. Apart from ourselves, no one can yet see the consequences of this – after all, it’s our job to look ahead to those and to see that this will generate fantastic results in the coming year. In response to the grants offered them by the state, during the crisis hundreds of Hungarian businesses have not laid people off and closed down, but have decided to mobilise their savings to buy machinery, to invest and to create jobs. We’ve set them a short deadline, which is also a Hungarian speciality. Projects must start within a year, meaning that production must start. And people will work on those projects. So in the Hungarian economy in 2021 there will be an investment boom of the kind that we haven’t seen in a long time. And we will emerge from the crisis in better shape than we entered it. Naturally, this could be overshadowed by a single unpredictable factor: the possibility of a second wave which brings us to our knees. Therefore I ask everyone to follow the basic rules – not only for our health, but also for the country’s general condition and economic performance.
Only yesterday I read an interview with a company executive who said that he’s invested more money over the past two months than he did in the previous two years. He was talking about the same thing as you are, Prime Minister.
We’ve provided the instruments for this: simple instruments that can be rapidly utilised, and of which I’m proud. Minister Szijjártó is tearing round the Hungarian countryside with his customary dynamism, signing contracts and reaching agreements with economic actors. Talks with the larger of these – large international companies – have been specifically entrusted to Minister Palkovics. At the same time, Minister Mager is attempting to revitalise Hungarian state-owned companies, or give them a facelift: she’s trying to lead them towards making greater efforts through all sorts of restructuring and development to increase their competitiveness. And they’re making good progress. These three people are doing an excellent job. Deputy Prime Minister Mihály Varga is coordinating this work, and Central Bank Governor Matolcsy is bombarding us with his innovative ideas. It’s my task to arrange this into an economic policy. And I believe that we’ll succeed – but let’s come back to that in 2021.
Did this dynamism also lead to you discussing at the Cabinet meeting the launch of new projects in Veszprém, which will be European Capital of Culture?
We Hungarians are convinced that ours is the most beautiful country in the world. I don’t think we’re wrong in that, and I’m also one of those who believe it. We’ve seen other beautiful countries, but none is as beautiful as ours. We’re slightly disturbed by the fact that this is our own little secret; but it’s good that at least we know it – especially now that many people are spending the summer here at home, and ever more people are discovering what a beautiful country this is when they get to visit places that perhaps they wouldn’t have, if it weren’t for the current restrictive twist of fate. So the status of European Capital of Culture – which Veszprém will have the honour of holding in 2023 – is an opportunity to present this fantastic country to the world. In doing this we can’t allow it to be dirty, neglected, weather-beaten, or appear destitute – if you’ll excuse the expression. We must show it to the world in all its beauty – which of course includes its historical past. Not everything in this country is brand new – in fact it’s good that not everything is brand new. Veszprém is the city of Queen Gisela of Hungary. We’re talking about many hundreds of years. So it’s not a problem that it’s old and weathered; but let it be dignified, let it be generous in its welcome, and let it exude a specifically Hungarian feeling – an aesthetic that can’t be found anywhere else. Veszprém is well-suited to this. Veszprém is a fantastic city, a box of jewels, which also looks down on Lake Balaton. I’m 57, but whenever I go there I’m still stunned by its beauty. And now this entire programme is in good hands: I’ve come to an agreement with former Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics for him to oversee this whole programme. He’s prepared an excellent proposal for us. It wasn’t cheap, coming in at forty billion forints, with another forty to fifty billion forints being spent on the renovation of church properties, the conservation of our church monuments, and their full or partial conversion into tourist attractions. A total of almost one hundred billion forints will be invested in this region, and I hope that the effect of this will be visible. I’m glad that Tibor Navracsics has accepted the job. He’s a very experienced, good governor. We have him to thank for the new system of government administration set up between 2010 and 2014: he devised it, put it into place, kept it together and operated it. Without his assistance my job as prime minister couldn’t have been half as successful as it has been. He has now once more accepted one of the most important missions in Hungarian domestic politics, and will lead this work. There are good times ahead for the people of Veszprém.
It’s been less than two weeks since the European Council adopted a very important decision. Since then many articles and analyses have appeared describing who benefited and who didn’t. Sometimes these opinions contradict one another. But I’ve read an article quoting a Brussels analyst who says that Hungary will be the V4 country receiving the most money. Very many issues have still to be clarified; for instance, the percentages for distribution of the money available in the seven-year budget and the recovery fund – a total of almost sixty billion euros. Another new aspect, or one we haven’t spoken about much yet, is that the support available in the recovery fund – the smaller part, of around six billion – will have to be spent within two years. Indeed plans must be submitted in October. So has there been a decision yet on whether we’ll take out a loan?
I said a lot all at once, didn’t I?
Yes, indeed you asked a lot of questions, around five in a single sentence. If we take these questions and answers in order, I can say this. The first thing is that for some reason in the Hungarian language we say that we receive money from the European Union. Like hell we do! We don’t receive money from the European Union: we recover some of the money taken out of Hungary by Westerners. I really want the Hungarian people to not look at EU funds as something we receive from people who are richer and stronger than us, but to think of us as having joined more fortunate countries after having been through forty years of communism. We allow them to bring their goods here without the imposition of protective customs tariffs. We allow them to invest here and to force us to compete with them, despite the fact that we started the race one lap behind them. We’ve signed up to all this, and in return we expect them to give us back a fair share of the resultant business profits – because it’s ours and we’ve worked for it. We agreed to join the race under unequal conditions, and in return we’re entitled to some kind of financial rebate creating equal opportunities. This is how it must be perceived. We have a rule of thumb for this. Some dispute its numerical accuracy, but a former European commissioner dealing with economic affairs has calculated that around 70 to 80 per cent of the money with which the European Union reimburses us with is in fact used for the purchase of products manufactured by Western companies, and investments implemented by Western companies. We also benefit, because these investments stay here: you can’t pack up a bridge or a road like a bag, throw it on your back and carry it off. So we ourselves benefit, and this gives Hungarians jobs. But they also benefit. So it’s both humiliating and untrue to present European Union funds as the EU condescending to push some money towards us poor Central Europeans. What we’ve achieved over the past year has been fantastic. The Hungarian people work well. Hungarian workers are among the world’s best workers, and Hungarian engineers are among the world’s best engineers. These factories, the world’s most modern factories, are being operated by Hungarian workers and Hungarian engineers. These workers were taught by Hungarian teachers in elementary and secondary schools, and they were also taught their trades here. So I’d like us Hungarians to have much greater self-respect, in which it’s clearly recognised that of course we started with an enormous handicap, from conditions of hardship: the communists destroyed everything here and plundered the country; and in the fifties they took from the people everything that we could have built a future on. And yet we got back up on our feet and today we’re competitive. It’s no coincidence that these factories come here. Secondly, if Hungary has the chance to obtain rebates from Brussels, then of course they must be used quickly. In the economy time is important; and time is especially important during a pandemic. The Government has already adopted those major programmes – we have identified 120 of them – which can be rapidly implemented. I’m pushing three or four of these to the fore, and I’m seeking to convince Minister Palkovics – who’s responsible for this matter – to give these priority. One such programme is renewal of the entire Hungarian water supply system, another is reform of our environmental protection system, and a third is the transformation of our energy system. These require thousands of billions of forints. So we’ll need hundreds and thousands of billions of forints if we want to renew the water supply network across the whole country, or if we want to build sewage systems in small settlements – because they’re not in place yet, and I’d like to see them. We’ve obtained this now. In the four days of the latest Brussels battle – as I call these talks – we increased the sum that we inject into the Hungarian economy by three billion euros: by more than a thousand billion forints. Now the subject under discussion will be technical details: loans, grants, repayable, non-repayable, funding tied to specific projects or all-purpose funding. This is a serious science, with utilisation of the money reclaimed from Brussels passing through a labyrinthine system. Anyone who can find their way through this system is a happy person. We are a happy country because we have some people who can find their way through it, and who understand what’s going on. So I’m not worried about the possibility of us being unable to optimally incorporate these funds into the fabric of the Hungarian economy.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.