Katalin Nagy: There’s been a jump in the number of infections: there have been more than 6,000 cases in 24 hours. and more than 3,300 people are receiving hospital treatment. At the same time new protective measures – such as a requirement for face masks on public transport vehicles and associated enclosed spaces, and a ban on visits to healthcare institutions – have been in place for five days. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is in the studio. Good morning. Do you think there’s a need for more protective measures?
Good morning. First of all, perhaps we should look at what’s been happening. So we had a successful vaccination campaign in the spring, and we succeeded in suppressing the subspecies of the virus known as the British variant or mutation. And we’ve seen that in such situations a new variant emerges: now a mutation known as the Delta variant is surging across the entire world – including Hungary. This virus subspecies is more aggressive than the British version was: it spreads more rapidly and it causes more serious symptoms. This fact has to be our starting point. Now, when would this virus cause no problems in Hungary? It would cause no problems if everyone was vaccinated. People might be infected, because people can be infected with the virus even after they’ve been vaccinated; but those who have been vaccinated won’t suffer serious symptoms. In general we can say that those who have been vaccinated aren’t in danger, but those who haven’t been vaccinated are in mortal danger. So today the situation is that those who haven’t been vaccinated can not only expect to eventually be found by the virus – and I can’t emphasise too strongly that they cannot hide, they will be found – but they must expect that when it finds them they’ll develop very serious symptoms, and will very probably be hospitalised. They could end up on a ventilator, or suffer an even worse fate. So, with repeated and renewed emphasis, I urge everyone to have themselves vaccinated; because no protective measure other than vaccination will protect you. So after that the only question is this: why are we taking protective measures? So that we can slow it down. Protective measures – such as the use of face masks – slow down the spread. But they don’t offer protection. So we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we’re protected if we isolate ourselves, if we separate ourselves from one another, and if we wear face masks. With those measures we won’t be protected – only vaccination will protect us.
So do you think that at this moment in time there’s no need for further protection measures?
The Operational Group meets regularly to be able to react immediately to changes in the situation. The most important protective measure is vaccination. In Hungary now there are 10 million doses of vaccine, and 5 million more arriving by the end of the year. So the country has, or will have, 15 million doses of vaccine. So I urge everyone to move in that direction: accept the vaccine. Further measures? Well, if it spreads faster, then we’ll have to respond. It’s spread isn’t uniform in all parts of the country. This is why we’ve had to involve employers in protective measures: employers who feel that there’s a rapid spread – or the risk of it – among their workers, among their employees, can introduce vaccination mandates. So those employees who don’t agree to be vaccinated could be placed on unpaid leave. This is a controversial measure, but there’s no other subsequent step. So if we don’t want to make vaccination compulsory for everyone, our next step can be for workplace communities to decide what they want.
For a long time the Chamber of Commerce and Industry has been asking the Government to do this: to allow employers to make decisions on vaccination. Another view, however, is that in doing this the Government is pushing the responsibility onto employers.
Well, in Hungary there’s a political culture which dictates that if the weather’s bad, the main responsibility for it lies with the Government and with me. So the idea that responsibility can be pushed onto anyone else is for the birds. Hungary is a serious country. People are well aware that the Government is there to protect them, and it must accept responsibility for that. Nevertheless, the fact remains that conditions are not the same in every part of the country. Moreover, people have different ways of looking at this. In my opinion, the imposition of a general vaccination mandate would stretch Hungarians’ tolerance beyond breaking point. But I think they’ll accept a workplace community saying to them: “We don’t want to be infected because of you, Dear Friend, so be so kind as to accept the vaccination.” And if someone doesn’t accept it, then however much their colleagues might like them, perhaps they’ll decide that it’s better if they stay at home. And if they stay home, they’ll be on unpaid leave. That’s bad for everyone. So this is a situation in which the only way for everyone to benefit is for everyone to accept the vaccine.
We’ve been talking about this pandemic for twenty months, and for almost a year about vaccination being the solution. Is there anything else that can be said to convince those who don’t want it, who are unwilling to receive it? There aren’t so many now, but unfortunately there are still some.
Well, the Government hasn’t been able to convince more people, and we won’t be able to. So although every day when you open the newspaper, turn on the radio or the television you can see the Government constantly trying to persuade people of this, I don’t think that now this is enough. Now we need debate within workplace communities. So I hope that when people talk among themselves about what should be done, they can probably persuade further large numbers of people that if they belong to their communities they’ll understand that they can be expected and requested to accept the vaccination. I think that this is down-to-earth reasoning, this is the way that people discuss matters with one another. Incidentally, I see from surveys that people support this. So we didn’t just make a decision on gut feeling, but first we surveyed people’s opinions. And in communities there’s a desire to do something, to be allowed to talk in the workplace community to people who don’t want to accept vaccination, and for there to be serious consequences. This is also a very serious problem for us, for the Government, because we’re not only elected leaders exercising public power: we’re also employers, because there are a large number of state employees. So we, too, must now take a series of decisions on exercising the right now granted to employers: in which state workplaces, according to what schedule, and with what level of rigour. And for those workplaces where state employees meet large numbers of people, where they’re engaged in customer service, and where therefore infection has a greater chance of spreading, we’ll take decisions with immediate effect requiring anyone who doesn’t accept the vaccine to be placed on unpaid leave. And then we’ll move inwards, so that in turn sooner or later all state employees will have to face the dilemma of either going on unpaid leave or accepting the vaccination. The only way out of this situation is for large numbers of people to have themselves vaccinated, which will suppress the virus. For as long as there are people who haven’t been vaccinated, this virus will continue to cause infection over and over again.
Anyone who had discipline and understood the issue and took the first and second vaccination, let’s say, felt that they were safe. But doctors say that as time goes by, as the months pass, the body’s defence capacity weakens. So what’s the role of the third vaccination?
What we can say, what I’m saying here, all comes from the experts. The members of the Government have so far successfully resisted the temptation to undergo retraining as virologists: we still don’t think that politicians understand infections and pandemics better than doctors do. So we listen to the opinions of the experts. The Operational Group is also collecting these opinions on a continuous basis. What we’re seeing is that fewer than 1 per cent of those who are vaccinated show symptoms of infection; and, based on the opinions of experts, I can responsibly say that among unvaccinated people the risk of falling ill is ten times higher. There are instances of vaccinated people being infected; but the percentage of people who become seriously ill – not just those who are infected, but those who become very seriously ill – is much, much lower in vaccinated people than in unvaccinated people. So even though vaccination isn’t a 1,000 per cent guarantee, it does protect you from grave danger.
This is the beginning of November, and there’s been an agreement between workers and employers on next year’s minimum wage increase. What do you think of the fact that this could be achieved so quickly? On the one hand, it’s understandable that workers are very happy, because we’re talking about a 20 per cent increase; but what will the Government give employers in return?
Well, few people in Hungary know the exact mechanism for determining the minimum wage. To them I say that it’s done by agreement between employers and employees. So the Government doesn’t say what the wage should be – because if it were up to my government, it might be three times as much. But it’s not a question of good intentions, because this has consequences. So if the rate of wage increase isn’t in line with companies’ ability to pay, then a very radical increase could lead to business bankruptcies – and then people would have to be made redundant. So a badly determined minimum wage increase could lead to unemployment. What’s the answer – or the solution – to this situation? Well, the solution is that the minimum wage shouldn’t be set by the Government, but by the partners who actually run the economy: the employers and the workers; the owners of capital, the managers of the companies, and the workers. And it’s the Government’s task – and the Government’s serious responsibility – to help these agreements come about. Every year they conclude agreements, and the Government mediates between them – and sometimes takes on some of the financial burden. This is what has happened here. The trade unions justifiably wanted a high minimum wage increase, because it’s in everyone’s interest for people to earn as much as possible. They wanted a minimum wage increase of 20 per cent: up to 200,000 forints. That’s a very big step, to raise it by 20 per cent in one year, and I don’t know if there’s an example of such a thing in an international context. The employers said that they couldn’t bear that, so that’s where the Government has come in to offer something. And our offer was that if the employers accept the workers’ demand for a 20 per cent increase in the minimum wage, the Government would be willing to cut taxes on businesses. In essence, we’re willing to cut the social security contributions employers pay for workers – and cut them substantially. This was the subject of negotiations for several weeks: how much the Government would have to cut taxes for employers to be able to raise the minimum wage. One can see that it’s a complicated negotiating mechanism, and we ended up agreeing to a very significant tax cut. So the Finance Minister was brave and made the commitment to a significant tax cut for next year. He also reduced the tax on small businesses to 10 per cent and, if I remember correctly, he committed to a 4 per cent social contribution tax cut. I hope with all my heart that the Finance Minister has calculated correctly and that the cohesion and balance of the budget won’t be upset next year; but he’s said that the Hungarian economy is capable of meeting the terms of this agreement. This is how the minimum wage was raised to 200,000 forints, and how the guaranteed wage minimum will rise to 260,000 forints. Of course this isn’t very high, but to put it in context I can say that ten years ago – when the Gyurcsány-Bajnai government was in power in Hungary – the average wage back then was at the same level as the minimum wage will be now, some ten years later. This is a great achievement, which is mainly due to employers and employees, the actors who make the economy work. It didn’t hurt, of course, to have a government that helped their agreement every year with some kind of tax cut.
How much one earns is very important, and how much one spends is also important. One type of expenditure that recurs every month takes the form of household utility bills. In Hungary we’re in a relatively good position, because we don’t have to pay as much for gas and electricity than they do in, say, Vienna or Paris. But how do you see this achievement being sustained? I’m also asking because in Germany they’re already preparing for energy prices that will be sky high, for not even having enough gas, and for people having to endure the cold. And on social media we’ve seen that the German disaster management agency is already running a promotional or public information film on what to do if one’s home is cold, on how to dress and on how to heat with candles.
Crazy things are happening in Europe. There’s this issue of utility bills. It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s a crisis in Europe. Across Europe over the past few months the prices of electricity and gas have doubled or tripled. The question is this: why haven’t those prices increased for Hungarian households? The answer is that, following a huge debate, sometime in the early 2010s we managed to break with the practice of governments which would satisfy the demands of multinationals – who then provided the bulk of energy services in Hungary – by constantly raising the cost of energy. They would say that the market price of electricity and gas had risen, and told people to pay more for it. I once had a political debate with [Hungarian Socialist Party MP] Ildikó Lendvai. Even before the 2002 general election I could see that this would happen if the Socialists returned to power, because they’d always complied with the multinationals’ requests to allow their extra profits to be taken out of the country; and back then I told voters to pay attention to this when making their decision, because it could lead to problems. And then she said – slowly, so that even I could understand – that “there will be no gas price increase”. But then there was – thirteen times! So the issue of gas prices is an important one in Hungarian politics. The Left has a very clear position: if prices on the market go up, then people should pay more. This seems like a logical idea, but it’s not empathetic, and in particular it’s not realistic. This is because it’s possible to have a pricing system in which prices are fixed. The national government – and what makes a government national is that it protects people – has taken this position, and we’ve fixed prices for households. In the economy and in the market it’s a different story, but we’ve fixed prices for households to protect families and to protect pensioners. The price [at source] moved, but we didn’t change it for consumers. And now for households in Hungary it’s not rising – even though across Europe it’s doubling or trebling. The economy is suffering, so businesses and those in industry have to pay higher prices, but households and families don’t have to.
But for how long can this be sustained?
As long as our government is at the helm, this is how it will be. The Left has made it clear that if they win they’ll raise prices to market levels. Now this is a classic debate, a familiar debate: the Left thinks like that, and national governments favour price protection. I wouldn’t call this crazy. What I call crazy is what Brussels is doing: coming up with a programme called “climate protection”. While prices are already rising, this will increase prices even further. They admit that fact. So at the last prime minister’s summit they admitted that their decisions have been responsible for about 20 to 23 per cent of the current price rise. But now that everyone is down on one knee, why should people be pushed underwater by bad climate policy from Brussels? The position over there is that, in order to protect the climate, people need to use less energy, use their cars less, heat their homes less, and consume less overall. Now, of course, there’s always waste, so it’s good to invoke the idea that we should be more frugal and sensible – and I also think that’s sensible in Hungary. But raising prices by the extent being done now by the Brussels bureaucrats goes beyond reasonable thrift. This is no longer thrift, it’s interference in people’s natural everyday lives – and it’s unnecessary. Because it’s also possible to protect the climate by mandating that the costs are paid by polluting, climate-destroying companies, and not by the public. Of course they say that after that the costs will just be passed on to the public. Well, yes or no – it depends on what kind of government you have. In Hungary, for example, the price of electricity is fixed; and even though the big multinationals – a large proportion of which, thankfully, are now in Hungarian hands – want to pass the cost on, they cannot do so, because the simple fact is that the price is fixed. So it’s not as if governments are completely powerless. Of course they can’t do whatever they like, but there’s a lot that they can do. So Brussels should also pursue a more prudent policy, and then prices wouldn’t be sky-high. Furthermore, there’s no limit to the lunacy, and now they even have plans to tax homes and cars in the European Union. So they’re setting the stage for further price increases. The biggest battle in Brussels today is over precisely this issue. It’s mostly the rich Western Europeans who want to tax housing and cars, and the Central Europeans who are resisting this. The next summit of prime ministers will be in December, and there the main question will be about which side prevails.
That’s no small matter, especially since state expenditures will continue to rise; we need only think about the fact that migration pressure is also rising, and so we’ll obviously have to spend on that as well as on household utilities. At the same time, Brussels has recently stated that it’s not prepared to pay any Member State for the costs incurred in relation to border fences. It’s interesting, however, that for six years they’ve been paying NGOs, which – in cooperation with people smugglers – have been managing illegal migration into Europe, as it were. What’s your opinion on this?
We’re engaged in a marathon battle. It all started in 2015, when Hungary was the only country to say that joint European border protection is a very fine thing, but that if there was no solution by a certain deadline – we gave the Brussels authorities three months – we’d build a fence. Three months went by, there was no joint solution, and we arranged for a border fence to be built. We were called every name under the sun: I won’t quote them all to you now, but we were villains, we were heartless, we were everything except decent people. Six years have passed. At every European Union summit I’ve consistently been fighting for the rightness of the Hungarians’ position. Now border fences have been built not only by Hungary, but also by Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. So the Hungarian position, which in 2015 was still unique, is gradually becoming the majority position. In fact now even the Germans and Austrians believe that if it weren’t for the Hungarian fence, the number of migrants in their countries would be much higher than it is. Just to give the listeners a sense of the gravity of the situation, up until October this year we prevented 92,000 illegal border crossings; this was the number of people trying to enter Hungary without permission or any documentation. A year ago this figure was just over 20,000, so the force of migration pressure has trebled or quadrupled. Of course, the majority of them don’t want to come to Hungary, but if they’re not allowed further – if they get into Hungary but aren’t allowed into Austria and Germany – then they’ll be stuck here. Now we don’t want that, so we’d rather not let them in. And since 2015 I’ve been fighting another battle with the Brussels bureaucrats. The Hungarian position is clear: what we’re defending isn’t just the Hungarian border; it’s also Europe’s external border. We’re also protecting the Germans and the Austrians. So we have a legitimate claim to have at least part of our costs reimbursed. So far we’ve spent around 500 billion forints on this defence operation. Let’s say that the amount that we’re repaying at the beginning of next year in the form of tax refunds to families with children is around 600 billion forints. This is roughly the amount that we’ve spent so far on border defence. This large amount of Hungarian forints would also be in the pockets of families, but in the interests of our security and the security of Europe we’re spending it on border defence. I think it’s a fair and reasonable demand on our part for at least part of it to be paid to us. I’ve been fighting for this for six years, we haven’t won yet, I haven’t yet won this fight, but I’m much closer than I’ve ever been. A little more perseverance, a few more months, and I think they’ll pay, because it’s right and fair that they should pay.
Obviously in Brussels they’re aware of the figures, because Frontex also has figures, and they can see that at our border the number of illegal immigrants trying to enter the European Union is three times higher than it was a year ago. Despite this, the Swedish EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson says that we couldn’t have fought the pandemic successfully without migration, and speaks about how good it is to have migration. When a European Commissioner makes such a statement at an international conference, what can we have faith in? When will they realise that they’re wrong?
The first thing we can conclude is that in order to be a Commissioner in Brussels, the ability to think logically is not a prerequisite. Obviously migrants – especially illegal migrants – bring in infections, and so all these variants come in. So the connection between migration and the pandemic is not that migration helps to contain the pandemic, but the reverse: migration causes, accelerates and intensifies the pandemic. Our debate with Brussels is not because they don’t see the numbers we see, but because they think that all this is good. So they think that migration is something good. The head of the Brussels bureaucracy has said that it’s good if more migrants come, that migration is good, and that our societies need migration. So they think that what we’re fighting against on our southern border isn’t something bad, but something good; and they look down on us, because they think that we’re preventing something good. Our response to that is, “You know what, if it’s good for you, then take them.” So we’re prepared to open up a corridor, along which migrants can march up to Austria, Germany and Sweden and whoever needs them.
And don’t they like this idea?
We’re saying, “If this is what you need, take them; but just because you think it’s good don’t expect us to think so too – we think it’s bad – and don’t force your opinion on us.” What’s good for Hungary will be decided by Hungarians. Who can enter the country will be decided by Hungarians; and who we want to live alongside, well, that will also be decided by Hungarians – it won’t be decided instead of us by a Swedish bureaucrat, or by a Brussels bureaucrat of God knows what nationality. This is the essence of the battle. And this battle is here with us, and it will remain here for years to come, because we’re living in an age of pandemics and migration, and it will be with us for years to come. My wish for our country is that we’ll always have a government that doesn’t give an inch on this issue, and that will always assert Hungarian national interests in opposition to Brussels bureaucrats.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.