Katalin Nagy: In the second wave of the virus the number of new infections is over one thousand per day. The Government has opened the mobile pandemic hospital which was built in the spring, and one of the university clinics will start using the new antiviral drug. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the Sunday News studio. Do you think we can keep pace with the virus? One reason I’m asking this is because when we calm down a little, there are always one or two bogus or panic-mongering reports about certain statistics, and they’re alarming.
Good morning to you and your listeners. Well, we’ve gone through a difficult period and we’re facing a difficult period ahead of us. We’ve already had enough of the virus, but the virus hasn’t had enough of us: it wants us, it’s attacking us, and infecting us even faster than earlier. And for as long as we don’t have a vaccine, the starting point is the same: the main theme is defence. And the defence operation is in stages: as the situation gets more difficult we open ever more hospitals and allocate ever more doctors and nurses to the beds. If the question is whether we can keep up the pace, then the answer is “yes”. This is a mathematical equation. Although this is about the human sphere, mathematics also has a role to play, because we’re trying to determine the peak load. Here we need specialists in medical science and mathematicians in that field. In Hungary we have world-class representatives of that discipline, so I feel that intellectually we’re in safe hands: they can tell me what healthcare load to expect from a given level of infection. They say that the highest probable load in Hungary will be 200,000 people infected at any one time, requiring 16,000 hospital beds: the number out of those 200,000 who might need hospital treatment. This would require 800 to 1,000 ventilators and the same number of nurses and doctors, as determined by specialist standards. The Government has decided that if this is what the scientists say it should be taken seriously. But as even scientists can be wrong, and if they’ve underestimated the numbers we’ll be in trouble, we immediately doubled the numbers. So if the scientific view is a peak load of 200,000, then we’ll count on accommodating up to 400,000 people infected at any given time, requiring 32,000 hospital beds and the corresponding number of doctors and nurses. Those who aren’t available where they’re needed must be redeployed. So today the situation of doctors and nurses is extremely difficult. When we think of them it is with deep gratitude in our hearts: we owe them a debt of gratitude, because they have to be redeployed from one part of the country to another, and this is a very difficult situation – especially for families. I wouldn’t say that they’re grumbling, but no one is happy. But all I can say to them is that reorganisation is inevitable for as long as there’s no vaccine and the pandemic is growing.
Doctors take an oath, but at the same time they appreciate it when the work they’re doing is recognised. This is why this summer the Government gave doctors a one-off bonus of 500,000 forints. But now we hear that this week, on behalf of the Government, Interior Minister Sándor Pintér and head of the Ministry of Human Capacities Miklós Kásler talked to the leaders of the Hungarian Medical Chamber. Then we heard that yesterday you received the leaders of the Chamber in your office. An agreement was reached, which is almost unbelievable.
Well, I’m looking at everything – even at doctors’ salary increases – in the context of the pandemic. So we did well in fighting off the first wave, and that was what doctors and nurses had to endure. In my opinion the second wave will be longer and more difficult, and they won’t be able to continue dealing with it within the current system. So if things stay as they are, they won’t be able to fulfil their responsibilities. Therefore our defence operation requires us to simultaneously enact reorganisation measures and increase their work capacity. And of course there’s a historical debt to be repaid. After the fall of communism, no one ever took a deep breath and created a functioning system: we just patched it up. But poverty means that one is happy to just plug the holes which have appeared in the hull, rather than think of building a new ship. Now I feel that the crisis has given us double the reason to address this issue – the issue of doctors’ salaries – right now. In the first stage the Hungarian healthcare system produced a world-class performance. Let’s not beat around the bush, it provided a world-class performance, and our healthcare workers and healthcare system mounted a better defence than those in most Western countries. And so if we want to be able to defend ourselves as well as we did then, if we want to repeat this, there are conditions. Well, the Medical Chamber has proposals, and we’ve been bombarded with them for some months. A new Medical Chamber has taken office recently, and a new broom sweeps clean. In the past they had proposals which weren’t very different from the current ones; so they’ve represented a fairly consistent professional position. There has also been a great debate within the Government. This has centred on the argument that now the virus is destroying jobs, which are what need to be protected, and this is not the time for wage increases, but the most important task is the protection of jobs which have been created, the protection of earlier wage levels and the protection of families’ living standards. If this is true, then doesn’t it run counter to our current introduction of a priority pay settlement for a particular group? If the virus didn’t exist I’d say that now, in times of economic hardship, it would be logical for the focus not to be on raising wages but on preserving jobs. Yet the truth is that now there’s a crisis, and we need to think differently. And I agreed more with those who said that this is the right moment. So the fact that there’s a pandemic doesn’t rule out a large-scale pay settlement, but actually justifies it, as now we need unity. This is the moment when we need to make a breakthrough improvement in doctors’ pay; and if we work together, we will again succeed together. This is my line of logic. Now, of course there will be many questions on details. So yesterday I took part in highly confidential negotiations with the Medical Chamber. So far nothing has gone awry, but many intricate and complicated issues will appear on the agenda. So now there will be a breakthrough wage increase, and we will phase out the informal system of gratuities, as the Medical Chamber has suggested; but there will still be a number of details that we need to resolve in the coming period. And if together we act effectively, perhaps we’ll be able to answer all the important questions by January. The healthcare system is a complicated one: if you turn one dial, then all the others must be adjusted accordingly. But what has reassured me is that the Medical Chamber is in a good condition. This is important, because although decisions must be made by the Government, in health care only some of the decisions are of a legal nature; others are of a moral nature, a matter of medical ethics. These are better understood by doctors than by the Government. And since time immemorial, even before the communist regime, issues of medical ethics – of medical morality – have always been the domain of the Chamber, the Medical Chamber. So if the Medical Chamber is in a good condition, then we can get good answers to questions of medical ethics. From the point of view of the people who are the clients – the patients – these are the most important questions: whether matters are dealt with in a way that is medically ethical. And now I see a good chance of that.
Does this mean a doubling of salaries, or an increase of 120 per cent? Clearly this interests a lot of people.
I don’t want to bore the listeners with details of what chaotic conditions there have been recently; but it’s very difficult to give you precise numbers, because of the confused legal situations and the jungle of contracts which have characterised the operation of the healthcare system. In a hospital doctors may be employed on the basis of eight to ten different legal relationships. Ever since the spring, when I started visiting hospitals – which I’m continuing this autumn – my experience has been that when I walk into a hospital and ask the surprised doctor on duty how many people are working there, they ask me what I mean by that. These are surprise visits, so there are no documents and statistics ready to present to me. So I ask how many doctors are registered as working there, and I’m told that there are two. The other doctors have contracts, are on loan from other institutions, and so on. They all have different legal arrangements. The system as it stands isn’t transparent, and so now we’ll create a new standardised legal status, a healthcare legal relationship. So we’ll create a standardised healthcare legal relationship and a special standardised set of rules to make the situation transparent in relation to those working in institutions operated by the state, by churches and by local governments. How does this relate to salaries? I can tell you precisely how much money the Hungarian budget will allocate to doctors in pay rises over the course of a year. Naturally the National Health Insurance Fund will also allocate funds, but I look at the budget, and my relations with the Finance Minister enable me to receive daily figures. The sum that will be allocated from the budget will be double the present sum. This means that on the Medical Chamber’s pay scale, if a resident now earns around 300,000 forints a month, after the pay rise that resident will earn 600,000 forints. And if a doctor with ten years’ experience now earns, say, 600,000 or 700,000 forints a month, they’ll earn 1.3 or 1.4 million forints. We can say that salaries will double, but I’d warn everyone against quoting percentages and numbers, because the planned changes won’t have exactly the same impact on every doctor: some will benefit more, and others a little less. So I wouldn’t like to quote a figure that I could be held to account for at a later date. All I’d like to say is that there’s no one standard number, and we’ve accepted the proposals developed by the Medical Chamber.
This week the European Commission released its rule of law country reports. Justice Minister Judit Varga said that the report on Hungary is absurd and untrue. What’s Viktor Orbán’s view on this rule of law report?
The Justice Minister is a lady, and so she’s more restrained. I’m not allowed to say what I think, and so I’ll speak with great restraint. I’d rather just say that a timeline of events shows us the full picture. The Commission published another migration plan, which in this form quickly turned out to be unacceptable to the Visegrád Four, including Hungary. Then the Vice President of the Commission – so one of its leaders – launched a very aggressive attack on Hungary, which descended to the level of insult. It wasn’t so much the oft-quoted statement that Hungary is a “sick democracy” that we took to heart, because they habitually say things like that. It isn’t the attacks against me personally that are important here, because even worse things are said about me – I’m used to that, and it doesn’t particularly bother me. But she also said that the Hungarian people are not in a position to form independent opinions. In other words, she declared the Hungarian people to be imbeciles. That is unacceptable. She crossed a red line: a leader of the European Union must not speak disrespectfully about the citizens of any EU Member State, including Hungarians. If she had said the same thing in connection with France or Germany, she would have been fired on the spot. The only reason she wasn’t fired is because this can be done to smaller countries, and to Hungarians. But we must not accept this. We want equal treatment. Just as the Germans or the French cannot be insulted with impunity, neither should we be. We should not have to put up with more than they do simply because they’re bigger than us. After the Commissioner attacked Hungary, the Commission released a report which I regard as a Soros report. This is because – if I remember correctly – 12 out of the 13 sources cited are organisations in the pay of George Soros. Therefore we can only see this report as an open and orchestrated attack, and we believe it is unacceptable. So for our part we advise the Commission to gauge its own powers more realistically, and to gauge the challenges facing Europe more realistically. The whole of Europe is stricken by a pandemic, a global pandemic. In every country the numbers are deteriorating. Today we have a single task: our defence operation. We must concentrate on protecting people’s health, safety and jobs. Instead of this, however, they’re attacking Member States, placing the issue of migration on the agenda again, and are generating incomprehensible rule of law debates. All this despite the fact that we only have one job: to contain the pandemic in Europe.
At the EU summit you mentioned that you had written a letter to the President of the Commission. In your letter you said that Hungary rejects these insults and you requested that Vĕra Jourová be removed from her position. Have you received a reply?
I did write a letter, but I haven’t received a reply yet. At plenary sessions of the Commission there are more than twenty of us present, and it’s not proper for one country or another to divert meetings towards their own grievances.
Did you manage to speak to Mrs. von der Leyen in private?
I tried to avoid doing so. I’ll wait for an official reply, and once I’ve received it, I’ll propose a meeting. That’s the desirable order.
You mentioned that this insult came from Vĕra Jourová. But if we focus on the tone that has been adopted recently in connection with this topic, we see that one of the European Parliament’s Vice Presidents gave an interview in which she said that Hungary and Poland should be “financially starved out”. The icing on the cake is that after a storm of protest the German public service radio station issued a retraction, saying that they had doctored the recording, and in fact the Vice President had only said that Viktor Orbán should be starved out.
And is it acceptable to starve me out?
Thirdly, a Liberal MEP on the LIBE Committee simply said that the European Council – you, the heads of state and government – should just keep their mouths shut. Since when has this tone been in vogue in the European Parliament?
This is a short programme, so it’s best to avoid lengthy historical explanations. But I have to say that when thirty years ago I became a Member of Parliament – and when over thirty years ago I joined the resistance organisation against communist and Soviet occupation – ours was one of the most intellectually stimulating professions. It was an intellectual discipline: thinking about the future, seeking solutions; understanding what others say, and If it was different from our thinking trying to determine why it was different, and considering the possibility of reconciling different ways of thinking in a spirit of unity. It was about programmes and the like, and it was a truly intellectual discipline. Of course there was some combat and criticism, and naturally there are voters watching you take the stage: there are some theatrical elements, as there always have been. But in essence our profession was intellectual in nature. If I look at where we’ve got to thirty years later, I have to say that in the Western world our profession is not in a good condition. The recent US presidential debate wasn’t a piece of sponge cake either, as they say on the streets of Budapest. I’m not one to judge other countries, but anyone watching it was perhaps a little surprised. Things weren’t always like this. And the European Parliament itself wasn’t the vulgar, profane, repellent place that it has been reduced to by some people. The European Union is an association of free nations. How can you say – especially with the history that the Germans have – that now you will starve out some countries? This is a problem in itself, but what happened next is even more revealing. After the Hungarians and Poles protested, they simply treated us like halfwits and simpletons, and said that the Vice President hadn’t said that, but that they – the journalists – had tampered with what she said. We saw things like this during the [communist] Rákosi era, didn’t we? In the ritual of self-criticism, journalists made a display of public penance, declaring that they were at fault, and not the politician. What is the state of democracy, freedom of the press and media pluralism in such a country? So I have to say that the whole of European politics is in a poor condition, and now we’re seeing the signs of that. The reason for its poor condition is a burning question, because there’s more to this than human error – although weakness of character no doubt plays a part. The driving force behind all this is that over the past twenty or thirty years a realignment has taken place in the world economy, which the Western world has been unprepared for. The first clear and undeniable manifestation of this was the financial crisis in 2007, 2008 and 2009. But back then many people said that what had changed was not the place occupied in the world by the Western economies: they said that it was merely a cyclical crisis, that crises come and go, and that it was all a normal part of capitalism. We were the only ones who back then were already saying that perhaps we should start considering the possibility of this not being simply a cyclical crisis, but the consequence of a global realignment of power. The essence of this realignment is that the West – including Hungary – has traditionally taken its own slice of the big cake that we call the world economy; but, as a result of changes already under way, the slice we can take has shrunk. If the Western world’s slice is smaller, then every Western state will receive less. If there is less, economic difficulties will emerge, because we must realign the economy, make production more competitive, and there may be unemployment. Perhaps we’ll have to work more, perhaps we’ll have to work differently, we may need retraining, we may have to adapt. This is what we should be occupying ourselves with, in order to once more claim the slice of the world economy that Western economies used to receive. But this is not what happened: what happened was entirely different, and this slice of cake is continuously shrinking. I’m going to quote a figure now, an approximate figure. As I recall, twenty years ago, say, the European Union contributed around 24 to 25 per cent of the world’s total output. Today that figure is 15 per cent. This is the pressure that politicians can feel, because on the home front things aren’t going well: there’s tension, and living standards are stagnating – or even deteriorating in some places. There are countries in Europe where sovereign debt is 150 to 160 per cent of total annual production. Perhaps the roof hasn’t yet fallen in, but there’s so much snow on it that sooner or later it will, because no structure could withstand that kind of pressure. Such phenomena are central, and they weigh heavily on European politicians. And instead of using the intellectual rules of our discipline to identify the roots of our problems, instead of naming the causes and developing plans to extricate ourselves from this predicament, people are at each other’s throats, countries are at each other’s throats, and nations are at each other’s throats. At times like this it should be the duty of the leaders of European institutions – like this fine Czech lady and others – to recognise the situation, lower the temperature in the system, develop cooperation, and help Member States to overcome these difficult situations. But that’s not what they’re doing: they’re attacking us with migration and Soros reports and they’re issuing insults. So, at such a moment in the history of world civilisation, EU bureaucrats are doing the very opposite of what European leaders should be doing.
You took a proposal to the EU summit, which was that if the rule of law debates take too long to reach a conclusion, this shouldn’t be an obstacle to the timely provision of economic assistance to the European countries that need it. How was this proposal received?
There are debates of seemingly endless length and complexity on these issues, and there are many proposals on the table. The Hungarian situation – from which we need to view the budgetary crisis management proposals of the years ahead – is an extraordinary one. This is because the Hungarian economy stands on sound foundations, on a strong base. Now we can see that we are able to create as many jobs as are destroyed by the virus, and this means that we’re competitive. We’re not happy about the crisis management method conceived by the European Commission under the German leadership, or through German-French cooperation. They say that we should survive this crisis by collectively taking on an enormous amount of debt. We don’t like this. This isn’t good for us, because at best we’ll have a few good years up until 2027 while we take on this debt and spend this money. Then we’ll have to repay the money over a period of thirty years, starting from 2027. This is called the Next Generation EU fund. It was intended to be something positive, but in fact the name is quite revealing: it means that it’s theirs, because they’ll have to repay it. We will spend it now and they will repay it. So, if this is what happens, we have an enormous responsibility to spend the money well. But we don’t like this path at all, and in its latest resolution the Hungarian parliament stated in no uncertain terms that we don’t want to follow this direction, and this isn’t how we would manage the crisis. But there are economies in the European Union which are so wretched and in such dire straits that they need money immediately, and if they don’t get it immediately – even as debt – they could be overwhelmed. I won’t name countries specifically, but there are several of them. This is why Hungary says, “Very well, we don’t like this form of crisis management, but in the name of European solidarity we’re prepared to take part in it.” If we take part in it, however, we want to see fair treatment. This is the Hungarian position. Now then, all sorts of debates emerged. Again, I’m not going to name countries. Some countries, referred to as “frugal”, form a group. These frugal countries are now clearly saying things which could derail the whole scheme. In response to this we say that if the plan for collective borrowing falls through, then those who need credit should join forces and take it out together. This is called an intergovernmental solution. What we’re doing now is called an institutional solution: crisis management through the involvement of European institutions. If this doesn’t work, then it could be implemented on an intergovernmental basis, in which not everyone takes part. This is the solution of last resort. I’d be happy to avoid it, but if it were to happen, it wouldn’t be at all tragic for Hungary, because then we’d be able to go down another path – one which in my view is healthier. But for several European countries which are in trouble an intergovernmental agreement wouldn’t be as good a solution as an institutional agreement could be. I’m sure the listeners sense what a complex and difficult issue this is. These European debates consume a considerable proportion of my time and energy, and the Government’s time and energy. This is why I say that in Brussels everything is badly timed: there is a pandemic, and we must contain it; we should focus on that, rather than tying complex legal conditions to disbursements, because in some countries that could even cause them to be overwhelmed.
I’d like to raise two more issues, if I may. One is that it’s the tenth anniversary of the red mud disaster: the horrific industrial accident at MAL Zrt., when the dam wall of a waste reservoir burst, and caustic red mud flooded three settlements: Devecser, Kolontár and Somlóvásárhely. Ten people died, more than two hundred were injured, and there was physical damage to property on a colossal scale.
First of all, let’s try to see the aspect of this story that could strengthen our spirit. I suggest that everyone who is able to should visit these three settlements in person, or look at the images on the internet: both from the time of the red mud disaster and current ones. If we want to know what makes Hungary a great country, we’ll see it by comparing these two sets of images; because we didn’t abandon the people who live there, but helped them. We rebuilt the entire area, and the improvement there compared with the time of the disaster demonstrates the cohesion of the Hungarian nation, the strength of its unity, and the greatness of our nation in general – because greatness is not a question of size. This is the first thing I can say: this disaster is another indication of why it is good to be Hungarian, and how we can answer that question. At the same time, those moments were shocking. I went there shortly after the tragedy, and I saw the conditions. Ten people died, which is an irreplaceable loss. But I have to say that had we been a little more unfortunate, had God not watched over us as He did, instead of ten people – as the dam burst in the middle of the night – the deaths could have run into the hundreds, or even thousands. This is very nearly what happened. So this was a serious test for us all. We should be happy that now it’s in our past. I truly hope that the spiritual wounds of the local people who survived the disaster have healed. I send my best wishes to the residents of all three settlements. I wish them much strength and good health.
Finally, a new book of children’s tales has been released recently, called “Fairyland for Everyone”, in which the prince marries a prince and the princess is a feminist who is slightly lesbian. Dóra Dúró, one of the leaders of the parliamentary party Our Homeland Movement, publicly shredded a copy of this book. This caused enormous public outcry. What’s your view on this?
EU affairs are complex, but these debates related to the perception of homosexuality are even more complex. Not even a whole programme would be enough for it, let alone a minute or two. But in essence I’d like to confirm that in Hungary there are laws relating to homosexuality. They are based on an extremely tolerant and patient approach. Hungarians are very tolerant in relation to this phenomenon. In fact Hungarians are so patient that we even accept provocations of this kind with patience – although not without comment. So we can safely say that as regards homosexuality Hungary is a patient, tolerant country. But there is a red line that must not be crossed, and this is how I would sum up my opinion: “Leave our children alone.”
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.