Éva Kocsis: We have Prime Minister Viktor Orbán with us in the studio. Good morning.
Let’s begin with some domestic politics, namely the hottest current issue: education. Let’s go beyond the opposition’s criticism and talk about what members of the Government have said on the issue. Zoltán Balog said that we have “pushed the bicycle a little too far”. János Lázár spoke about a reduction in pupils’ performance and academic results; this is something that you yourself have spoken about previously here in the studio, saying that we must harmonise education in Hungary with economic challenges. We’ll go into detail a little later, but to begin with let’s speak a little about the future of education in Hungary in general; what would you regard as an ideal state?
Speaking as a parent – I have a few children myself, after all – what we expect from our schools is that they should help us parents to ensure that our children are raised properly, are in good physical condition, are mentally strong, have well-developed willpower and possess the knowledge necessary to be up to the mark in international economic competition. This is what we would like.
Let’s look at the details. From OECD data, for instance, we see that we are better than average when it comes to student-teacher ratios, and that we are also not in a bad position compared to the OECD average with regard to workload for both students and teachers; but in light of competence surveys there seem to be problems with regard to subjects and quality, and to the level of organisation – or lack of it – in the Klebelsberg Institution Maintenance Centre (KLIK). You will tell us in a moment what your experience is. So if we look at KLIK, as Ministerial Commissioner Balázs Szabó has already stated, it would seem that there has been no progress in that regard. Spheres of authority are not clearly defined and the flow of information is not appropriate. And in addition, confidence in the system might well be given a boost if the President of KLIK appeared in public – but recently we have hardly even seen the Minister of State responsible for the sector. There are serious problems with the quality of teacher training. What problems do you see?
In 2010, when we began the reorganisation of the education system, we had to face two facts. The first was that financially the Hungarian education system was bankrupt: it had accumulated several hundred billion forints in debt, and it was clear that the system had failed and was financially unsustainable. I won’t go into who was responsible now and whether municipalities, former governments or the schools themselves were to blame. It makes no difference now – the important thing is that in 2010 Hungary had an education system which had gone bankrupt, and so it had to be reorganised. The other fact that served as one of our starting points was that our children were performing to an increasingly poor level in international competition. So we were faced with the fact that we had an education system which was bankrupt and which had also failed in educational terms. I will not be so presumptuous as to say whether this was because the work of teachers deteriorated, our children were being born less intelligent, or parents were less committed to their duties. But again, it makes no practical difference where we place the greater emphasis – the point is that we had an education system which was producing deteriorating results, and this was something we had to change. And so we must not return to our starting point, because that represents financial bankruptcy as well as a bankruptcy of knowledge, professional standards and training. We definitely had to make changes, and I believe we have chosen the right direction. This is a large system, a great many people work in it, and of course it affects everyone in some form or other; everyone has children or grandchildren or a family member with children, so this is something present in the lives of every person in Hungary, and something important. Another important question is what we focus on, because I understand all of the professional issues raised by teachers, and we will be discussing these, but after all it is our children who we must place at the centre of things, at the centre of this whole debate on schools education. And I think the question we should be asking continuously – not just now, but in general and on a regular basis – is whether school prepares our children to assume their responsibilities as adults: do they have a happy childhood; are they balanced children and as a result do they get the chance to lead a happy life at school, meaning will they be capable of creating such a life for themselves as adults; will they compete well; and will they be healthy adults. These are the most important issues here. This is why the Government’s intent to be an open administration is especially important here. An open administration means that we are interested in everyone’s opinion. We have had – and I continue to have – great hopes for the National Teachers’ Chamber, which we established to facilitate the continuous discussion of internal professional education-related matters in a manner which is free of politics and party politics, and this is a crucial moment in such debate. I would also like to express my thanks to Hungarian society for its patience and efforts in the interest of teachers in recent years. This has been because Hungarian society has accepted – and perhaps even supported – the fact that when we introduce career models and implement large pay increases, we put teachers at the top of the list. I have yet to meet a police officer, a soldier or a public administration professional who told me that teachers’ salaries shouldn’t be the first to be agreed on, and these are proportionately very large pay rises. So we injected 450 billion forints into the education system on the development side of the equation, and about 230 billion forints on the salaries side. In recent years there is no other sector in Hungary which has received an increase in funding of almost 700 billion forints. Meanwhile neither the police nor civil servants nor those in public employment have claimed preferential treatment, but have instead accepted the fact that children are of paramount importance and that they who hold the key to the future of their families and the country, and so teachers must be allowed to the front of the queue when it comes to investment and pay rises. This doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, and so open administration, continuous dialogue and the Roundtable for Education are important and will continue to be so in the future.
Is the roundtable – the Roundtable for Education that you have set up – playing the role of mediator in this?
We need places to sit down and talk to each other; the roundtable is suitable for doing that.
Let’s talk about the area of education in which change has already begun to a certain extent, and that is vocational training. Here however – while on the one hand it is extremely important with regard to competitiveness, and on the other you will be attending the Cabinet meeting in a few hours, and if I’m not mistaken industrial development will be on the agenda – in certain sectors there is a huge lack of trained professionals. Furthermore, there exists a strange debate in Hungary on whether there is some kind of division within the education system, because it would seem that in the world’s most successful school systems about 60 per cent of pupils study for some kind of profession, while in the oft-cited Finnish system 94 per cent study for a profession. Are you happy with the way things are currently developing?
What exactly are we talking about? What we’re talking about is that since 2010, when we once again took on the responsibility of government, we have regularly consulted with representatives from the private sector, and since 2010 there has been a strong feeling that the school system has not done everything it could to ensure that children leaving school find places in the job market and achieve success within the economy for the benefit of themselves, businesses and the country as a whole. And as a result we have been under constant pressure from all the economic advocacy groups to restructure the vocational education system. The important thing isn’t that children receive certificates, but that they acquire knowledge they can actually use. And we had long months of negotiation. The role of the economic chamber, the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is especially important, and with its involvement we prepared plans, which we discussed regularly. There has been open dialogue between teachers and representatives from the private sector – in which the Government also took part – about how the vocational training system should be restructured to provide children with useable knowledge and not just pieces of paper. This restructuring has begun: so far we have only taken the very first steps. A new system of vocational training has only begun operating this year, but I’m sure this will also generate a lot of useful experience. I’m sure we will also have to introduce a few correctional measures here too, but the important thing is that Hungarian vocational training has final begun moving in a direction enabling children to be provided with knowledge which they can use in the real-life economy and which will thus bring success to them, businesses and Hungary. This process must therefore be supported.
Since we have touched on the subject of competitiveness, let’s expand our horizons a little. A few years ago, if someone asked experts where they should invest, everyone from Goldman Sachs to analysts from the New York Times would say Indonesia. Economic relations between our two countries go back a decade. You have just returned from an official visit to the country. Is Indonesia a goal in itself, or a gateway to the whole region?
Indonesia is an extraordinary world: beautiful and attractive, in many ways totally different from ours, yet where the fundamental principles of economic life increasingly resemble those of Europe, America and the western world in general. What I experienced there is that the world is becoming increasingly uniform. The question is whether Hungarian enterprises can also exploit the opportunities which the system of world economics receives from engagement with new regions around the world; this is something towards which we must open gateways. During such visits – and just before Indonesia I was in Mongolia, and before that in Iran – we generally travel with a business delegation, and these are trips which have been prepared for in advance. There are places where matters only need to be finalised, because there are existing economic agreements or we are already on the brink of clinching an agreement; there are other places where negotiations benefiting Hungarian enterprises need speeding up; and there are still other places where such processes need to be begun. In my view – and my negotiations in Indonesia have reinforced this view – if the Hungarian economy has four to five thousand small and medium-sized enterprises capable of exporting to anywhere in the world, and if enterprises attain a level at which they can develop relations in these places, then they will be able to compete. This is what we require, because ten million people does not represent a major internal market or economic power; if we only operate domestically and only provide for the requirements of those ten million people, then we cannot develop quickly enough. One of the prerequisites for the Hungarian economy and for an increase in the standard of living is that there should be many small and medium-sized Hungarian enterprises which are also successful in the farthest corners of the globe. Around 2010 there were about two to three thousand such enterprises, we believe there are perhaps four to five thousand currently, and the level we need to reach is that of Bavaria, where there are twelve thousand such enterprises. So there is still a lot of work for us to do. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, headed by Péter Szijjártó, has done a lot of work; I think that they have done an especially good job and the figures are also moving in the right direction. But we still have a lot to do, and in order to ensure a satisfactory quality of life in Hungary we still need to double the number of export-capable Hungarian SMEs.
Others are also fighting for the markets we have just mentioned. Can we compete with them?
The competition is huge. One is not taking about competing with the Indonesians, but we are in competition with the Czechs or the Poles, for instance, so Hungarian and Polish products are competing with each other on the Indonesian market, for example. Or Hungarian and German enterprises are competing with each other in Mongolia. I am not saying that there are uncharted areas where people can hardly wait for the first entrepreneur to arrive – who could be a Hungarian; but I am saying that every part of the world is now connected, and so the same competition is going on everywhere. Speed, courage, adaptability and respect for the local people are all very important. We have an advantage, because we aren’t imperialists and have never been colonialists – this means we don’t want to take anything away from anyone, and Hungarian culture, business culture, is also built on cooperation. So we are happy for the opportunity to cooperate with the local people and we don’t want the same thing to happen them as happened to us in the early nineteen-nineties. Back then a large corporation from a large country could appear in Hungary, buy something, close the factory and capture the market. Generally there would be no room on the board of directors for any Hungarians, at our expense a lot of money would be made, and transferred out of the country using some legal loophole or other. And then the corporation in question could leave, saying “Good day to you, dear natives, best of luck”. This is something we don’t want: we have our own experience of that and we don’t want our own enterprises to behave like that. And so during such negotiations I always ask the government of the host country to indicate the areas in which it would be glad to see the involvement of Hungarian enterprises, and that immediately creates a position which is very different to the one we experienced in the early nineties.
Another domestic issue, but now in a European context: amending the Constitution. Listening to the politicians debating the issue, the average Hungarian might easily come to the conclusion that the current amendment to the Constitution is required because they are currently not sufficiently protected against a terrorist attack, for instance. Please help us understand the situation which makes this new constitutional amendment necessary.
What we are talking about here is a situation in which we have in our possession sufficient information indicating that the terrorist threat in Hungary has increased, and in which we have credible information that a terrorist attack is being planned against the people of Hungary – such as the attack in Paris not long ago, or as we have seen in reports from Brussels. And in such a situation the question is what the Government can do to prevent this. So we are not talking about the need to investigate an act of terrorism which has already occurred and the need to apprehend the perpetrators and bring them to justice, but about what we can do in advance to protect people against such an attack taking place. This requires appropriate measures, and this is a European debate; it isn’t just going on in Hungary: similar proposals have just been put forward in France, and there is a strong argument in favour of something similar in Bavaria. What everyone is recommending is that we give our governments the measures, room for manoeuvre and procedures with which they can prevent a terrorist threat from becoming an act of terrorism. This is the debate which is taking place in Hungary – and, of course, a leopard doesn’t change its spots, and so everyone is behaving in character. Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party – whose way of thinking puts people’s safety first – would like the government of the day to have sufficient instruments and room for manoeuvre in order to be able to protect people. The pro-migrant left, on the other hand, doesn’t see the terrorist threat as being real to begin with – in fact they also claimed that migration was just an imaginary problem. When it emerged that large numbers of migrants were indeed on their way here and many are terrorists, then they said that the right thing to do is to let them in. So if today Hungary had a government of the left, then in this country we would see situations like those in Cologne, Paris or Brussels, because they would have let them in. We were the first to say that this would be a problem and that we must make it possible to protect the border; back then we were shouted down, but now everyone is doing just what we did. And then we said that, together with the migrants, terrorists have also been allowed to enter Western Europe, because secret services throughout Europe had indicated that we must be prepared for the terrorist threat. Again we were shouted down; and then came Paris. What I am saying is that we are facing a continued terrorist threat, and so I believe that as soon as possible the tools needed to prevent acts of terrorism should be made available in as many European countries as possible. All we would like are the same instruments and room for manoeuvre that other European countries have been given by their own parliaments.
So does this mean that the five emergency legal procedures already included in the Constitution do not provide enough instruments to achieve this?
Exactly, this is the situation, and I repeat: the terrorist threat to Europe is one of the new developments in the 21st century, and this is why every country must issue new legislation and amend their constitutions accordingly. But this is a technical issue – the important thing is that we give governments the instruments with which they can prevent acts of terrorism, and not just in Hungary, but throughout Europe.
And if I understood you correctly, you have information concerning specific attacks?
The question isn’t whether we have such information at our disposal, but that such information could emerge at any time. So Hungary isn’t among the countries most threatened by terrorism, and the reason for this is that we did not let the migrants in; if we had let them in then we would be seeing the same things as in Western Europe – from a reduction in public safety to acts of terrorism. In this regard I think that Hungary has done a good job of protecting itself, but that doesn’t mean that no such threat will arise in the future. And I repeat: in this context Europe must be seen as uniform; if we let someone enter Europe then we cannot tell where in Europe they might commit an act of terrorism, because once they’re in, it is very difficult to monitor their exact movements within Europe. These are difficult questions of procedure and we must undoubtedly tread carefully, because fundamental rights are important and must not be restricted more than is necessary. But I would like to make it clear that the safety of the public comes first: they must be protected.
When we spoke after the British prime minister’s visit here, you made it clear, for instance, that – like the other countries of the Visegrád Group – you cannot accept the British proposal for a so-called “emergency brake” mechanism, whereby workers from continental Europe would not be eligible to receive social benefits in the UK. Since then we have seen or heard that some kind of compromise solution is being developed – or at least this is what we can see from the proposals put forward by the President of the European Council. Is there a compromise proposal on the issue which the Visegrád Group is prepared to accept?
We are moving towards such a situation. Again, let’s go back to basics, if you don’t mind. According to British statistics from 2014 there are fifty-five thousand Hungarians working in Great Britain. Let us take this as our starting point; we could argue with it, it is now February 2016 and this is data from 2014, but the point is that there are tens of thousands of Hungarian families, or Hungarians, working there. In comparison, there are many more Germans living and working in the UK, so this does not just affect us here in Central Europe, it also affects Germans; this is not to mention the Poles, of whom there are some six, seven or eight hundred thousand over there. The first and most important thing is that we must protect what we all fought for, and what every political party in Hungary supported when we joined the European Union, and that is the freedom of Hungarians to travel and work anywhere within the European Union. This is a value. Today many people talk negatively about some young people trying their luck abroad. But I remember when we joined the European Union in 2004 everyone saw this as a great achievement, and we thought what a wonderful European right it was; and indeed, everyone who feels able to take on the risks and difficulties of making a living abroad must be allowed to do so. And so one of the most important elements in European civil rights is the freedom to work anywhere in Europe. And I believe that this is something which we must not undermine in any way. So the starting point of the debate is that no one – not even Great Britain – should be able to restrict the number of people working there; this is the starting point. The second question is whether it is acceptable to differentiate between the British and foreigners from the European Union who live there. To this I say that yes, it is of course possible to differentiate between them – the issue in question is the extent of such differentiation. And in my opinion no kind of differentiation should be made which would discriminate in favour of the British people living there and against people who have arrived in Britain from Central Europe or from outside the UK. The current debate concerns what constitutes discrimination, and what can be regarded as justifiable measures on the part of the British government. The British and the other European countries are now closer than they were, and the Visegrád Group is also making progress in harmonising their standpoints. We – the Czechs, Slovakians, Poles and ourselves – have decided that we must develop a joint standpoint and not represent our interests individually, but jointly. This is one of the reasons the Polish prime minister will be visiting Hungary next week and this is also why I will be in Prague on 15 February, where the prime ministers of the Visegrád Four will be discussing this issue; hopefully we will agree on a standpoint which we can all represent as a joint Central European standpoint at the prime ministers’ summit later that week in Brussels.
And the standpoints of the V4 and the British are very similar on many things – such as strengthening national sovereignty.
Yes, but I was replying to your question and focusing on the question of whether Great Britain should differentiate between its own citizens and Central Europeans working there. The issue you mention, whereby the British would in fact like to make much greater changes to the European Union and are pressing for comprehensive reforms – something I also support – is another question entirely. My view is that what the British are saying coincides with Hungary’s interests; what the British are saying is that in the 21st century the way the European Union currently operates does not stimulate competitiveness. We see that the European economy is faltering, that with the exception of Central Europe and Great Britain it is stagnating, that analysts are forecasting that other regions will grow much faster than us; all these are warning signs, and therefore the British say that Europe must be reformed – and we agree. We also agree on the direction of change. The British say that the European Union can only be strong if its Member States are strong; therefore all the rights and powers which have been taken away from Member States – who have been thus weakened – and which aren’t working properly at EU-level should be given back to Member States. In particular migration is one such issue, but I could list many others. So this is something we agree with. For instance, the role of Member States’ parliaments, which must have a greater say in decision-making processes within the European Union. Today the role of national parliaments is reduced to providing an opinion on certain issues, and the British say that this is not enough. And I believe this is also what the Hungarians say. We have greater confidence in our own national parliament, which we voted for ourselves, than in a jointly-elected European Parliament. We have confidence in that too, but it is of a different nature to the confidence citizens have in their own people and in their own Members of Parliament. So we would like national parliaments to at least have the right to veto legislation; if a national parliament does not agree with EU legislation which is being developed, it should have a way of blocking it. I agree with this. This is a British proposal, and there is a lot more in the British plan of action: competitiveness, reducing bureaucratic barriers, reducing bureaucracy in general, and so forth. So I believe that overall the British proposals will have a good effect on the future of Europe, as well as serving Hungary’s interests.
You have been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.