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Jan 22, 2016

“The Route May Move in Any Direction, But One Thing Is Certain: It Will Not Go Through Hungary"

Hungary pursues "a migration policy which of course grants political refugees all the possibilities afforded by international law," the prime minister said, "but which does not allow anyone else in.” In his Friday interview on state radio, January 22, the prime minister talked about migration, the taxi versus Uber conflict, and the new family housing allowance program.

Following are some key quotes from the prime minister:

Migrant Crisis:

“In public life the most important consideration is the security of the public, and we requested Parliament, or rather the opposition, to support introduction of the options which our western European counterparts have.”

“We Hungarians have a somewhat different view: we think that the best immigrant is one who does not come here at all, and therefore the best number is zero. Therefore we pursue a migration policy which of course grants political refugees all the possibilities afforded by international law, but which does not allow anyone else in.”

“On the one hand, they have admitted that while Europe is one of the world’s most developed continents, its possibilities are not unlimited; therefore it is better to frankly admit this, rather than send out empty promises to those unfortunate souls now living in refugee camps, where the conditions may be bad, but where they are safe.”

“The route may move in any direction, but one thing is certain: it will not go through Hungary.”

Family Housing Program:

“We are now making housing accessible to young people who want to start families, and we are also creating opportunities for those in middle-age to find attractive, secure, decent new homes.”

The following is an English translation of the complete transcript of the interview:

Éva Kocsis: Twenty-one and a half minutes to eight. You are listening to 180 minutes. In the studio we have Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Good morning.

PM Orbán: Good morning.

In France the new anti-terrorism legislation has not yet entered into force, and so they may extend the state of emergency on the grounds that the law enforcement agencies need extraordinary powers. Having observed the events of recent months in France, there is a need for a new anti-terrorism law, but in this respect what is it that warrants the amendment of the Constitution in Hungary?

We would like Hungary to have the same options in the fight against terrorism that most Western European countries are able to resort to. So we do not want anything more or less than that which is customary and accepted as the standard in Europe today. Today the Government has resources at its disposal which it could deploy to reduce the threat of terrorism, but the laws do not permit this at present. Similarly, the deployment of the military in the fight against terrorism is perfectly natural in countries in Western Europe, while in Hungary our hands are tied by our laws. In public life the most important consideration is the security of the public, and we requested Parliament, or rather the opposition, to support introduction of the options which our Western European counterparts have. This issue is not yet on the right track.

You have said that you do not want anything more or less than other European countries, and you have also said that this issue is not yet on the right track. In specific terms, if this legislation enters into force, we could almost speak of the introduction of martial law. 

Look, Hungarian politics is the art of exaggeration. Some time in 1990 or 1991 there was a debate in Parliament which was conducted in an aggressive tone, and I heard Prime Minister József Antall say – in those debates he usually had a marvellous ability to stay calm – that in Hungarian politics if one person calls another a worthless lowlife, all it means is that they disagree on something.

Fine, but on the whole, if we look at the legislation, the amendment, your proposals, are all the criticisms levelled against you completely unfounded?

Of course – they have no factual foundations whatsoever. Those who follow the debate can see this for themselves. This is merely a reflex. In Hungary when the left is not in power they say there is no democracy, and as soon as the voters give others the authority to govern, the left continuously accuse the elected administration of abusing their power and being undemocratic in their thinking. If only a fraction of the allegations coming from the left in recent years about the threat of dictatorship had been true we would be suffocating under tyranny, but in fact Hungary is one of Europe’s freest countries.

An upper limit on migration has been imposed in Austria as well – although they do not call it that – which has induced some kind of domino effect on the countries preceding Austria on the migration route. Do you expect this? What will the situation be in three months’ time? What will the situation be in four months’ time? How will the Balkan countries cope with this? 

You have just mentioned the most important news item of recent months. Common sense has prevailed, dogmatism has at last capitulated to reality and common sense, and decisions are finally being adopted which we Hungarians and several other European nations have seen as necessary right from the beginning; namely that we must finally state that Europe is unable to take in enormous masses of outsiders in an uncontrolled manner, without restrictions. This is the message of the Austrian decision. Their solution is that they have stated a number, the maximum number of people they are able to take in annually, and that is that. We Hungarians have a somewhat different view: we think that the best immigrant is one who does not come here at all, and therefore the best number is zero. Therefore we pursue a migration policy which of course grants political refugees all the possibilities afforded by international law, but which does not allow anyone else in. The Austrians have taken a decisive step in this direction.

But has common sense really prevailed? Because the fact is that the Austrians have said this is only the first step. The most important politician related to this topic is not saying the same thing at all.

Yes, but we should also celebrate lesser achievements.

Then let us take a look at the practical aspect. What is happening now is that everyone is asked if they are going to Austria or Germany. If that is what they say their destination is, they are allowed through. For all that, however, this still appears to be rather uncontrolled. 

Yes, there are a number of minor disturbing circumstances, but I do not attach much significance to these. What is of significance is that they have said that there is an upper limit, and numbers in excess of this limit will not be taken in. This means they have admitted that no one should be allowed into their lives in an uncontrolled manner, because that will lead to trouble. On the one hand, they have admitted that while Europe is one of the world’s most developed continents, its possibilities are not unlimited; therefore it is better to frankly admit this, rather than send out empty promises to those unfortunate souls now living in refugee camps, where the conditions may be bad, but where they are safe. Staying there is still better than setting out on a journey involving all sorts of hardships – from the risk of drowning to potential violence – to countries where in fact they are not at all welcome and from which they will be sent back, sooner or later. It is much fairer to tell them in advance that so many people may come, but no more.  This is the heart of the matter. There will be problems with a number of regulatory details, but the important thing is that the first decisive step has been taken.

And will it not cause a problem that, due to the restrictions, the route will move towards Romania? 

The route may move in any direction, but one thing is certain: it will not go through Hungary.

Meaning you are ready to install a security fence there, too, within a short time?

On some sections the preparatory works have already been completed and, learning from the situation of one year ago, we have created the manufacturing capacity needed to produce the materials we need for the security fence ourselves, rather than having to rely on the market situation at any one time. So at present we are not only able to supply ourselves – the necessary materials and components are being manufactured in prisons, in penal institutions – but we are even able to export fence supplies. We have sold hundreds of kilometres of fencing to Macedonia and Slovenia, and more recently to Bulgaria as well.

And meanwhile we are eagerly waiting for the leaders of the European Union to finally find that much coveted and so frequently mentioned common European solution, which many still consider to be relocation quotas. More and more politicians are saying that we must prevent the disintegration of Europe, and the fact that an increasing number of European politicians are using these terms raises major concerns over the development of a two-speed Europe.

Look, there is something here which I call “Brusselism”. There is a problem, a challenge. Before carefully considering the level at which we could give the best solution to that problem, as a first response we immediately say that we need a European solution. The protection of borders is one such problem. It was completely obvious right from the beginning that in Europe borders are traditionally protected on a national basis, and that if the nations fail to protect the external borders of Europe, we can talk about a European solution for hours on end; there is nobody, there is no mechanism, there is no law which could take over this responsibility from the nation states overnight. That is Brusselism. We are not allowing the nation states to solve the problem, and we criticise those who do – such as Hungary. And the whole time we continuously emit hot air from our mouths, uttering phrases such as “common European solution”. Meanwhile nothing actually happens. This is Brusselism. This is the result of Brussels attempting to withdraw from the nation states further powers, which it is then unable to exercise itself. It thus weakens the nation states, and through this weakens the whole of Europe. Therefore the withdrawal of powers from the nation states by Brussels – which does not itself have the power to exercise them – in fact weakens the European Union. And this Brusselism is a threat to Europe, as the level of cooperation will decrease. Therefore in my view every issue should be regulated, managed and resolved at the level where it is most reasonable to do so, according to the natural order of things. We do not need doctrines or ideologies; we need solutions and decisions: decisions which serve people’s best interests. This is lacking in Brussels today, and this is Europe’s biggest problem.

Do you agree with the claim that the concerns about democracy in Poland in fact serve to divert attention from the incidents in Cologne, for instance, or from migration in general?

I do not presume malice, as anyone who attacks a country in order to divert attention from their own problems is acting with malice. I do not presume that any European leader would harbour such malice. In the background there are other reasons. Quite simply, Brussels is irritated by strong nation states, and by those strong nation states speaking their mind, stating their ideas in clear terms, and pointing out that certain issues should not be resolved in Brussels, but in Warsaw or Budapest. This automatically stimulates a Pavlovian response in European bureaucrats, and they then launch themselves upon the country which has had the audacity to speak its mind, to say what it means and to state its goals honestly. In my opinion the Poles did not do anything which would deserve criticism from Europe. There are political debates in Polish public life, too, much the same as in any European country. These debates have not overstepped any boundary which would merit such a reaction from rather arrogant, longer-standing democracies. So if we look at Central Europe and Western Europe today, even at our most modest I think that we could say that Central Europe is not lagging behind the continent’s Western half in any way related to democratic norms. In fact, there are some phenomena which could never occur in Central Europe. Just imagine what would have happened if the Hungarian government had manged to ensure that for days on end neither the public nor commercial media in Hungary reported news of a mass atrocity jeopardising people’s security and which was of vital interest to the public – such as the incidents in Cologne. How many days do you think I would have been able to remain in office? And it would not have been the opposition that would have pushed me out, but the Hungarian people, who would have asked: “What kind of leaders do we have who prevent us from learning about important facts which are relevant to our lives?” This is inconceivable in Central Europe. By contrast, this is actually happening in Western Europe. So I think that the West should be less complacent. There is no moral or factual basis for them calling us to account on the issue of democratic norms.

We shall shortly move on to the topic of our everyday life, to domestic affairs, but let me ask you one more question about migration. Angela Merkel says that three important milestone events will take place in the next few weeks. One of them is happening today. This is the German-Turkish government meeting in Berlin. The second one is a donor conference in February with a view to improving the situation of refugees staying in their own countries, in Lebanon or in Jordan. And the third one will be the EU summit being held in Brussels in mid-February. Do you know what the topic of this EU summit will be – what will you be discussing?

The agenda for the summit is taking shape. Migration is always on the agenda. It would be useful to make a decision on the case of the British. Britain’s EU membership is at stake here, and therefore the term used by the Chancellor to describe this event – that it will be a milestone event – is justified in connection with the upcoming Brussels summit.

Let us move on to internal affairs. The last few days have been dominated by the dispute between taxi drivers and Uber. One half of the country has turned on the taxi drivers, talking about misdeeds from the past, while the other half has strongly defended the achievements of the 21st century. But in fact, is this not more a case of a multinational corporation – one of the activities of which is, to put it mildly, tax optimisation (or at least this is what the newspapers have reported from around the world) – which is subject to very few rules? In your view, what is this dispute about? How did you approach this dispute at the Cabinet meeting? I hear you even asked your Cabinet members how they travelled to the meeting. 

That is right. This is an extremely lively debate, as can also be judged from your words. There are different layers of content. Even if this is not where the solution should be sought, there is undoubtedly an interesting debate to be had on how modern technology – which is taking over increasingly large areas of our lives – is calling conventional business models into question, and to what extent those concerned must adapt immediately; and we, too, must adjust – at least in the medium term – to the fact that the world is changing around us much faster than we have observed earlier. This is in addition to the fact that over the last decade we have already found it hard to keep up with the latest technological innovations or solutions which have transformed our lives. This process will only speed up, and it is posing quite a challenge. It makes people’s lives more difficult because it is hard to adapt to it; and at the same time it is also a challenge for governments, because we need to be talking sensibly about what life in Hungary will be like in ten or fifteen years’ time, and what novel features will emerge which we should all be preparing for – not only those in public administration but also ordinary Hungarian citizens. I am now looking at this dispute from an angle which is different from the one you have outlined, although all the questions you asked are important. I should look at this issue in terms of whether or not the same rules apply to everyone in Hungary. I think that people rightly expect the government of the day to enforce the rules and to ensure that they are observed by everyone: Hungarians, multinationals, taxi drivers or Uber drivers. And the taxi drivers are right in that, at this point in time, the rules being applied to Uber drivers providing passenger services are in fact different from those being applied to taxi drivers. And in their view this is not fair. In addition there is another facet to their argument which should be mentioned: this is a dangerous business. After all, in a complex, modern transport system we are entrusting our lives to those who transport us from Point A to Point B. There are technical and safety regulations, and there are also personal regulations – qualifications, experience, and so on – which must be observed, because we must not have people’s lives and health put at risk. While we are enforcing these regulations for taxi drivers, we are not enforcing them for other passenger transport service providers, and this is an unfair situation. So the concerns that have been raised by taxi drivers must be taken seriously, and we must find a solution.

Do you have any ideas on the solution?

Yes, I do.

What would it be? 

We can move in one of two directions. We could say that the state will release the reins and not regulate this area; in this case those who are smarter and better will do better, but we shall not be able to enforce quality, financial and health and safety requirements. That is one possible direction. There are countries which have moved in that direction. I would not recommend this for Hungary. The other option is to regulate. We have clearly stated that this market must be regulated, but we must create rules which are absolutely clear and which apply to everyone. Once these rules are in place, the Government must enforce them. This is our responsibility. For my part, I would move in this direction. And there will be moves in this direction over the next few days.

Let us talk about some more seemingly Budapest affairs, such as public transport in the metropolitan agglomeration. You have already announced that the state will take over operation of this. There was an extraordinary meeting at Budapest City Council yesterday, which was attended by the Mayor of Budapest and members of the opposition. When you decided to take over public transport in the metropolitan agglomeration, why didn’t you just supply the money for the operation of these services?

Because there are continuous disputes over final accounts. I don’t want to bore listeners with the details, but there are bitter ongoing disputes worth tens of billions of forints as to whether MÁV owes money to BKV, or BKV owes money to MÁV, whether tickets have been paid for, and so on. As far as I can see, cooperation in this field has not been resolved. And the Mayor of Budapest is right to say that if there are difficulties of this nature in cooperation, it is best to make a clean breast of the situation, and everyone should perform their own duties. The organisation and maintenance of public transport within the boundaries of the Budapest public administration unit is the responsibility of the municipality. This is not only the case in Budapest, but also in Miskolc and Debrecen – even though here the dimensions are bigger. At the same time, the maintenance of public transport between settlements – that is between public administration units – is the duty of the Government. Everyone should perform their own duties, and then people will have access to affordable, safe and comfortable transport to Hungarian standards.

But can you be sure that if this change does take place, passengers will not notice the difference in service at the city’s borders?

If I was not sure that we would be able to resolve this not very complicated issue, I would not presume to govern. It is not easy to organise transport in the agglomeration, but at times the country is required to take part in armed military campaigns in various parts of the world, we have had to pull Hungary’s budget back from the brink, halve the country’s unemployment rate, and launch very serious, complex and difficult reforms – reforms which are working. If we were able to cope with these tasks – not to mention successfully fending off the threats arising from the flow of one and a half million migrants heading for Europe – we should surely be able to take care of a few bus services.

Let us talk about the family housing allowance. When we last left off this conversation, you mentioned that you needed to explore ways in which you could extend the range of those who are eligible. Is this, in fact, an economic policy or a family policy measure?

A combination of the two. This is not so simple, because it is easy to start a housing or home programme which only considers economic growth, and it is likewise relatively easy to create a programme which focuses solely on demographic and family policy criteria. Combining the two is a much more difficult task, however. At the same time, as far as I can see we have the right mix in place. We have created a family housing benefit scheme which simultaneously promotes economic growth and families. This is a novel scheme. We needed to acknowledge that we are unable to clearly define the new rules through the amendment of decrees regulating former housing benefits, and therefore we have created two new decrees which lay down the terms of the new family housing benefit system in Hungary in a simple, transparent and clear manner. So rather than patching up the old system, the Government has decided to create two new decrees which everyone will understand and which will be perfectly clear.

You have done away with the upper limit, but don’t you foresee that with increased demand – and we can already see increased demand – house prices will rise dramatically?

Look, there are good problems and there are bad problems. It is a bad problem that, relative to population, a quarter as many homes are being built in Hungary as in Poland – or a third as many as in the Czech Republic. The fact that as a result many new homes will be built, and this will have an impact on the real estate market, is a good problem. In my line of business the task in hand is not to choose between a world with problems and one without, but to choose the better kinds of problem. Because I have yet to see a single moment when we do not have problems of some kind – and as long as there are governments in the world, there will very probably never be such a moment. But it is very important that we are now making progress on solving a big problem: the paralysed state of the Hungarian housing market; limited opportunities for young people; the difficulties of finding housing – which is also an obstacle to starting a family; and the world of unaffordable homes. We are now making housing accessible to young people who want to start families, and we are also creating opportunities for those in middle-age to find attractive, secure, decent new homes.

Let us talk about the economy. If economic figures continue on their current course and as planned, it seems that you will succeed in reducing sovereign debt in GDP terms, and everyone expects Hungary to be upgraded to investment grade category. In other words, the Government’s room for manoeuvre in general will increase. What will you use this increased room for manoeuvre for? Education? Health care? Debt reduction?

Quite clearly we have already dodged the most dangerous bullet, which was housing. So in the next few years Hungary will use a sizeable proportion of its expanding economic opportunities to strengthen Hungarian families and provide them with housing. While we launched a new family housing programme, we should not forget that we have increased the rate of the tax benefits available to families with two children and have increased the minimum wage – or rather businesses and workers have agreed on raising the minimum wage – and we have incorporated this into Hungarian legislation. I believe that we have already taken advantage of a large proportion of our opportunities in advance – based on shrewd calculation, we hope.

What do you see as the most important issues in domestic politics, and government decisions, in the next two to three months?

We have to draft the 2017 budget. People can expect the Government to always be one step ahead of everyone else – and it is only right for them to hope this. Right now it is January 2016, and from this month everyone is expecting the positive changes induced by this year’s budget and the results of the operational Hungarian reforms to emerge in our day-to-day lives. But we are already working on the 2017 budget. This is because we shall approve the financial plan regulating our lives in 2017 – which we call the budget – by 1 July 2016. So we are already living in the future.

So you are already thinking of priorities for the 2017 budget. Families?

That’s right, and – without launching into a complex explanation – we would like to ensure that government debt not only falls in relation to the gross domestic product, but also in real terms. when we speak of reducing government debt, people forget that this means the amount of government debt related to the gross domestic product, the country’s aggregated economic performance; as our economy grows, so does the debt itself, but our performance is growing at a higher rate than our debt, and this therefore results in a fall in relative percentage terms. At the same time this is not a desirable state of affairs; it is an important step forward, but far from desirable. A desirable state of affairs is one in which we have a debt of one hundred forints this year, it is only ninety-eight forints next year, and then at some later point we have no debt at all, but we can lend money to others. This is the path the Hungarian budget should embark upon, but we still have a long way to go to achieve this. In 2017, however, I would like to take a breakthrough step in this direction.