Katalin Nagy: Last week’s vaccination campaign was record-breaking. Over the course of the three days – two afternoons and two whole days – 140,000 vaccines were administered. When these numbers are quoted, opposition politicians say that the press is engaged in a positive propaganda campaign; but these are the facts and numbers. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Why do you think the Opposition repeatedly attacks the management of the pandemic? Most recently, for instance, their candidate for prime minister described Hungary’s management of the pandemic as murder and robbery. Good morning.
Good morning. Our job is a difficult one, as after all, we’re at the centre of public attention. At the same time, one has thoughts which one would like to express; and if one does so in the wrong form, that’s a mistake. This is also how it is in these instances: they’ve simply gone too far. I accept that it’s always possible to do everything better. I’ve yet to see any work – be it physical, intellectual, or the management of the affairs of the state – that couldn’t be done better. This is what justifies the existence of the opposition of the day, as it’s their duty to tell us that this, this and that could be done better. If they go too far in their attacks, however, and indulge in coarseness and vulgarity, then they’ve misunderstood their position. Because ultimately the word “party” derives from the fact that we represent parts of the whole. If you want to find out about the origins of Hungarian politics from a linguistic point of view, you’ll find that the word “party” is about partial interests. But those who serve those partial interests – those who speak and act on behalf of one party or another – must realise that their work is in the service of the whole. So one mustn’t covet power in the manner that I think the Left does: by acting against the interests of the whole, against the interests of the nation, the country, the public. When they attack the vaccination measures – the defence operation against the virus – by effectively dissuading people from participating in and wanting to be part of the joint defence effort, the Left are seeking to come to power on the basis of assumptions that are bad for the country as a whole. In my view, this is the red line that one must not cross. It’s not easy, especially when one’s inflamed – and, as far as I can see, over there on the Left there are quite a few inflamed individuals. At times like this they say all sorts of nonsense, but there’s a line that they shouldn’t cross. The Operational Group was set up two years ago – it will soon be two years to the day. During its initial period, before it was fully functioning, I attended every meeting myself. Very serious and responsible work is being done in that body, involving very grave consequences. Public-spirited, distinguished people, doctors, professors and ministers; here I’d like to thank Ministers Pintér and Kásler for leading the Operational Group. Police, soldiers, specialists and public administration experts are also pushing themselves to the limit, working every day from early in the morning. Everyone knows about the heroic, personal dedication of [Chief Medical Officer] Cecília Müller. They’re truly working to save human lives, and they don’t deserve to be attacked. Doctors don’t deserve it either. Some of them are working to save patients’ lives after having been transferred away from their home areas, away from their families. Similarly, nurses and public administration personnel don’t deserve to be exposed to such crude attacks. I know that an election is coming, and in such times everything’s different; but I think that the issue of the defence operation against the virus should be kept as far apart as possible from the election battlefield, and that we need as much cooperation as possible.
We’ve heard that Hungary is sending 200,000 AstraZeneca vaccines to Sudan. Is this because we have too many vaccines, or because EU Member States have been asked to help those emerging countries which are in great distress, in deep poverty, and which are finding it very difficult to implement vaccination campaigns?
Naturally our starting point is the safety of the Hungarian people, and all our decisions are guided by that criterion. This is also true of vaccination. At all times we must have in storage as many vaccines as are required for Hungarians. This is a matter of course, as we’re talking about a question of life and death. As far as I can see, the Omicron variant is spreading fast, but initial experience suggests that its consequences are substantially less life-threatening than we saw with earlier variants. Nevertheless, this is a question of life and death, and we must always have reserves set by. We mustn’t find ourselves in a situation in which we suddenly need a lot of vaccines, but have to say that we don’t have enough in stock. What is most important is that we always have enough. At the same time, we work with a safety margin, and after a while this additional stock will pass its expiry date, so to say. So if we can’t administer them here in Hungary, it’s better to give vaccines to someone else, rather than throw them away. Each vaccine provides immunity for only a specific period of time. Beyond this period it will lose its efficacy and value. So naturally it’s better to give it to others rather than destroy it. With this in mind, it’s an ongoing task for the Foreign Minister – in consultation with the Operational Group – to ensure that vaccines approaching their expiry date are used rationally, and that we help our fellow human beings. When possible, we’ll do this here in our immediate region; but as over here everyone already has enough vaccines, we’ll help those living in less fortunate parts of the world by offering them the vaccines that we don’t need – at no cost, if possible.
We also know that the Left launches regular attacks on the vaccines – even now, when most people have already had their third dose. They especially attack the Eastern vaccines, even though everyone knows perfectly well that for the European Union this was a business question. And we don’t understand how this question can even arise when we still don’t know what the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was texting about to the CEO of Pfizer, and the content of her texts and messages.
Let’s not be children; we’ve gone through that stage. So for adults it’s not worth playing this game: let’s behave seriously and comprehend the world around us. Vaccines are manufactured in factories which have owners. They sell the vaccines for money, and they want to make a profit. They didn’t put their money into the factory to lose it through charitable work, but to make a profit. That’s life, and we need to face up to it. The pharmaceutical companies are very important for our lives, because they produce the medicines and vaccines; but we must never place ourselves at the mercy of one, two or three of these pharmaceutical companies, which form a single club. So, for example, in terms of vaccine procurement I’d consider it a huge mistake for us Hungarians to stand on only one leg and place ourselves at the mercy of, say, a group of Western European pharmaceutical manufacturers brought together by the European Union. They’re important, we recognise their work, and we pay for it; but we don’t want to be at their mercy. We need to stand on more than one leg: we need to negotiate with others, we need to reach agreements with others, and we need to make it clear that we cannot be blackmailed and that we cannot be used to make extra profit. Because in Hungary there are people who are clever enough to know that if one wants to negotiate well with one particular company, one also needs to negotiate with another company. Therefore we mustn’t rule out countries that are capable of producing high-quality vaccines, which are also accepted by the world organisation, by the WHO; we must be in constant contact with them, and the vaccines that Hungary needs must be obtained from here, there and elsewhere. This is mature, adult, correct political behaviour.
The cap on certain food prices starts next Tuesday. The Government has frozen the price of basic food items, asking retailers to check what price those products were on 15 October last year, and to sell them at that price. The first phase will last three months. This measure has many critics, of course, especially from the Opposition, who say that it won’t bring down inflation. The head of one of the trade associations was here this morning, however, and he said that we also need to bear in mind that now we’re not only saving five or ten forints on, say, a litre of milk or a kilo of sugar, but we can save even more if the price increases even further during these three months. So won’t it bring inflation down somewhat after all?
We can discuss this issue on two levels. One level is that of inflation, which is a macroeconomic approach, and a little more removed from reality. But this is also important. Then there’s life and its own nitty-gritty approach. The Hungarian government says that normally the Government shouldn’t intervene in the formulation of prices. In the ordinary course of events, retailers and wholesalers, buyers, sellers and manufacturers will be able to work out prices among themselves, taking account of one another’s interests, deciding how much money and what price they should pay for each product. The Government will have no role to play in all this. But exceptional situations sometimes occur, and in exceptional situations the Government cannot say that the economic players will resolve the exceptional situation, because they won’t be able to. If they’d been able to resolve it, an emergency wouldn’t have developed – for example, when inflation is as rampant as it is now, when the rate of price rises and the depreciation of money is so high, from America to Hungary or Russia. The world economy has entered a period of high inflation, and when the Baltic states, for example, have double-digit inflation, and the whole of Europe has inflation, then the Government cannot sit back and wait for market players to adjust prices, because they haven’t been able to control them. So here someone has to step in as a new player to get things back to normal. And until things get back to normal, someone has to protect people. Because economic theory is a fine thing, but meanwhile one has to live: you pay for your petrol at the pump and you have to buy food. And the Opposition or anyone else can construct arguments about whether or not it’s a good move in terms of grand theoretical economic interrelationships; but the pensioner, the family with children – indeed all of us – have to go to the shop and pay the price. And it’s only right for them not to pay the current price, but the price that they paid earlier, at a lower level. This is good. Anyone who says it’s bad doesn’t understand life.
This is strange, because clearly they’re aware of the numbers and the data. A former vice-governor of the Central Bank – who’s now on the team of the Opposition’s candidate for prime minister – has said that the high inflation rate is a consequence of Viktor Orbán’s economic policy.
That’s quite a compliment, because it means that the high inflation in the United States is surely also a consequence of my economic policy.
Over there they’re also following this policy.
And across the whole of Europe, based on that logic. How can I put it? One can’t talk about things seriously at that level. I understand that the Opposition wants to shift all the responsibility onto the Government and me, but this doesn’t make serious dialogue possible. The situation is serious, and it must be dealt with seriously. In the world today there are several factors behind inflation, but the most substantial single contributing factor is the rise in energy prices. At the same time, the development of energy prices is largely due to political decisions. We’re forced to admit that Brussels’ policy on energy prices has failed. Brussels believed – and I’m afraid they still believe – that high energy prices are good for climate protection. This is a complete misunderstanding of both climate protection and energy policy. Climate protection shouldn’t be enforced through high energy prices. If one does what our Brussels bureaucrats have done now, the resulting high energy prices will cause a rise in the prices of everything else as well, because everything needs energy. So this mentality – this climate policy – has led us down a blind alley, and it must be changed. Sometimes they say the most absurd things. Naturally talk is cheap for leaders from rich countries; for instance, a vice-president of the Commission, who’s Dutch, has said that we mustn’t allow social considerations to compromise climate policy. Normal policy-making, however, is about trying to continuously reconcile different criteria; because while there are climate protection considerations, we must also live our lives. There are social considerations, and people mustn’t be ruined financially: they mustn’t say – as they’re now preparing to – that they want even higher prices. Brussels wants to increase prices further. There are plans that from now on people should pay an additional tax if they want to use their cars. Or if they have their own home, which they heat: “Let’s increase prices because people will turn down their heating, and they’ll use their cars less.” We also hear advice like that in Hungary: we should buy smaller cars and use less energy. Naturally wastefulness is never good, but the problem in Hungary today isn’t a waste of energy. It’s far rather that prices are rising, and families must be protected against those energy price rises. I don’t want to talk about the old debates, about the Left’s continual attacks on our reductions in household energy prices, but I suggest they take a look around: Spain and France are now introducing reductions in household utility bills. Here in Hungary we’ve been using this measure to protect families for very many years. If we didn’t have reductions in household energy prices, families in Hungary would be paying much more both for electricity and gas. This is an example of a point that there could be agreement on, because a normal person doesn’t attack a situation in which – thanks to the Government’s decisions – people in Hungary are paying less for gas and electricity than people are paying in other countries. There are all sorts of analytical comparisons of price levels in countries across Europe, and they reveal that – thanks to the reductions in household utility prices, in gas and electricity – energy prices in Hungary are among the lowest in the whole of Europe. I think this is a good thing. We could remove this from the issues for political debate, and agree on it. But at present Hungary isn’t yet at that point. Never mind; what really matters is that whatever those on the Left say, however much they want to return to power and however fiercely they attack us, the policy of reductions in household energy prices must be maintained. In climate policy, we must make it clear that the burdens must be borne by the big polluters, and we mustn’t allow the Brusseleers to shift those burdens onto Hungarian families.
One of the most popular online media outlets has reviewed the family support measures that will come to an end this year, either on 30 June or the end of December 2022. Among these, they listed “baby shower loans”, the cap on interest rates in effect until the middle of the year, home refurbishment grants and village family housing grants – that are also in effect until the middle of the year. They said that these might only be campaign promises from the Government. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that in Hungary over the past twelve years many things have been built. I’m not just talking about physical buildings, but also political and economic systems. We’ve built a stable political system, with the result that in Hungary for the past twelve years we’ve had civic Christian democrat governance, political stability and predictability. We’ve built an economic system which – if we look at the numbers – appears to work. There are more than 10,000 medium-sized businesses capable of exporting goods to other countries, there are large international companies, and right now these are also expanding internationally. In other words, the actors in the Hungarian economy are becoming ever stronger. As a result, we’ve also built a new tax system and a new wage system. Of course wages are never high enough, so I’ll never say that the present system is good, because it’s never good, and the higher they are the better. I’ve yet to see a number which can’t be increased by adding one to it. So if you increase your salary by 10 per cent, then of course it would be better to increase it by 11, and so on. But there’s also reality, economic reality. We can say that, comparing today with the situation twelve years ago, in Hungary this month the minimum wage is higher than the average wage under the left-wing government back then. These are things that work. So we’re not simply making individual decisions, we’re building systems. This is the case with our family protection system and our family support system. We’re talking about interlinked elements here, because we help young people to have children, then we help them to get a home, then we help them to get started by exempting them from income tax until they’re 25. So we’ve built all the elements of the family support system to fit together. There are still one or two missing points, and so there’s still work to be done. So, if people want it and we can continue our work, in the next four years we’ll have to add some elements to this family support system; but it’s already an unprecedentedly developed system. Wherever we go in Europe, people everywhere say that we Hungarians spend the highest per capita percentage of the budget on family support. So there’s no other country that, expressed in monetary terms also, attaches as much importance to children and families as Hungary does. There are many reasons for this. One of them is that we don’t want to follow the West’s example in using the instrument with which it seeks to solve its population – or depopulation – problems: the import of immigrants. So we don’t want to be an immigrant country. There are countries in Western Europe like the German government that has just taken office and has written the following into its programme: “Germany is an immigrant country.” I’d rather cut off my own hand than write such a sentence into any government programme. So replacing Hungarian children who aren’t being born with foreign adults is an absurdity. It’s impossible! So we’re working to ensure that conditions in Hungary encourage women, their husbands and families to dare to have children, to ensure that they don’t feel they’re taking on an extra burden, they don’t feel their lives are becoming more difficult, and they don’t have to give up any personal career goal. We’re trying to reconcile these considerations. Here again, I say that we should appreciate what we’ve achieved so far. Now, following on from this, of course every measure has a time limit; but all the elements of this family support will be maintained. So, of course, if our mandate’s renewed, not only will the current family support policy elements continue, but they’ll be supplemented with new ones. And if economic performance improves, we’d even like to increase the level of family support. In this matter my personal objective is for us to be able to say that making the commitment to having children won’t harm someone’s financial situation, but improve it. So, in terms of monthly budgets, in terms of actual household expenditure, the situation of someone with two or three children shouldn’t be more difficult than it would be if they hadn’t had children. This isn’t the case today. Today, raising children still demands financial sacrifices from parents. We’re working – and I’m working – to ensure that this changes, so that people with children have at least as much chance of a good, comfortable and easy life as those without children. And in time I’d even like to see people who choose to have larger families enjoying tangible material, financial benefits from that decision. We don’t want to interfere in their lives, but in terms of standard of living we want to give those who make the commitment to having children at least the same chance as those who don’t make that commitment. Ultimately behind all this it’s our deep conviction that if there are no children, there is no future. So we can live comfortably today, but what about tomorrow? Who will we leave the country to? We want to leave the country to our children, not to strangers. If there are children, there’s a future; if there are no children, there’s no future – for the family or for the country. This has been the first sentence of our government programme since 2010, but it was also the first sentence in 1998. So if I want to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing, the ultimate, the foremost reason is that if there are no children, there is no future; and we have a responsibility not only for ourselves, but also for the future, for the future of Hungary.
So this is why, in February, those with families will be reimbursed the income tax they paid last year, and pensioners will be given back their thirteenth month’s pension.
We’re in a strange situation, because in 2021 the Hungarian economy performed fantastically well. We’ll all remember 2021 as a difficult year, because we were ravaged by the virus. Very many people lost loved ones – or at least they were in danger after contracting the disease and needing hospital care. So we were ravaged by the year. But at the same time, against the background of the pandemic the Government pursued economic policy that resulted in an extremely dynamic economic year. In terms of economic growth, 2021 was one of the most successful for the Hungarian economy: we had growth of over 6 per cent. And at a time like this what does one do? What do people like me, or members of the Government, think? We think that we have goals that we’ve always wanted to achieve. When could we achieve these, if not after the best economic year ever? We’ve always wanted to give back the thirteenth month’s pension that was taken from pensioners by left-wing governments. This election campaign we’re heading towards is also strange because now, of course, there are ideas for the future, but in reality we have two records of government: before 2010 we had a left-wing government, and now we have a Christian, civic government of the Right. Their performances can be compared. And one element that’s an important point of comparison is that under the Left they took away one month’s pension. Hungarians have worked for a long time to finally get Hungary back to a situation in which this can be given back. I thought that we could give back one week’s pension every year, so in essence we’d be rebuilding the thirteenth month’s pension. But when there’s a growth rate of 6.8 per cent, there are pensioners who need the money and it’s financially possible to do so, why not give it all back at once? Therefore they’ll not only get the second week, but soon they’ll get the full thirteenth month’s pension. And our thinking has been the same on children, and on tax exemption for young people. When could we achieve this, if not now? For health care 2021 was a very difficult year, but for the economy it was a very successful year. When could we give some of that back to the people, if not now? And to whom? Mostly to those who, in terms of health, have been hit hardest by 2021: people who are retired and people with families. This is why we’ve given them priority.
We have one more minute. Today you’re travelling to Spain, and next week you’re going to Moscow to meet President Putin. The Opposition’s immediate, sarcastic response was that Putin has ordered the Hungarian prime minister to present himself in Moscow. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that the Hungarian public has known our policy for a long time, and knows that we cannot be ordered anywhere. Hungary is a sovereign country, its government is sovereign, and the behaviour of its leaders is characterised by sovereignty. Secondly, our focus is always the national interest, including in our external relations. I’ll go to the President as I do every year – except perhaps in pandemic years. These have been summits, Hungarian-Russian summits, at which we always review bilateral relations, and at which I always have clear objectives, and Hungary always has clear objectives. The most important thing now is a balanced economic relationship. I’d like to increase the volume of gas that’s fixed for us in the Russian-Hungarian gas agreement, and that we’re guaranteed to receive. In these difficult times, with rising energy prices, and within the framework of Russian-Hungarian relations, my goal in the negotiations is to increase in the longer term – in the interests of Hungary’s security – the negotiated volume of gas currently available to us. And there are a number of areas of economic cooperation, such as the food industry, tourism, and so on. And, however strange it may sound, Hungary also has marketable capabilities and knowledge in space cooperation. So strengthening business relations will be on the agenda. Naturally we’ll be unable to avoid talking about the European security situation, on which Hungary’s position is absolutely clear: in “Brusselese” this is referred to as de-escalation, while in Hungarian we simply call it peace. Peace is in our interest. Naturally Hungary is a member of NATO and the European Union, and I consult with our Western allies before all such talks. I’ve already completed some of this consultation process, and I’ll continue in the coming days. So before going to Moscow, I’ll have consulted with both NATO and the European Union, and the politicians who play a key role in the EU presidency.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.