Zsolt Törőcsik: This week the Government presented to Parliament the 2024 budget, described as a budget for defence. The justification is that in a time of war, a budget is needed that protects the country’s security, families, jobs and the cuts in household utility bills. Brussels, however, has recently put forward a proposal asking the Hungarian government to abolish the latter, the cuts in utility bills. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is our guest in the studio. Good morning.
Good morning to you and your listeners.
The message from Brussels about the abolition of the cuts in household utility bills was quite clear, but meanwhile the 2024 draft budget includes a sum for this purpose. Is there a new front opening up between Brussels and the Hungarian government on this issue?
Let’s start off in a friendly way by saying it’s none of their business. So we thank them very much for their comments and advice. They propose that essentially we should ruin the Hungarian economy – or at least ruin people, families in any case – and put pensioners in an impossible situation. In other words they’re asking for everything that’s summed up in colloquial Hungarian as austerity: not depriving the banks and big companies of their windfall profits, and letting pensioners and families pay the full cost of energy. So they’re asking for something that I personally – and the whole political community that I lead – have been fighting against for more than thirteen years. And I believe that we’re not fighting this battle in isolation, but with the support of the overwhelming majority of Hungarians: on this issue support for the Government extends far beyond the party-political fault line between the governing parties and the Left. Even a left-wing pensioner would agree that he or she doesn’t want to pay an extra 181,000 forints every month. And if we were to do what Brussels is asking, they would have to pay around 180,000 forints more per month. This isn’t a party-political issue, but quite simply a crucial question in life, extending far beyond politics. So I think Hungary must stand up for its own interests. We should speak to them politely, as is customary in French royal courts, in eloquent blah blah blah language about European values, and thank them for having thought of us and for formulating proposals. Some of it’s good, some of it’s sensible – because there are clever people there too. So some of it’s acceptable, but anything that points in the direction of austerity must be rejected, and it must be made clear that the decision on these issues – the budget – is a national competence. The EU can ask us to do two things. We accepted this when we entered the EU, so these aren’t new things. But we knew in advance that the EU can tell us what our maximum allowable budget deficit can be. And it could also expect us to reduce the public debt and bring it below a certain level: below 60 per cent of gross domestic product. These two things, which we agreed on when we joined, are rightly expected of us. In the 2024 budget we’ll reduce the debt, which is now below 70 per cent, and we’ll also reduce the budget deficit. This isn’t because Brussels demands it, although that’s also an argument, but because it’s in the interest of the Hungarian economy that we have a disciplined approach to managing it. This is generally a good thing, and it’s better than being undisciplined; but in times of war it’s vital to be disciplined. So this is a time of war, we’re living in a time of war, and we have to defend ourselves; we have to protect jobs, that’s the most important thing. And then we have to protect the value of pensions; because if pensions start to lose their value, pensioners cannot help themselves with extra work – or there are very few of them who can help themselves with extra work. This is why pensioners have turned against the whole Left, and have in fact become supporters of the national camp and support national economic policy. And families must also be protected, because bringing up children is always an extra task, a major expense, a major undertaking; and therefore families deserve to be protected by the Government. So this will be the budget, a budget for defence. If there were no war it would be a much happier budget, but we can’t be dissatisfied with it, because – despite the war – in 2024 we can defend everything that’s important to us.
This is the main question. With disciplined management, as you’ve mentioned, can all these targets be met at the same time, and in such an uncertain – politically and economically uncertain – environment?
We should set ourselves several targets. So if the country is well managed and if the Finance Minister is good, a budget can meet hundreds of diverse targets. We’re certainly lucky in that respect – I mean with the Finance Minister. Very few countries can say that they’ve had a finance minister for as long as Hungary has, and before that he was a state secretary in the Ministry of Finance. So I don’t think that anywhere in the whole of Europe you could find a more experienced, more seasoned man than Mihály Varga, the Hungarian finance minister. The only person who can compare with him is perhaps former finance minister Babiš, who later became the Czech prime minister. I’m not saying that everyone else is a greenhorn, but they’re at the beginning of their careers. So Mihály, our Finance Minister, has seen these processes through since 2010, and was even in our 1998 government. I feel that the country is safe when the Finance Minister, in his calm way, brings in the budget and says that these things can be accommodated in it, and those things can’t. We’re living in a period of wartime inflation, and the budget must build for the year 2024 while assuming that the war will be prolonged, and so we have a defensive budget. Nevertheless the Finance Minister has extracted from it everything that could be.
Speaking of inflation, the budget for next year is for inflation of 6 per cent. It now stands at 24, but we’re on a downward path. Are the measures that have been enacted sufficient to bring it down next year to a quarter of this, or would that require peace – or at least the lifting of the sanctions?
It’s more like under 22 per cent now, I hope. I’m waiting for the updated figures myself. I always say that inflation doesn’t just go up and down by itself: there are processes behind it, there’s a will and a force behind it. Now it’s the force of the war that’s pushed inflation up, because the war has increased energy prices all over the world: the price of everything’s gone up, and this has pushed inflation up. It’s not going to come down by itself, and if we beg it to come down – to be so graceful as to come down – it won’t work: it’s got to be broken. So inflation must be fought. This is a big commitment for the Government. I don’t know how widely this is recognised, but taking steps to bring inflation down to single digits by the end of this year is a very serious commitment. The truth is that we’re very unlucky – not only because war’s a terrible thing, but also because the primary effect of the war is to raise energy prices. Because war doesn’t just rage on the front line, but also on the energy market. What’s happening is that the Russians are being squeezed out of Europe, out of the energy sector, and this is driving up energy prices. Hungary is the most dynamically developing country, with the highest energy needs, because investments are coming in at a tremendous pace. And we have to import energy from abroad, because there isn’t enough of it at home. So we have to import it, and the increase in energy prices has had very serious financial consequences. Unfortunately, if we don’t break inflation we won’t be able to promote Hungarian economic growth. So there’s no alternative. Incidentally, if we’d been able to finish Paks earlier and have Paks II [nuclear reactor] up and running, we’d be sitting back, we could be sitting back, because we’ve made a lot of solar energy investments in Hungary over the past few years. If we already had twice the current capacity of Paks, Hungary would at most need to import fuel for nuclear power; but that’s a manageable issue, and there are many solutions to it around the world. Our vulnerability would also be lower and the price of Hungarian energy would be lower. But there’s been a great deal of petty obstruction in Brussels, primarily at the initiative of the Hungarian left – because in Brussels Hungarian forces are undermining Paks. There were so many delays, with the need to submit new plans and await new permits, that we slipped behind. In this respect we’re out of luck. We’d have found it much easier to cope with this wartime inflation if the country’s energy production map looked like it will look in four- or five-years’ time. But we have no choice: we mustn’t complain, but must complete this task under the given circumstances, and by the end of the year – come hell or high water, if I may put it like that – we must bring inflation down to single figures. And next year we’re counting on average inflation of 6 per cent. If there were no war, if the European Union and the Western world were to come to their senses and realise that we’re on the wrong track, that the path of war is the wrong path, that we should be on the path of peace, and if there were a ceasefire and the start of peace negotiations, then suddenly the economic situation would ease and inflation would return much more quickly to the usual range of 1 to 3 per cent.
This also raises the question of how strong the pro-war camp is now. Because the tide seems to be turning – at least with regard to sanctions. In addition to the Hungarians, the Greeks are not supporting the 11th package of sanctions. But we can see that many people – whether in energy companies or the defence industry – are benefiting from this war, while on the other side there are the people who are paying the price through inflation.
Indeed, war has winners and losers. But the biggest losers aren’t those who are paying higher energy prices – although that’s not good either, as we see in Hungary. Those who suffer the worst losses are those whose relatives are dying: their fathers, brothers or husbands. So on both sides they’re the real losers. Now I have to tell you that the situation in the East is unchanged. So the war has entered a very violent phase, it’s sparing no one, and terrible things are happening on the front line. So when here at home left-wing politicians, sitting in their comfortable armchairs, say that we’re at war with Russia, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ve lost their minds. Since World War II, the statement “We are at war with Russia” is one that no sane person has been prepared to make. So one’s hackles rise when one hears, for example, someone saying that we’re at war with Russia in such an intellectual, urbane manner, while sitting in an armchair in this country: in the mayoral seat in the country’s richest city. How is it possible to say that Hungary is at war – we Hungarians are at war – with Russia? One really has no words for this. So terrible things are happening in a war, and it’s good for us not to be involved in it. And the only morally acceptable position is the position of peace. From this point of view, it’s important that, after the Vatican, the direction in politics that seeks peace has also won in Türkiye; because President Erdoğan is clearly on the side of peace, and is even committing himself to a mediating role. So back to the question of losses. While of course we’re losing lives and Hungary is paying billions extra in higher energy prices, there are those who are winning. This is how it is in every war. One has no time for war speculators, but that’s not something we’re able to change now. But perhaps what’s important to understand and what your listeners need to know about Western talk related to the war – I watched them talking enthusiastically about war in [the Moldovan capital] Kishinev/Chișinău yesterday – is that if one feels that one is in a war, then talking about war is part of that war. And since Western Europeans feel that they’re in the war, and the Mayor of Budapest is in the war with them, talking about the war in a way that seeks to influence its outcome is itself part of the war, part of the fighting. We are not part of the war, Hungary’s not at war with Russia, and we won’t be for as long as this government’s in power – we certainly won’t be. Therefore we look at it from the outside as a threat to us; it’s close to us, but it’s not our war. And I think this is why we’re calmer and more realistic about what’s happening. And of course I can see that everyone in the West now is enthusiastic about the possibility of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. That’s a matter for the Ukrainians. I myself don’t aspire to military expertise, but even someone like me – with just eighteen months of military service and no academic military knowledge – is well aware from army experience that if you attack you’ll sustain three times as many casualties as those who are defending. And for a country with a population that’s a fraction of the opposing side – let’s say the Russians have 130-140 million people and the Ukrainians, we don’t know how many, but somewhere between 20 and 30 million – launching a major military offensive in such circumstances will result in a bloodbath. So I think we need to do everything we can – even before launching a counteroffensive – to convince the parties that what’s needed is a ceasefire, and talks. Otherwise we’ll lose a great number of lives.
My question is also about how strong the pro-war lobby is: what are they willing to do to change Hungary’s strong pro-peace stance? Because, as you’ve mentioned, it won’t change as long as this government’s in power; but on the other side we can see that there’s an effort to change it.
In politics one of the biggest challenges is admitting to your own past mistakes. This isn’t difficult when you’re talking about something dating back many years. But when you have to say that your position yesterday has been proven wrong this morning, well, that’s very difficult. And they’ve committed themselves so deeply to the idea that this war can be won – and that it can be won the way it’s being fought now, with the Ukrainians fighting and the West giving them the money and the weapons – that it will be very difficult to get off this path of war. Fortunately, it’s not our problem, because I think we’re on the right moral and political path; but it will be difficult for the others. I’m waiting to see how that happens – probably in the same way that we’re seeing in Spain, and that we’ll see in some other countries: sooner or later people will force peace through elections. And the governments that have talked themselves into the war simply won’t admit their mistake; but they’ll be replaced by the people. This is what I’m seeing at the moment. Our region can be an exception to this – and I’m thinking particularly of the Poles, whose success I’m cheering for. The Polish government can be an exception, because our region is close to war. Those who are far away and who are sending money from far away – from America or Western Europe, for example – will find it very difficult to defend their positions, because the whole of Europe, the vast majority of European people, aren’t in favour of war. They may say that morally Ukraine is in the right – and with good reason. They say that with good reason, because Ukraine is under attack and Russia is the aggressor, and we want justice. In this, I believe that public opinion in Western Europe – or in Europe in general – speaks and thinks as one. But what should be done and what should and can be committed to is a matter on which European public opinion is divided. What I see is that the number of pro-peace people is increasing and the number of pro-war people is decreasing. This isn’t a question of our prestige or of who’s right, but there’s a rhythm to European politics that I can see from close quarters. During the refugee and migration crisis, for example, we were the only ones to say that borders must be defended, because a country without borders is like an egg without a shell: without borders there is no country and no nation. Everyone jumped on our back, but two or three years later they said, gently but conceding ground and changing course: “The Hungarians were right.” And this is what will happen in relation to peace. Everyone is against us. There are one or two exceptions, the Vatican and Türkiye, but the vast majority [of leaders] within the European Union are against us, they’re at our throat. Among prime ministers it’s difficult to take a pro-peace position when everyone in a meeting of prime ministers is pro-war. I won’t bore the listeners with this, but they can imagine. It’s difficult, but I’m sure that the moment isn’t far off when they’ll say that indeed the Hungarians saw things as they are, and they were right. Peace should have been the goal from the beginning. This will increasingly be true, because it’s becoming clear that even in the best-case scenario it won’t be possible to achieve a result on the front line, on the battlefield, that’s better than the result that could have been achieved by Ukraine through negotiations before the war. And if something could have been achieved by negotiation before the war, or could not have been achieved better with war, then what use has the war been? These are serious questions, and they’re coming closer and closer to the decision-makers. And when this question arrives and is put on the table, then I think everyone will say that the advocates for peace were right. Now let’s be modest and say that it wasn’t Hungary that was right, but the Vatican.
But in the meantime there’s an attempt to isolate Hungary. For example, the programme director of the Soros university [CEU] has said that Hungary’s losing friends with its pro-peace stance, and in the European Parliament we’ve seen the adoption of a resolution to prevent Hungary holding the EU presidency next year. How seriously should we take these things before we get to the point you’ve just mentioned?
If you’re Hungarian you have to stand your ground. So if you’re the Hungarian prime minister, if you’re a Hungarian voter, I think I’m in the same boat as everyone else, if you’re Hungarian you have to stand up for what is right. The history of Hungary tells us that when we didn’t stand up for what was right, when we cowered with our tails between our legs, when we didn’t speak our minds, when we didn’t demand our rights, Hungary always lost as a result. This is how it’s been in Hungary for a long time. And not only did we lose, but we also lost our self-respect, our sense of self, and we felt ashamed of ourselves. Now there’s a national government, and there will be no more of that. It’s difficult, of course, but it’s the right thing to do in the Hungarian interest. There will always be left-wing hysteria. This one, too, with us holding the presidency, is hysteria: left-wing hysteria. But it’s like the weather: come rain or shine, it’s always the same. There’s no need to concern ourselves with this, because the question of who holds the rotating presidency of the EU and when is clearly laid down in law, and the European Parliament has nothing to do with it. The Inuit Parliament could have said something, and it would have just as much effect as the illustrious representatives of the European Union: nothing. This isn’t something Hungary should be concerned with. Hungary has to deal with important issues. It must present its position well, and where possible it must show loyal cooperation with the other EU countries; because we’re members of NATO and the European Union, and these countries are our friends – even if left-wing governments sometimes pester us. So we must find the right balance between cooperation with them and standing up for our own interests – engaging in conflicts, if necessary. But this is the task of the Hungarian government, and the Hungarian government of the day is elected in order to strike this appropriate balance. I think that at the moment it’s fine. Of course we have to pay attention every day and adjust the proportions if necessary, but our current behaviour is in line with reasonable European political standards.
You’ve mentioned that President Erdoğan of Türkiye is also on the side of peace. He’s just been re-elected, and yesterday you spoke with him on the phone. From a Hungarian point of view, even beyond the question of the Russo-Ukrainian war, what’s your assessment of the fact that he’ll be the President of Türkiye in the coming years?
One of enormous relief. Not only was I rooting for the President’s victory, but I was praying for it. I can tell you that honestly. And I was praying hard and long. It would have been a tragedy if he hadn’t won. I don’t want to exaggerate, but there are two things Hungarians ought to be aware of. Türkiye is the gateway to Europe from the east, from the south-east. There are four million refugees in Türkiye. President Erdoğan isn’t letting them out of Türkiye. President Erdoğan’s opponent was George Soros’s candidate. So this wasn’t a contest between the Turkish ruling party and the opposition: George Soros was in the red corner and Erdoğan was in the blue corner – or vice versa. It looked just like the situation in Hungary. Here, we not only needed to defeat the domestic left, but George Soros and his entire international empire and army. The same thing happened over there. Now, if George Soros’s man had beaten President Erdoğan, then in no time at all one, two or three million of these four million people would have taken to the road; and by the summer they would have been here at the Hungarian border. They would have been let loose on us, and we would have been in a sorry state. So Türkiye is a key country for us. We also have another crucial interest there. Nowadays Russian gas comes here from the south, through Türkiye. Now, if there were a pro-American or George Soros-backed president there, it’s highly doubtful that Russian energy – which is essential for Hungary and Serbia – would reach the interior of Europe via Türkiye. And then our economy would have been brought to its knees. So we needed President Erdoğan’s victory like a starving man needs food. Moreover, he’s pro-peace. Had he not won, we’d have had a pro-war Turkish president, and the consequences would be unforeseeable. The President, the Turkish president, has the chance to mediate between the Ukrainians and the Russians, as he did on the issue of grain, on the issue of the grain crisis. I can say that Hungary must always look in three directions: Berlin, Moscow and Istanbul – or Ankara; so Germany, Russia and Türkiye. Our lives are situated within this triangle, and it’s within this triangle that the lives of Hungarians must be well managed. I’m not saying that the stars are equally favourably aligned in all three relationships, but all three – all three systems of relations – are stable, balanced and developing well for Hungary. Interestingly, by the way, the most critical relationship at the moment is the German one. So let’s thank God that He helped us in the Turkish election.
In the past half hour the subjects I’ve been asking Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about have included the budget for defence of the economy, the war, and the attacks on Hungary from Brussels.