Zsolt Törőcsik: This year has enjoyed a strong diplomatic start, with first the Slovakian prime minister and then the Vietnamese prime minister visiting Budapest this week, and with Hungary being a key topic in several sessions in the European Parliament. I’ll be asking Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about these in the next half hour. Good morning.
Good morning. Greetings to your listeners.
This is our first interview this year, but we’ve already seen prime ministerial visits from Slovakia and Vietnam. We’ve had a visit from a European Union head of government and an Asian head of government. Does this foreshadow the kind of year we can expect in diplomatic terms?
We can expect a busy year. The Moldovan prime minister will be in Hungary next week; and Hungary has started to prepare for the long march to the Presidency of the European Council, which will last from 1 July until the end of the year, and which will require very intensive diplomatic work. So from a diplomatic point of view it’s going to be a difficult and very busy year. The visit of the Slovakian prime minister was a major event, an outstanding event, because he came to Hungary as a newly elected prime minister. He’s newly elected in the sense that he’s just been elected for the fourth time. I tried to count our bilateral meetings, and I found that there were thirty-three. And, you know, in our profession, in international relations and the relations between two countries, continuity and stability are very important. So in a neighbouring country I’m always happy to see the return of an old warrior who we’ve worked with before, because it’s always easier to work with him than to have a new partner. A new leader isn’t bad either, because something great can come out of it – for example, I think the new Romanian prime minister offers great potential to improve bilateral relations. But the return of old warriors always makes it easier, and gives a boost to bilateral relations. I remember times when we had many disputes with Prime Minister Robert Fico. We resolved these almost without exception, eliminated them, sorted them out somehow; and in Slovak-Hungarian relations today essentially only positive elements remain. It’s been a long time since this was the case earlier, and it’s taken a great deal of work from both countries and their prime ministers to arrive at the current situation. And in recent years, in the span of ten years or so, as part of a major cooperation package concluded under Robert Fico’s previous premiership, we’ve reached the point at which the number of border crossings along our shared border – which is our longest border, at around six hundred kilometres – has increased from ten or so to forty. In those border areas people’s lives were such that if they wanted to cross from one side to the other they had to make a round trip of forty kilometres. Now all that’s been eliminated. So there’s a Slovak-Hungarian consensus that life on the border is a special situation, that it can have advantages and disadvantages, and that it can be both good and bad. If a border separates, it’s bad; if it unites, it’s good. And now we’ve set up a working group. Soon, in a few months, we’ll receive a major proposal for a new package on how to improve the quality of life for people living there – for Hungarians and Slovaks. New bridges, new crossings, new ferries, rail improvements, and so on. So it’s been a very good start to the year. We could hardly have had a more encouraging guest than the Slovakian prime minister. And then there’s Vietnam, which is a different story, and which has to be dealt with in a different dimension. In Europe there’s an old debate about whether the rise of Asia – including South Korea, including China, and including Vietnam – is a temporary phenomenon in the world economy, or the new order of life. We’ve always thought that it’s the new order of life. So the West needs to understand that it alone will no longer dictate the rules of the game in international life, including economic life, but that now this will take place in what’s called a multipolar world order. And – as it’s the Prime Minister’s job to read international arguments and analyses about the future – whichever analysis about the future I look at, whichever one I read, they all place Vietnam among the top ten fastest growing countries. It’s a country of one hundred million people. They like us, and we have very long-standing relations. This year it will be seventy-five years since we established diplomatic relations, and in fact we’ve worked well together – even in the difficult times of communism. I was at a meeting in Vietnam where there were two members of the Vietnamese government with whom I could speak Hungarian, because they’d been students here in Budapest. We’re continuing this tradition now, and currently 932 Vietnamese students are studying here in Budapest on Hungarian state scholarships. So there’s great economic potential there, and cooperation is going well. Well, as it happens, Asians are skilled in trade, and therefore they have a positive advantage. So they’re gaining more from trade than we are, but we’re also gaining. And now we’re working to complement trade with investment, because there’s a huge amount of capital accumulated in Vietnam, and we’d like to see investment in Hungary. And now Hungarian businesspeople are also quite successful in Vietnam. We’d also like to gain a little more ground there. We’ve agreed on easier terms for the supply of a number of Hungarian products, so we can export goods to Vietnam on easier terms than earlier. We’ve come to an agreement on this. So I feel that this will be an important element in our relations in the new world order. In addition, Hungarians also have national pride, and we’ve frequently fought for our independence. The Vietnamese have not only fought, but have defeated great powers. So they too have a military past and national pride; they’ve defended their homeland against Westerners and Easterners, and have never given up. There are also these deeper commonalities in our history. So we’ve had a very cordial and fruitful meeting. And then the Moldovans are coming. This is a separate story, because there is Ukraine, which is a theatre of war. Perhaps one more thing I should say about Vietnam is that – precisely because of its many past wars – it’s perhaps one of the countries on the international stage that’s most committed to peace. They’re saying exactly the same thing about the Russian-Ukrainian war that we Hungarians are saying.
You mentioned that we’re facing an intense diplomatic year, and it seems as if the debates surrounding Hungary are also becoming more intense – at least in the European Union and the European Parliament. There have, of course, been a number of stories this week involving Hungary. And in one such debate Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said that funds withheld because of concerns about sexual minority rights and asylum would remain frozen until Hungary meets all the necessary conditions in this regard. Why is the EU elite digging its heels in on these issues.
There’s a current reason for this, and there’s a deeper reason. The current reason is that there will be elections. So there are elections to the European Parliament at the beginning of June and there are a number of leaders who want to survive them. And, well, when there are no elections, you can waffle in politics – especially in Brussels. In Hungary, of course, you can’t, so here it’s a more difficult profession. Here you can’t hide; in Hungary politicians are expected to be straight-talking. This isn’t the case in Brussels. There it’s more like a French royal court, where you employ sweet talk, and where they invent a special language to talk about reality. But when elections are in prospect, sooner or later you have to talk to the people. And people don’t understand the spiel used in Brussels to conduct European politics. You have to start expressing yourself in clear, understandable and straightforward language. This is what’s happening in the European Parliament, where every MEP is fighting for re-election. President von der Leyen also has ambitions, so she needs to show her true colours. And this kind of equivocating, sophistic, devious rhetoric is gradually disappearing, and we’re seeing the emergence of straightforward, direct – let’s say democratic – speech. One has to say who wants what. And the President has also been unable to avoid this: she’s had to say what her problem is with the Hungarians, and why she’s not giving the Hungarians the money that they’re owed. And the President has finally said clearly and directly that they won’t give it to us for two reasons: because Hungarians won’t let migrants in; and because Hungarians won’t let their LGBTQ activists in among children in Hungary. And from a European point of view, from how they believe Europe to be, this is wrong. They want us to change these laws, and in this they’ll use every method they can – including financial pressure. But what we can say, very calmly and moderately, is that there’s no amount of money for which we’ll let migrants in. So there’s no amount of money for which we’ll allow them to overrun our country. There’s no amount of money for which we’ll allow the kind of conditions we see in Western European countries: the threat of terrorism, crime, parallel societies – and I could go on. And there’s no amount of money for which we’ll put our children or grandchildren in the hands of LGBTQ activists. That’s impossible! Among Hungarian families that’s unthinkable, because the upbringing of children – especially with regard to sex education – is always the responsibility of families and parents. No one can take this away from them, especially not schools – and certainly not by allowing them to meet people at school whom we don’t want them to meet at home or on the street: all kinds of sexual agitators who should be called LGBTQ propagandists. So they can’t blackmail us financially on these issues, because these issues – our country, who lives here, who lives with us, what will happen to our children and grandchildren – are more important than money. Yet they think that money can be used to blackmail Hungary and persuade it to change these laws. But it won’t work! Incidentally, it’s not wrong for the President of the Commission to bring this up, because the European election will rightly be about these very issues: about migration, about our families – let’s call it gender – and about the war. And the time had come for them to speak openly and frankly. Earlier they used to talk in nebulous terms, talking about the justice system and corruption and the rule of law and all that nonsense. Of course everyone knew that these things weren’t true, and were only cover stories. This became so obvious that the last time the Hungarian judicial system was examined, Brussels itself said, “Thank you very much, the Hungarian judicial system meets all European standards.” We have the most recently examined and rated judicial system in the whole of Europe. And a month or two ago, an evaluation of the public procurement systems in European Union Member States was published, as it’s in public procurement that most corruption allegations arise. And then it turned out that there’s no systemic problem with the Hungarian public procurement system, and that in terms of quality we have a high ranking among the EU countries. So it’s been known for a long time that the reasons they come out with for why they don’t give us the money, their problem with Hungary, is all nonsense, it’s just balderdash. The real problems are migration, gender and the war. But – I repeat – we cannot yield on these issues, because these are more important questions, and as parts of life they’re more valuable than money.
And these issues, by the way, also featured in the national consultation which has just come to an end, on Wednesday. In this more than one and a half million people gave their opinions. How do you assess this? How can this help the Government – even in these disputes with Brussels?
Now, if we were on a different type of show and I had more time, we could have an interesting conversation about what they mean in the West by nation, national community and belonging, and what we mean by these words here in Central Europe – especially we Hungarians. Our sense of national unity stretches back a thousand years. In Western Europe, the nation is regarded as a phenomenon that’s one or two hundred years old, a result of social development. But we have the innate ability for this: because we have no relatives around us, we’re alone, and our language has defined us as an independent community for a thousand years, we have the sense of belonging together, the instinct that we belong to a community, that we can also prosper together, and that individual prosperity must somehow be achieved in a way that benefits the whole community. So these deep national ideas are very strong in Hungary. And the consultation proves that this modern age is all very well, mass communication and electronic gadgets are all very well, but – no matter what the engineers come up with – the song which moves every Hungarian’s heart is still “My Homeland, My Homeland” [from the opera “Bánk bán”]. So the national consultation is about the fact that this still exists. So the fact is that more than one and a half million people were willing to open the questionnaire, sit at the kitchen table, examine it, understand what it means, fill it in and send it back. This is because they think it’s important for the country, and that it’s linked – as the questionnaire says – to sovereignty, national independence and freedom. This not only found a positive echo in the hearts of millions of Hungarians, but also prompted one and a half million people to take some kind of action, to fill in and return this questionnaire. I think that this is something big. So the fact that Hungary still has this national feeling, this feeling of belonging together even after a thousand years, is a huge advantage for this community. Because it’s always easier to get ahead in the world together than to individually look for shortcuts to try to get ahead and try to assert our interests separately. Of course individual effort mustn’t be discarded, because belonging to a nation isn’t a substitute for high-quality work and performance. So even though you’re Hungarian, you still have to contribute something. But it’s important that what we contribute individually should eventually add up to a shared future. And in our case it does add up. And in political terms this is a very strongly distinctive feature of Hungarians. In the West, of course, it’s called nationalism, and the wilder leftists even call it fascism. But that’s a complete misnomer, because in fact it’s something positive: it’s a positive spiritual energy that from time to time helps Hungarians through their difficulties. And last year was a very difficult year. COVID was also difficult. The war has been particularly difficult, with energy prices soaring, and inflation sky-high. So last year brought us real torments. But we’ve overcome this, we’ve resolved it, we’re looking forward to an easier year, to a better year, and we’ve solved this together. So I think that the fact that the Hungarians haven’t found individual escape routes, but that the whole country has overcome this, confirms the ability of the Hungarians to perform increasingly well in the global economic competition. So this raises the quality of life in the country and makes us a successful nation – which is something we need very much, because the twentieth century wasn’t exactly a century of Hungarian success. So I think that the whole national consultation is important not only for the specific issues, but also for being a communal act. After all, at the heart of our profession, what we call the “exercise of power” is the ability to act collectively. When we can persuade a community, or it persuades itself, or initiates collective action, then the nation, the national community, will be strong. And the consultation proves that we remain a strong country, a strong nation.
The question is whether this voice, the voice of these one and a half million people, will be heard by those who are engaged in disputes with Hungary, or by the groups behind these disputes.
Well, in such cases, it depends on what the postman is like. Because someone has to deliver this message. That’s me, so you can trust me that they’ll hear it.
Staying with EU matters, let’s continue with the withholding of funds by the EU that we’ve already mentioned. At the end of last year, however, the Commission released about a third of the money due to Hungary, which will now allow for pay rises for teachers and kindergarten teachers. The plans for this were decided and in place well in advance. Why did we have to wait so long for this to actually happen in practice?
When we talk about EU money, there are two things to remember. The first is that in 2023 Hungarians proved that the Hungarian economy is crisis-proof, even without EU funds, and that it can get through the most difficult periods. When the money was most needed, after the COVID pandemic or now, during the period of soaring energy prices, no EU money came. And now what’s the situation? Both crises have been resolved. We’ve brought inflation down – without EU help – from 25 per cent to somewhere around 6 per cent. Hungary is far from having the highest inflation in Europe. And everyone who knows anything about economics says that this year, in 2024, we have a good future in terms of economic growth, and in terms of economic growth we’ll be at the top of the European league table. So be it – I’ll knock on wood. I also see a chance of that. So the first lesson is that it’s good to have EU money, and money’s always good; but compared to the size of the Hungarian economy it’s not a lot of money. If I were to give you figures, I’d have to say that the Hungarian GDP is many tens of trillions of forints; and, compared to that, the European Union money coming in from there is a smaller amount, a much smaller amount. What’s more, money isn’t only coming to us, but we also have to pay money in. So appearances are deceptive: the reality is, so that everyone understands, that the net figure, let’s say, is much less than the gross figure. This is the first lesson. The second lesson to be learned from EU money is that what it mainly does is speed us up. So, for example, there’s teachers’ pay. We have, or had, a programme of pay rises for educators or teachers – perhaps it’s better if I use the term “teachers”. This was a six-year programme for how, through pay increases, we’re going to help teachers – who are really underpaid in relation to their work – to attain a more middle-class standard of living. This was a six-year programme. EU money will now allow us to implement this six-year programme over a period of three years. So it could have been done without EU money, but it would have just taken longer. Therefore EU money isn’t irrelevant, of course: we’re owed the money, and it must be given to us. So now I’m glad that last year we also passed the law on the status of teachers. If you read through it, you’ll see that we’ve tried to give our teachers every opportunity to educate our children well. This is hard work, and this law gives, I think, fifty days’ holiday. Now we’re implementing a very significant pay rise, and we hope that the performance of the teachers working with our children will also improve, that they’ll come into the classroom from a calmer, more ordered world, and that this will also be good for our children. We’re not raising salaries primarily to make it good for them; of course we’re happy about that, but the most important reason we’re raising teachers’ salaries is to see the positive effect of it in relation to our children. Meanwhile, incidentally, the whole country has always shown respect to its teachers. Hungary has a tradition of respect for teachers: we call them the nation’s day labourers, which shows that the value of the work they do is far greater than the wages they receive. But now, at the end of the three-year wage increase programme, there will be salaries of 700 – 800,000 forints per month. This, especially with this greater opportunity to have time off, could offer a quite attractive career. And here I hope that we can alter the balance between men and women, because one of the problems in this profession is that the balance between men and women has been upset. Because children have to be raised with a father, a mother, a man and a woman: both are needed. So I hope that an increasing number of men will find the teaching profession attractive and feel that they can support their families through this job and can afford to become teachers. We’d like to see the 50 per cent ratio restored within a few years.
You’ve mentioned that last year was a difficult year, but that the outlook for this year is better. In addition to teachers and nursery teachers, there will also be significant pay rises for many other professions. The minimum wage and the guaranteed wage minimum have risen, pensions have been raised, and this obviously has a positive impact on consumption. But isn’t there also a danger that this could push up inflation, which was brought down to 5.5 per cent by the end of last year?
Of course one needs to be sensible, but as we say, you shouldn’t be afraid of your own shadow. So pay rises are a good thing: if there’s money, it’s good news, it’s not something to be afraid of. There’s one profession in which we’re now completing a longer pay rise programme, which is also a key profession, just like teachers. And this is the nursing profession. So for nurses working in hospitals and clinics, we’ve also announced a three-year pay rise programme, which I think we’ll conclude in March this year. There too, the salaries have been settled – I think to a tolerable level. And something I’m always a little nervous about – or at least I have to pay more attention to – is the thirteenth month’s pension, which we’ve been reintroducing over the last few years. The performance of the Hungarian economy has been just enough to support this decision, and so every year there’s a serious discussion with the Finance Minister about whether he can pay the thirteenth month’s pension in one lump sum, as pensioners expect. And this year we’ve already had that discussion, and I can say with certainty that this year pensioners will again receive their thirteenth month’s pension as usual. The Hungarian economy will be able to do this again this year, and the Government will send this money out as usual. Now, will inflation return? No one knows exactly what kind of inflationary world we’re facing in the international economy. I consult with the IMF from time to time, and leaders from the European Central Bank come to the prime ministers’ summits, so we get information first-hand from the international banking world. I spoke to the Governor of the Hungarian National Bank yesterday, so the Government also has access to the accumulated knowledge of the Central Bank. As I see it, the risk of inflation rising again in Hungary is minimal. Therefore the question I prefer to put is whether we can increase the performance of the economy at the pace we’ve envisaged, and whether the Central Bank will be able to reduce interest rates at the pace it’s envisaged. So what I put first isn’t the threat of inflation, but growth. And our common goal – for the Central Bank and the Government, for monetary policy and fiscal policy – must be to stay calm and restrained, not to miss a beat, to keep a steady pace, and gradually help businesses to invest, to develop, to create jobs and to advance technologically, so that economic growth returns to a high level. This will also require lower lending rates, which – allowing for protection of the forint – I think the Central Bank can guarantee for this year.
Obviously this is the task for the Central Bank, but what can the Government do to boost economic growth?
First of all, it’s not interfering in the work of the Central Bank, which is a great help – and this is probably how the Governor of the Central Bank would answer that question. On the other hand, we’ve taken decisions that, even in a high interest rate environment, encourage businesses and holders of capital to invest, through loans that are essentially subsidised. This is why we have interest rate freezes and special loan schemes – so quite a few measures. There’s a special package from the Minister for National Economy, Márton Nagy, to support economic growth from the government side. I don’t usually talk about personal responsibilities, because locker room secrets should remain in the locker room, and the internal affairs of the Government should also remain within the Government. The Government shouldn’t tell the public about its internal affairs, but should win the recognition of the people with its performance. And the Government should be recognised for its work, not for its rhetoric. But here I can say that the Minister for Economic Affairs is responsible for economic growth. That’s the issue he has to solve.
We’ll continue from here in the next broadcast. In the last half hour I’ve been asking Prime Minister Viktor Orbán questions on subjects including European Union affairs, the pay rise for teachers and kindergarten teachers, and the state of the Hungarian economy.