Photo: Flickr

Commissioner: Western Balkans to be ‘energy gateway’ to Europe

The Western Balkans could become Europe's "new energy gateway", a region through which the EU could have supplies "via new routes, from different sources and in a much more reliable way", Oliver Varhelyi, EU commissioner for neighbourhood policy and enlargement, told the Hungarian parliament's European affairs committee on Monday.
5. December 2022 18:32

Referring to an upcoming Western Balkans-EU summit in Tirana, Varhelyi said the selection of the venue “clearly indicates that enlargement has become one of three top priorities for the EU”. “Stability, security, and prosperity in Europe cannot be ensured without enlargement,” the commissioner said, adding that Europe could neither compete globally nor protect its regional geopolitical interests without fully integrating the Western Balkans.

Varhelyi said the enlargement process could be accelerated if “the great challenges facing the Western Balkans and Europe simultaneously are addressed in cooperation, whether it is the energy crisis or migration”.

Concerning energy, he noted a new European proposal to spend 2.5 billion euros on building a completely new energy network in the region.

On the subject of migration, Varhelyi said the number of illegal migrants had increased in the Western Balkans, reaching 2016 levels. “It is clear that the Balkans cannot cope with the situation alone and the trend could destabilise the region without European assistance,” he said adding that the EU is providing the region with 350 million euros to fight illegal migration, and an additional 70 million euros to finance efforts to combat human smuggling and organised crime as well as a contribution towards border controls.

Long-term peace and stability in Europe is not possible without enlargement, Varhelyi said, adding that the Ukraine war had added uncertainty to the situation.

Among tasks linked to integrating the Western Balkans the commissioner mentioned developing trade routes, road and rail developments, as well as building an IT infrastructure. He noted that the region was “Europe’s most air-polluting” and said that replacing coal plants with gas-operated generators could reduce pollution by 65 percent. More and “reliable” energy sources, new gas sources and gas transportation routes are needed to reduce and eventually eliminate “the influence of Russian gas”, he said.

The commissioner also called for investments in education to prevent young people from leaving the Western Balkans, as well as efforts to integrate the Roma minority, including schools for their children and jobs for their parents.

Varhelyi also addressed the subject of the candidacy of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, noting that the European Commission issues reports on the candidate countries each year. He said it was clear that the candidate members “have a long way to go” before meeting accession criteria.

Finance Minister Mihaly Varga – Photo: MTI

Finance Minister in reply to Matolcsy: Economic woes not only affecting Hungary

The governor of Hungary's central bank is correct in identifying a problem with the economy, Mihaly Varga, the finance minister, said on Monday, reacting to a briefing that Gyorgy Matolcsy gave to a parliamentary committee. But the problem of high energy prices is not singular to Hungary, he added.

High energy prices are tipping all European economies towards recession, Varga said on Facebook.

At the hearing of parliament’s economic committee on Monday, the governor blamed the government’s economic policy for the country’s vulnerable situation.

Lawmakers on Monday related some of the contents of Matolcsy’s briefing.

Opposition Democratic Coalition MP Laszlo Varju cited Matolcsy as saying that after 2021 Hungary would be among the five most vulnerable countries in the world. Further, inflation would be between 14 and 18 percent in 2023, he said, adding that there was no longer coherence between the government’s economic policy and the central bank.

In his response, Varga said all countries had been forced into crisis management, not only Hungary. Yet the country’s economic growth rate is robust at 4.1 percent in the third quarter, the seventh highest rate in the EU, while its employment rate is similarly healthy and the jobless rate is still below 4 percent, the minister said, adding that it would be possible to build on the results of the past years.

The Mária Valéria bridge between Hungary and Slovakia – Photo: Wikipedia

Szijjarto: Hungary, Slovakia benefit a lot from cooperation

Hungary and Slovakia both higly benefit from bilateral cooperation, and their reliable partnership is behind their ability to tackle current problems, Peter Szijjarto, the minister of foreign affairs and trade, said in Bratislava on Monday.

Speaking at joint press conference with Rastislav Kacer, his Slovak counterpart, Szijjarto said that when Europe faces serious challenges predictable, reliable and good neighbourly relations are highly valued.

“Hungary and Slovakia have built a predictable and reliable partnership which helps both countries in tackling the security, economic and energy supply difficulties more successfully,” he said.

Szijjarto called both countries reliable NATO partners, noting that Slovakia has contributed several dozen police units to help protect the Hungarian-Serbian border, which he said was “under siege”. At that section, authorities have so far stopped 255,000 illegal migrants this year, he said.

“Your own Slovak police officers can now see first-hand how incredibly aggressive the migrants and people smugglers are,” said Szijjarto.

In terms of economic cooperation, Szijjarto said Slovakia is Hungary’s second most important trading partner, with a record volume of over 13 billion euros worth of bilateral trade reached last year. This year has seen an increase of 43 percent, he said.

In a bid to further develop infrastructure ties, three additional bridges are slated to be completed over the Ipoly river next year. There will also be a road construction project completed and a ferry service launched in 2023, allowing border crossings at another five spots, Szijjarto said.

The Hungarian foreign minister welcomed the European Commission’s approval of a 135 million euro joint programme on cross-border development projects under the EU’s current seven-year financial framework.

Speaking about energy cooperation, Szijjarto called the decision to connect the two countries’ gas pipeline and electricity networks “the right and very good strategic decision”. As cross-border capacity has increased by 150 percent, electricity has become the most important commodity imported from Slovakia by Hungary, he said.

Further, he said that by connecting the two countries’ gas networks, an important corridor had been created along the north-south transit route. Hungary is ready to increase gas supplies to Slovakia via the interconnector from the current annual 1.75 billion cubic metres to 5.2 billion in future, Szijjarto added.

He called close cooperation in nuclear energy mutually beneficial, adding that both countries were working on increasing their capacity in an effort to boost their energy security.

Asked about disputed issues between the two countries, Szijjarto said that those had been addressed at meetings held by the mixed minority affairs committee this year. “We have reached an agreement on most of those issues, with very few exceptions,” he said, adding that the co-chairs of the committee would soon meet again.

Illustration – Photo: wikipedia

Fidesz MPs propose resolution to denounce ‘political pressure’ against Hungary

Deputies of ruling Fidesz have proposed a parliamentary resolution rejecting "political pressure opposing Hungary's interests", in connection with recent decrees by Germany's Bundestag and the Dutch parliament, relating to the Hungarian government's negotiations with the European Commission on EU funds for Hungary.

The proposed resolution would confirm Hungary’s commitment to the EU’s fundamental values and protection of its finances, noting that the Hungarian government has recently “made and fulfilled” 17 actual commitments.

Signatories to the draft regretted that the parliaments of “some” member states would “leave the regulated framework of EU negotiations conducted between certain players” and “resort to exerting political pressure”. They also noted that the European Commission cannot “take instructions from the institutions of member states or other agencies”. They also said EU law “clearly defines the procedural regulations and indicates the EU agencies through which the compliance of member states with requirements to access EU funds could be evaluated” and added that “Germany or the Netherlands do not have such powers”.

Through adopting the statement, the Hungarian parliament could “reject blackmail by Germany and the Netherlands”, they said.

Just as Hungary’s national assembly “does not interfere with the life of the German and Dutch people, the legislation and other institutions of the two countries are expected to do the same”, the MPs said.

The opposition Democratic Coalition (DK) said it would not support the resolution.

Deputy group leader Gergely Arato told an online press conference that the German and Dutch decrees had said Hungary was not governed by the rule of law, and “the Orban government is not seeking to eliminate graft, but to continue to use EU funds in a corrupt way.”

“Neither the Dutch nor the Germans are responsible for the fact that the government has been stealing EU funds for the past 12 years; as they are not going to be responsible either for that fact that Hungary will most likely lose a significant part of EU funding,” he said.

Illustration - Photo: wikipedia

Air pollution high in NE Hungary

Air quality is dangerous in Sajoszentpeter, Kazincbarcika and Putnok, in north-east Hungary, due to a high concentration of airborne particles, the National Public Health Centre (NNK) said on Monday.

NNK declared air quality to be “unhealthy” in Miskolc too.

Concentrations of particles are also considered to be too high in twelve other localities, including Budapest, Szekesfehervar, Kecskemet, Szeged, Debrecen and Nyiregyhaza, NNK said.

Forecasts show air quality is expected to improve thanks to a front bringing rain on Tuesday.

Illustration - Photo: wikipedia

Union alliance MASZSZ proposes 15 percent pension increase

Trade union alliance MASZSZ asks for a 15 percent pension increase from January and a one-time payment of 50,000 forints for pensioners receiving less than 160,000 forints (EUR 391) per month, the union said on Monday.

MASZSZ leader Robert Zlati said in a statement that the government’s calculation of a 4.5 percent pension hike for 2023 had been “either deliberately wrong or grossly incorrect”. The raise should have come to 6.1 percent, he said.

After consulting pension experts, the alliance demands a 15 percent increase from next January, to keep abreast of inflation, he said.

Low-income pensioners will need a one-time subsidy because “Hungary has seen the fastest food price hikes in the European Union, burdening pensioners at a time when utility costs are also growing drastically,” Zlati said.

Photo: Pickpik

Retail sales edge up by 0.6 percent in October

Retail sales growth in Hungary slowed to an annual 0.6 percent in October, propped up by sales of motor fuel, the Central Statistical Office (KSH) said on Monday.

Adjusted for calendar-year effects, retail sales grew at the same pace. Adjusted food sales fell by 5.6 percent in October and non-food sales edged down by 0.9 percent, while motor fuel sales climbed 19.7 percent.

In absolute terms, retail sales came to 1,520 billion forints (EUR 3.7bn). Food sales accounted for 46 percent of the total, non-food sales for 36 percent and sales at petrol stations for 18 percent.

Retail sales growth has slowed every month since April.

The Polgár sisters - Zsuzsa, Zsófia and Judit - with their father, László Polgár.

Judit Polgar inducted into World Chess Hall of Fame

Hungary's Judit Polgar, the strongest female chess player of all time, was inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis, Missouri, on Saturday.
4. December 2022 22:37

“It is a great honour to be recognised for my decade-long contributions which include my achievements as a chess player, as well as my work promoting chess as an educational tool, and encouraging women’s orientation towards chess,” Polgar said at the ceremony.

Polgar is the only woman to have ever reached the candidates stage of the world championship cycle, to have been ranked in the top ten players in the world, and to have been rated over 2,700, reaching a peak of 2,735 in 2005. During her career she defeated 11 current or former world championships in rapid or classical chess. She was a member of the 2014 silver medal winning Hungarian Olympiad team and won seven other medals in Olympiads.

Inductees of the World Chess Hall of Fame are nominated by the International Chess Federation (FIDE) for their impact on the sport.

Photo: wikipedia

Socialists call for reinstating teachers fired from their job

The opposition Socialists on Sunday called for reinstating teachers fired from their job, and asked the government to establish the conditions of free education and create a budget allocation for teacher wage hikes.

In reaction to the termination of the employment of eight teachers in three secondary schools in Budapest as of Dec. 1 on the ground of dereliction of duty, party co-leader Agnes Kunhalmi told an online press conference that some of the best teachers had been fired from the best secondary schools.

The firing of teachers demonstrated that “the authoritarian regime built by [ruling] Fidesz in the past 13 years reached a new level” and “practically, steps are being taken towards a dictatorship”, she said. Fidesz wants to show that “anybody daring to express dissatisfaction with NER [System of National Cooperation] will fare ill”, she added.

The interior ministry, which is in charge of public education, said on Wednesday that the teachers had taken unlawful strike action and participated in a demonstration. They had been previously informed by their employers, the school district directorate, that they would be relieved of their positions if they unlawfully neglected their teaching duties for any reason, the ministry said in a statement.

Illustration - Photo: MTI

Domotor: Government must guarantee security of energy supply

In addition to fighting against the rise in the price of oil and gas, the government must also guarantee the security of supply, a state secretary of the Prime Minister's Office told public radio on Sunday.

Fortunately, in the case of gas, the long-term gas purchase contracts are a guarantee for Hungary, Csaba Domotor said. Other countries are not only facing price increases, but cannot be sure whether there will be sufficient gas in the heating season, he added.

“This is why we say that the voices demanding change must be amplified. Our amplifier is the National Consultation survey, which is why it is very important that more than a million people have already filled it in,” he said.

Domotor added that the decision on the oil embargo made in the summer was taking effect in the coming days. Hungary achieved an exemption from the embargo and will continue to receive Russian oil through the pipeline so it can escape the supply restrictions but unfortunately not the price increases, he said.

If less Russian oil arrives in Europe, the price will increase, so Hungary, too, might have to pay more for oil and indirectly we will also pay the sanction premium, he pointed out.

Domotor added that in Brussels they were already working on the ninth sanction package, which, according to reports, would affect nuclear energy.

This would cause serious damage to Hungary, partly because the Paks nuclear power plant works with Russian technology, and partly because it would create an obstacle to the Paks expansion, he said. “After all, electricity generated at the Paks power plant gives us a guarantee of cheaper electricity for Hungary, so we do not support nuclear sanctions,” Domotor said.