Gergely Gulyas – Photo: MTI

Gulyas: EU proposal ‘forcing migrants on Hungary’

The EU's proposed mandatory resettlement quotas for migrants would "force migrants on Europe and Hungary" and "invite" migrants to come to Europe, the head of the Prime Minister's Office told a regular press briefing on Thursday.

Central European governments “as yet free from the consequences of migration” should do all they can to thwart “this crazy and senseless legislation”, Gergely Gulyas said. Hungary’s prime minister therefore blocked a joint declaration on the matter at the last European Council meeting, he added.

Besides the mandatory resettlement and transfer of asylum seekers, the legislation would also mean that Hungary would have to assess at least 10,000 asylum requests a year, he added. For that process, asylum seekers would have to be accepted into the country and housed in refugee camps. That idea would be “tantamount to dismantling the fence” on Hungary’s border, Gulyas said.

At Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, the prime minister provided a briefing on key events of last week’s European Union summit, Gulyas said.

He said the decision made in the Council of Ministers on migration is contrary to an earlier agreement reached by the heads of states and government, according to which unanimous decisions would be made on migration. Therefore, Hungary’s government did not agree to the decision that would have confirmed the decision made in the Council of Ministers at the level of the European Council, he said.

Looking at Western European processes, it can be seen that the refugee camps that would have to be set up to process asylum requests could easily become “migrant ghettos” and the camps cannot not be closed according to the regulations, Gulyas said. This has very serious public safety and public health risks, he added.

Poland’s prime minister held the same view as Hungary, Gulyas said, and there were many countries that agreed with Hungary’s position in principle, but since there are a lot of migrants in their territory — in Italy, for example — they come to a different conclusion. They are interested in having those who are already with them taken away from them, Gulyas said.

On the matter of the proposed amendment to the European Union budget, Gulyas said there was no realistic chance of approving it since amending the EU budget requires unanimity.

The European Commission has asked member states to contribute another 98.5 billion euros, or fifteen times the sum of all Hungarian annual personal income tax payments, roughly the sum of the entire Hungarian state budget, Gulyas said. Obviously, significantly less is expected of Hungary, but this is still an enormous amount, large enough that even Austria or Germany do not want to shoulder it in this form, he said.

Several issues still need to be clarified, Gulyas said, such as what the EC has spent the money on, since there should be more money, not less, as Poland and Hungary have yet to receive “a single cent”. Also, the member states that have already received some of the recovery funds complain that the payments are slow, he added.

Based on the EC’s request, 50 billion euros would go to Ukraine, and they also want to finance interest expenditures and spend some of the money on migrants, but not on border protection, Gulyas said. In fact, one and a half billion euros would go towards raising the salaries of the “Brussels bureaucracy”, he added. Hungary cannot agree to this, and since the amendment requires unanimity, such an amendment has no realistic chance of passing, Gulyas said.

Gulyas said the Commission has made a number demands to Hungary concerning the economy both in terms of the Recovery Fund and the European Semester, a system that qualifies the economic governance of European member states. The European Semester’s recommendations to Hungary include scrapping regulated energy prices, that is the abolition of the policy of price caps on household energy, and Hungary must also review its spending on family support, education and health care, he added. He said Hungary will examine those areas but cuts to family benefits and the idea of scrapping the caps on household utility prices are “out of the question”.

Gulyas said it was true that health care expenses had increased, since “the salaries of doctors and nurses were raised in recent years to an extent not seen since the change of regime”. The government wants to take a similar step in education, where the EU could take over 12-13 percent of the cost of the wage increase planned until 2030.

If that happens, there will be a quick, substantial salary increase for teachers, with the average teacher salary reaching 800,000 forints in a year and a half, and one million forints by the end of the government’s current term, or by 2027 at the latest, he said.

Gulyas called on left-wing MEPs — “who in Brussels earn a net six million forints per month in euros” — and their parliamentary groups not to obstruct Hungary’s access to EU funds, and said they should call on the EC to allow Hungary to take the first big step from September, in accordance with the agreement in the operative programme.

Gulyas said some 87-88 percent of the raises teachers have been promised by 2030 would be covered by the state budget, stressing that Hungary did not want to finance the majority of the wage hikes from EU money.

Teachers will receive pay hikes even without EU funds, he said, adding at the same time that for the sake of the scale and speed of the raises it would be key for Hungarian leftist MEPs not to attack the Hungarian government.

“We understand that they’re well-off, but it wouldn’t be bad if teachers could be significantly better off, too,” Gulyas said.

On another subject, he said that under a fresh government decree, 169 billion forints from the utility protection fund will be used to finance state contributions to utility payments.

More than 132 billion of that would be spent as utility support for hospitals, schools and local public administration institutions, he said. A total of 11 billion forints will be diverted for compensation for church-run education institutions, while minority self-government school managers will get close to 1 billion, he added.

Church-run health-care institutions and clinics run by public interest foundations have received 25 billion forints in utility support, he said.

Meanwhile, Gulyas declined to speculate about the Budapest municipal council’s possible bankruptcy and its consequences, saying the government expected the capital not to go bankrupt. The country’s richest municipal council should be able to perform its duties the same way 3,199 poorer ones can, he added.

Asked about the Budapest mayor’s comment that the capital could potentially go bankrupt by August, Gulyas said the city administration should consider appointing a new “bankruptcy caretaker”. Former mayor Istvan Tarlos handed over the capital in “pretty good shape” with revenues rising each year, with the exception of the years of the pandemic, Gulyas said.

The city council had reserves of around 200 billion forints, and its tax revenues exceeded its solidarity contributions, he said.

Asked about the installation of speed cameras in the capital, Gulyas said that though Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony was attempting to accuse the government in connection with speeding in the city, there was no progress being made on installation of speed cameras as initiated by the police.

The Budapest police headquarters initiated the installation of speed cameras last autumn, for which the city council had promised to supply the mounting and power, Gulyas said, adding that the capital had done nothing besides expressing its verbal support.

Concerning the 500 million forints of campaign donations received by Karacsony’s movement during last year’s election campaign, Gulyas said it was clear that the Budapest mayor found himself in a “money laundering scandal” in connection with his own campaign donations. “There is a risk that laws were broken, and the case must be clarified,” he said.

Concerning the riots in France, Gulyas said the Hungarian government hoped the French cabinet could bring the situation under control as soon as possible. Though it’s possible to draw far-reaching conclusions as to how things got to this point, the government will only analyse it to the extent that ensures that a similar situation can be prevented in Hungary, he said. This is one of the reasons why the government fights migration, he added.

Meanwhile, he said Hungary welcomed Poland’s decision to hold a referendum on migration, adding that Brussels constantly wanted to make decisions about migration without consulting with those who are impacted by it.

Asked about claims that Germany needs 1.5 million immigrants a year to overcome its labour shortage, Gulyas said the need for guest workers in Europe was leading to certain terms being conflated when it comes to asylum policy.

Often those who are not fleeing any persecution but coming to Europe in hopes of a better life are also referred to as refugees, as are those who are fleeing persecution but would only be eligible to receive help in the first safe country they reach, he said.

Hungary is the first safe country for refugees fleeing Ukraine, so there is no question that they are indeed eligible for asylum here, Gulyas said.

Every country has a right to accept guest workers, but there are no humanitarian considerations behind that, he added.

Regarding a proposed amendment of the European Union’s budget, Gulyas said “no one can expect” Hungary to approve a “partially disadvantageous” amendment to a budget from which the country has yet to receive the monies “it is entitled to”.

Regarding the EU’s Semester Report on the rule of law, Gulyas agreed with top court head Andras Varga Zs who said earlier in the week that the report’s findings on the Kuria “lack all factual basis”.

“Certain members of the National Judicial Council have been happy to talk to foreign governments and denunciate their own government in Brussels to obtain legislation tailored especially to their needs” so they could be re-elected, Gulyas insisted.

Positive and negative statements on Hungary are relatively balanced in the report, he said, “while the report itself is clearly biased against Hungary”.

On the resignation of Justice Minister Judit Varga, Gulyas said that since her appointment, the minister had always anticipated to “leave for the European Parliament” in 2024 at the latest.

In the future, EU affairs will be divided between Janos Boka and regional development minister Tibor Navracsics, he added.

In this financial cycle, Hungary has so far drawn down 88 percent of available EU funding, and that indicator is expected to hit 100 percent by the end of 2024, he said.

EU affairs minister Janos Boka was not given a deadline to “bring home” the funding Hungary currently has no access to “as the government does not think Hungary is at fault in the situation”, Gulyas said. “In theory”, the EC should make cohesion funding accessible to Hungary, he added.

Hungary will send an invoice to the EU in July which should be paid within 90 days, he said. Payment is a political rather than a legal matter, he added.

Meanwhile, the government will maintain funding for family support, he said. “Whenever it was necessary, the government always started saving money on itself,” he added.

Gulyas admitted that the fall in retail sales had been greater than expected. He noted, at the same time, that the baseline year saw record consumption levels. Curbing inflation will hopefully revive retail sales, he added.

Regarding losses of the central bank, Gulyas said regulations could be changed so its future gains could balance current losses. That would be “fairer and better for the economy” than the current practice of balancing losses from the budget, he said. “This way, the state will interfere only if the balance is not achieved” over a longer period, he said.

Responding to a question on potential spending cuts, Gulyas said the only economic indicator that was down in the latest figures was that of retail sales.

Asked if the government expected ratings agency Standard and Poor’s to downgrade Hungary’s rating on Friday, Gulyas said the country’s economic foundations were stable. Its important indicators are “going in the right direction” and growth is expected to restart in the second half of the year, he said. The deficit is expected to fall, albeit at a slower rate than anticipated, he added.

Hungary’s economy is robust even though the country has yet to receive funding from the new EU budget, he added.

Inflation, which was very high in the first half of the year, is expected to be curbed in the second half, he said. While the economy has been in slight recession in the first six months of the year, it is expected to grow in the second half, he said.

Gulyas said a remark by the head of Hungarian Hotels and Restaurants Association that the number of guests at Lake Balaton this season could be down 30-40 percent was “incorrect” and “fake news”. Business in the first six months of the year is expected to be down 2 percent, he said. There are more than 43,000 rooms available at Lake Balaton, of which the association can only monitor 7,500, he added.

He noted that the head of the association had in the past also projected the number of foreign tourists coming to Hungary to stagnate, 25 percent of hotels to go bankrupt and a 25 percent layoff in the sector. By contrast, the number of foreign tourists is up 16 percent in the first half of the year, there is no sign of hotels failing and there is a labour shortage in the sector, he said.

Teachers’ wage hikes will cost the budget 6,800 billion-7,000 billion forints until 2030, of which the EU will cover some 800 billion, he said.

Asked if the government was expecting mass resignations by teachers, Gulyas said it was best to wait and see what happens. Certain teachers have been in the profession because they consider their calling important, and most are committed to staying in the profession, he added.

Gulyas also said talks on the state’s acquisition of a stake in Budapest Airport were ongoing.

Asked about the state operation of medical imaging equipment, Gulyas said the equipment was in state-run hospitals and is purchased or expropriated by the state. The capacities will then not have to be divided between public and private care, leading to a shortening of waiting lists, he added.

Meanwhile, Gulyas said there was a good chance that the two new blocks of Hungary’s sole nuclear power plant in Paks could be completed by 2030.

Asked if Russian President Vladimir Putin could be called a war criminal, Gulyas said that if one wanted peace, it was not the best idea to label one side a war criminal before the end of the war.

On another subject, he said the government did not plan to make any changes to the rule that associations and foundations will also be allowed to run candidates in next year’s local elections, adding that rules on funding will be unified in the interest of equality.

Asked about the state’s purchase of a building in the government district of Brussels, Gulyas said the building had been purchased at a favourable price and would serve Hungary’s presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of next year, before being turned into a cultural house.

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