Gergely Gulyas – Photo: MTI

Gulyas: European unity only achievable along national interests

European identity only exists through national identities and therefore European unity can only be achieved along national interests, Gergely Gulyas, the head of the Prime Minister's Office, said in an interview with commercial news site on Saturday.

Hungary’s government represents the rule of law and the preservation of national diversity in Brussels and believes in the need to accept differences of opinion, Gulyas said. Western European governments disagree with Hungary on “countless” ideological, political and cultural issues, “but Hungary isn’t alone on these issues even if it goes against the European mainstream,” Gulyas added, stressing the importance of compromise.

Hungary always strives to reach an agreement and puts forward proposals before exercising its veto power, Gulyas said, noting that the country had backed the 18 billion euro aid package for Ukraine and the global minimum tax after being guaranteed that it would not have to raise taxes or approve taking out another joint European Union loan.

The EU will also lose out if it withholds funds from its own member states in the absence of agreements, he said. Gulyas said the European Commission had been pressured by the European Parliament to withhold funds from Hungary, adding that MEPs had painted a false picture of the country.

Hungary has already received from the EU an advance payment 130 billion forints (EUR 324.8m), he said, noting that this accounted for 1.5 percent of the funds the country was entitled to.

Hungary has agreed with the EC on the details of the amendments to the law on the judiciary, which will be passed by parliament in March, Gulyas said. This, he added, was the only “super milestone” Hungary needed to fulfil in order to receive the remainder of the recovery and cohesion funds.

Gulyas said he agreed with President Katalin Novak that the financial recognition of teachers could not be dependent on the receipt of EU funds or the state of the Hungarian economy.

“We will act accordingly, because right now teachers’ wages can only be raised using the resources of the budget,” Gulyas said. “We agree with teachers that they are making too little, and it is only the pace of the wage increases that is dependent on EU funds.” Gulyas said Hungary needed the monies it was entitled to from the EU in order to implement bigger and immediate pay hikes.

Meanwhile, he said the government next year would have to spend more than 2,600 billion forints on preserving the caps on household utility bills and paying public-sector energy bills. This will leave a monthly 181,000 forints with families, he added.

Teachers’ wages will be nearly doubled by Jan. 1, 2025, but this requires that Hungary receive the EU funds it is entitled to, Gulyas said.

The government has the political will to raise teachers’ wages, “but the left does not”, Gulyas said. He said that if Hungary’s left-wing MEPs “quit lobbying” against the monies Hungary is entitled to “it will be better for everyone.”

On another subject, Gulyas said he saw no need to amend Hungary’s child protection law. “The red line is the aim of the law, which is that children’s sex education is the responsibility of parents and not NGOs, aging Hungarian-American billionaires, or women with man-like characteristics,” he said. “We’d be happy to draft even better regulations, but the aim is unquestionable.”

Gulyas said Hungary and the EC had already engaged in “meaningful dialogue” on certain issues, adding that it was possible that they could do so on the child protection law as well.

Put to him that the bloc was withholding 1.95 billion euros from Hungary over the “violation of academic freedom”, Gulyas said the government believed that reducing the influence of the state did not weaken, but rather strengthened academic freedom. Moreover, he added, parliament had already approved the related amendment requested by the EC.

Asked if Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would vote in favour of extending the sanctions imposed on Russia at the EU summit scheduled for February, Gulyas said that if Hungary got the exemptions it had been granted so far, then its interests lay in upholding European unity. Concerning energy prices, he said that if the price of gas or electricity fell significantly on the European energy exchange, then market prices — meaning the price exceeding the utility bill cap — could be reduced instead of having to modify the threshold for average consumption.

As regards next year’s state budget, Gulyas noted that the government had been forced to raise the target deficit to 3.9 percent of GDP in the interest of keeping the energy price caps in place.

Gulyas said local councils were set to receive 80 billion forints in the first round of a government utility support scheme. Budapest district councils that have engaged in talks with the government irrespective of party affiliation will receive state support to finance their increased energy costs, he added.

Concerning inflation, Gulyas said rising demand generated by the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic had driven prices up, which was then aggravated by the effects of the war and the related sanctions, including “brutal energy prices” and the weakening of the forint’s exchange rate.

Ensuring price stability and achieving the inflation target of less than 3 percent is the responsibility of, “but does not depend solely on” the central bank, Gulyas said. “The aim is to bring inflation down into the single digits by the end of next year, and I think this is a realistic goal,” he added.

He said this was the aim of the price caps introduced by the government. This, along with the strengthening of the forint in the past month have helped curb inflation, he said. But because of increased freight costs, high import volumes and increased consumption, it is important to keep the prices of certain basic products capped at last year’s levels, he added.

Meanwhile, Gulyas said no meetings between the Hungarian prime minister and either the Ukrainian or Russian president were on the agenda.

Concerning President Katalin Novak, Gulyas said the past months had vindicated parliament’s decision to elect her Hungary’s head of state, praising Novak’s contributions to both domestic and foreign policy.

On another topic, Gulyas said he was in agreement with the prime minister and Interior Minister Sandor Pinter that teachers who neglect their duty citing civil disobedience despite receiving multiple warnings should be terminated. “No employer is going to tolerate having their employee no show three times in a row,” he argued.

Gulyas said the biggest challenges of 2023 would be preserving Hungary’s peace and security as well as protecting the family support system, the utility price caps, jobs and the country’s near-full employment.

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