Gergely Gulyas – Photo: MTI

Gulyas: Government committed to protecting utility bill cuts

Hungary's government opposes a tax Brussels wants to impose on home and car owners on the grounds of fighting climate change and is committed to protecting the achievements of its scheme to reduce household utility bills, the prime minister's chief of staff said on Thursday.

Energy prices are soaring all across Europe, resulting in a “utility crisis,” Gergely Gulyas told a regular press briefing, adding that this will be the central topic at a summit of European Union leaders starting in Brussels on Thursday.

Gulyas said rising global energy prices and the European Commission’s “poorly thought out” energy policy were both to blame for the situation. He said the biggest danger was that the EC would push the price increases onto consumers by taxing home and car owners.

The Visegrad Group countries will veto and reject such a proposal, Gulyas said. Hungary’s government is firmly committed to protecting the achievements of its public utility cost reduction scheme, he added.

Gulyas said recent measures imposed by the EC had contributed to the crisis, arguing that on the grounds of climate protection Brussels had forced the move away from traditional energy production while liberalising gas and electricity markets without a transition period. Also, when the first signs of the crisis began to appear last year and this spring, European gas storage facilities had a record low amount of gas, he said. “As demand was rising, supply was falling and Europe’s long-term gas supply deals were set to expire,” he said. “And for six months, Brussels did nothing; it held no talks with Europe’s energy suppliers.”

He said Brussels’s latest proposal would be extended to transport, cars, public buildings and family homes. This, Gulyas said, meant that instead of applying the “polluter-should-pay” principle and making multinational companies bear the costs of environmental protection, Brussels would impose a tax on people’s homes and cars.

The price of natural gas has increased by 400 percent on the European markets over the past year and the price of electricity by 80-100 percent, he said, adding that utility costs were up everywhere but Hungary.

Hungary has the lowest gas and electricity prices, Gulyas said, adding that households in Vienna and Berlin today were paying two to three times more for electricity and gas than in Budapest.

If the government made Hungarians pay the market price for gas and electricity, as proposed by the left, an average Hungarian family would be paying over 386,000 forints (EUR 1,065) more in utility costs annually, he said, noting that Hungarians were paying 40 percent of the international price for electricity and 30 percent of the market price for gas.

Gulyas said Hungary’s Socialist-liberal governments between 2002 and 2010 had given multinational energy companies permission to raise prices 15 times. This led to a 206 percent increase in gas prices and a 97 percent increase in electricity prices, he said, noting that in contrast, utility costs had decreased over the past eight years.

Gulyas also criticised Brussels’s proposed ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2035. “Budapest’s left-wing leadership is already talking about banning diesel cars and introducing a congestion charge while multinational companies pollute the environment without any consequences,” he said.

On another subject, Gulyas said Hungary will ask Brussels to amend European Union regulations in order to enable bringing back transit zones for migrants. He said Hungary would submit proposals at the two-day EU summit in Brussels. Restoring transit zones is the most effective method of defending against migration, Gulyas said, adding that migration pressure had increased considerably.

According to the Hungarian proposal, all requests for refugee status should be assessed outside the EU because it is very difficult to deport anyone who has already entered the bloc, he said.

So far this year a total of 91,500 migrants have attempted to cross into Hungary illegally as against 28,000 in the first nine-and-a-half months in 2020, he said. Gulyas noted that the Czech Republic has sent a 50-strong police continent to Hungary to help the local forces patrol the borders.

He said Brussels should be helping, rather than punishing member states that protect their borders. The EU “has yet to contribute a single cent” to financing the costs of Hungary’s border fence, “even though it also protects the EU’s borders”, he added. Gulyas said the EU had so far contributed 7 billion forints to the 588 billion Hungary has spent so far on border protection.

“This is unacceptable,” he said. “Instead of receiving political support, Hungary was faced with political attacks from Brussels.”

Commenting on a recent Polish Constitutional Court decision which has elicited strong criticsm in Europe, Gulyas said Polish prime minister now knew what it was like to address “an extremist organisation like the European Parliament”. Hungary, he added, maintained the position that respecting constitutional court decisions was a fundamental part of observing the rule of law.

He said the European Commission president seemed unaware that the primacy of EU law was not stipulated in the EU treaties. The European Court of Justice, he added, has stated the primacy of EU law, and this is recognised as a general rule by member states, including Hungary.

At the same time, Gulyas cited constitutional court rulings in France, Spain, the Czech Republic and Germany, saying the Polish top court’s reasoning was similar to those of almost all member states’ courts. Accordingly, the substantive provisions of constitutions must not be violated, and the primacy of EU law only applied in the case of conferred powers, Guylas added.

Hungary objects to “anti-Polish sentiment” in EU debates and sees it “as clear proof of double standards”, he said.

Meanwhile, commenting on opposition prime ministerial candidate Peter Marki-Zay’s recent interview to CNN in which he accused the government of hate speech, Gulyas referred to one-time radical nationalist Jobbik’s presence in the opposition alliance, adding that the left wing seemed sanguine about forming an alliance with “anti-Semites”. “Progressive anti-Semitism”, he insisted, was now prevalent. “Progressive anti-Semites are those who hate [Prime Minister Viktor] Orban more than the Jews,” he added.

Commenting on Marki-Zaj’s criticism of the government’s scheme to keep public utility fees low, he said allowing energy prices to be guided by the market would cost households in Hungary an extra 30,000 forints extra each month.

Commenting on the recent opposition primary, Gulyas said Gyurcsany’s party remained the strongest force on the left, adding that it had chosen someone “who does not directly carry the Gyurcsany name”.

In line with parliamentary rules on setting up parliamentary groups, parties running on a list can set up a group if they have at least five seats, he said. The rules on setting up groups reflected generosity towards the opposition, he insisted.

Commenting on the prospect of a debate held between Orban and Marki-Zay, he said the campaign was still far off so it was too early to discuss the possibility.

Commenting on petrol prices, he noted a government tax-cut mecahnism for when the price of crude oil exceeded a certain level, saying it was partly thanks to this decision that fuel prices in Hungary were still among the lowest in the EU.

Commenting on a possible veto of related EU plans, he said conclusions must be approved with full unanimity and that V4 countries and several southern countries may come together to veto them.

Commenting on locations selected for the upcoming national holiday celebrations on Oct 23, Gulyas warned members of the public not to fall prey to provocations, adding that since “a left-wing government is not in power … innocent people won’t be getting shot in the eye or beaten up”.

Meanwhile, commenting on the Covid situation in Romania, he said it was inadvisable for people to come to Hungary for crowded events. The government, he noted, has not made mask-wearing obligatory for the time being. There are no restrictions to the right of assembly during the October 23 national holiday, he added.

In response to a question, Gulyas said no cancer patients had their surgeries delayed because of the pandemic, noting that only screenings had to be suspended to reduce the risks of infection.

On another subject, he said Hungary’s gas supplies were secure and gas prices would remain stable.

Asked about the government’s move to reacquire Liszt Ferenc International Airport, Gulyas said the purchase could be concluded by the beginning of next year. The developments that will follow the state’s takeover of the airport, such as the construction of a connecting high-speed railway, can only be financed from government resources, he added.

Meanwhile, Gulyas called it “surreal” that the European Parliament was preparing to sue the European Commission for its failure to implement the EU’s rule-of-law mechanism. “The EP has no grounds for a suit,” he insisted. Gulyas said that under an agreement, the EC cannot take legal action until the EU court issues a decision in the ongoing case concerning Poland.

Asked about a proposal submitted by the government on the chief public prosecutor’s appointment and removal from office, Gulyas said the bill aimed to clarify that the chief prosecutor is elected with a two-thirds majority and can only be removed with the same majority.

As regards the migration pressure on Hungary’s southern border, he said that though the border fence provided the greatest protection, installing more border officers was also crucial when more than 300-400 migrants were attempting to enter the country illegally each day.

Asked about the Budapest municipal council offering property rights of the Biodome under construction in City Park to the Hungarian state in return for the government completing the project, Gulyas said the government “expects the capital to finish its own project”. Though the government has already allocated funding for the Biodome twice, “it’s not a joint project”, he added.

Meanwhile, he said the government had yet to decide on a request by Serbia to join the upgrade of the Paks nuclear power plant.

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