Alexandra Szentkiralyi (l) and Gergely Gulyas - Photo: MTI

Gulyas: Hungary must stay out of war

In spite of growing international pressure on Hungary with regard to its stand on the war in Ukraine, the government's position is unchanged: Hungary must stay out of the war, the head of the Prime Minister's Office said at a regular press briefing on Saturday.

As the tenth package of sanctions against Russia comes up for approval by the Council of the European Union and the war enters its second year, the situation must be assessed, Gulyas said. Europe is “drifting in the direction of war” and international pressure is growing on Hungary to change its position on issues on which it took decisions based on clear principles in the past year, he added.

Hungary’s interest remains unchanged: the country must stay out of the war, he said. That stand was decided by Hungarians in last year’s election, while opposition to sanctions was confirmed in a National Consultation survey, he said.

Hungary continues to refuse to deliver weapons, and it calls for a ceasefire and peace talks as soon as possible, while helping refugees, Gulyas said.

Gulyas said the government’s position remains that the responsibility for the war lies with Russia which violated international law and committed the aggression. Hungary is helping Ukraine financially, by humanitarian means and makes every effort to ensure that the ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine are affected as little as possible by the tragic situation, he added. The government is convinced that there will be only losers in the war, nobody can win, and the longer the war lasts, the more human lives will be lost, while inconceivable damage is caused to the built and natural environment, Gulyas said. If Europe becomes involved in the war and NATO members participate in the conflict, it will bring the risk of World War III, so every effort must be made to prevent the escalation of the war, he added.

He said several “sober voices” had been heard in recent weeks: the Hungarian president met her US counterpart, along with eight other heads of state, and the Chinese proposed a peace plan.

He also said that the latest employment data show 46,000 more people are working in Hungary today than a year ago, evidence of the strength of the economy even amid the high energy prices.

The effects of the sanctions on energy prices have been dramatic, Gulyas said, adding that this impacted food and services prices the most. Families and pensioners continue to be protected by utility price caps which the government will maintain, up to average consumption, throughout this year, he added.

Companies are getting help with a plant rescue scheme and investment promotion support, he said.

The fiscal balance must be maintained and the government is committed to keeping the 3.9 percent deficit target, he said. Hungary is among the few countries in the European Union that succeeded in reducing the deficit in the elections years of 2014, 2018 and 2022, he added.

Energy companies, banks, multinational retailers and pharmaceutical companies have benefited from higher energy prices and must make a bigger contribution to the budget, so they must pay a windfall profit tax this year, too, Gulyas said. The government is ready to negotiate with those companies on how they will pay the tax, but it must be paid, he added.

On another subject, he said a recent case put the issue of child protection in focus. When a teaching assistant abuses his position and students’ trust, it is “unacceptable and intolerable”, he added. When he boasts about this on social media, it is “pathological and nauseating”, he added. “Someone acting this way with a 14-15 year-old is clearly a paedophile and must be treated as one”, he said.

He said rules on child protection must be reviewed. The interior minister has instructed authorities to conduct expedited, comprehensive and thorough probes in all such instances, he added.

The review of legal and criminal regulations, as well as the tightening of rules on child protection is the task of the government and the ruling parties’ parliamentary groups, he said.

The number of child pornography cases has increased in recent years, except for a slight drop in 2022, he said.

The matter of protecting children is among the “most important issues”, he said, adding that a referendum on the matter that coincided with the elections in the spring had garnered more support than any other issue, political topic or political party since 1989.

Asked what kind of international response the government expects from amendments to the child protection act, Gulyas said he expected common sense to be “the stronger side” on the matter in Brussels. If not, the physical and mental health of children must still be protected, he added.

Fielding questions on a political declaration lawmakers of ruling Fidesz-KDNP are submitting to parliament on their position on the war, Gulyas said he wouldn’t give up hope that opposition MPs would also back the resolution, but also noted they had supported delivery of weapons, till now.

Gulyas called a planned visit by Pope Francis to Hungary in April “a great honour” and a sign that the Vatican appreciates Hungary and its ties with the Catholic church.

Touching on the issue of sanctions, he said Europe has “shot itself in the foot” by adopting restrictions affecting the area of energy, while “paying Russia the price of the war for this year and next”.

He said “technical preparations” are underway for a possible visit by Prime Minister Viktor Orban to Kyiv. The organisation of such a meeting should benefit both sides, he added.

He noted the government’s criticism of Ukraine’s education act that places “all possible restrictions” on the use of Hungarian language. The timing for a possible summit could depend on Ukraine’s position on the matter, he added.

Gulyas said the government has not taken a decision yet on whether to establish national building materials companies, but it has discussed the draft of a construction sector bill.

He confirmed that regulated household gas prices will remain unchanged until April 30, after which time new ones could be set depending on procurement volume and price. If reserves, which are 50 percent full at present, can be topped up with cheaper gas, new household prices will need to be set, he added.

Commenting on the applications of Finland and Sweden to join NATO, Gulyas said the new members would further strengthen the defence alliance, but also acknowledged increased risks, especially with regard to Finland’s geographical location. If Hungary commits to defend both countries, as NATO members, it expects them to explain why they have “slandered” the country in recent years, he added.

Gulyas said he will vote to ratify the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO but also said “more respect” for Hungary is expected of both countries.

A parliamentary delegation that will visit both countries to address the matter will be led by deputy speaker Csaba Hende and include foreign affairs committee chair Zsolt Nemeth, he said.

Parliament will start debate of the ratification proposal on Tuesday and a vote is expected to be taken in the second half of March, he added.

Asked whether Hungary would allow weapons deliveries if they didn’t pass through Transcarpathia, in the west of Ukraine, Gulyas said “no”.

Returning to the matter of tighter rules regarding child protection, he said European practices are being studied to determine if regulations are in place that are stricter than the ones in Hungary. He added that he did not agree with a Constitutional Court ruling lowering the age of consent for same-sex partners from 18 to 14.

Asked about an impact study for a local campus of China’s Fudan University, Gulyas said the investment has been put on hold for the time being because of fiscal tightening. No planning is underway and the project is not advancing, he added.

He said the government has sent the text of legislation to Brussels addressing concerns raised by the European Commission over the judiciary and foundation universities.

He said talks on buying back Budapest’s international airport are underway and the government hopes to close the deal by year-end.

Asked why Hungary pressed for the removal of nine Russian business people from a list of sanctioned individuals, Gulyas said other countries had also protested the inclusion of people who were “in no way” connected to the war and had argued that severing ties with them was against their national interests.

Responding to a question on a request for Justice Minister Judit Varga to testify in a corruption case involving former state secretary Pal Volner and chief bailiff Gyorgy Schadl, Gulyas said witnesses don’t play a negative role in legal proceedings but can provide valuable information. Whether or not to hear a witness is up to the court, he added.

Hungary welcomes a recent announcement by the president of the European Commission on plans to strengthen border protection, he said, adding that Hungary has spent over 2 billion euros on border protection that benefits all of Europe.

Even though opinions in member states have “shifted” and a large number don’t want the EC to punish members states that protect their external borders and comply with Schengen commitments, Hungary still faces two infringement procedures regarding its compliance with rules on migration, he said. Dropping those infringement procedures and contributing funding to border protection is “indispensable” if the EC is to put its words into action, he added.

He said the EU’s tenth sanctions package does not affect nuclear energy, adding that Hungary would have vetoed it if it had.

Hungarian-Slovak relations have been made “difficult” as a caretaker government is in office in Bratislava, Gulyas said. The Slovak foreign minister should take the advice of Zsolt Nemeth, the head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, and “see a doctor about his personal problems”, he added.

Commenting on a recent visit to Budapest by the European Parliament’s Pegasus committee, he said the visit had not cost European and Hungarian taxpayers much money, but was “laughable” and also “a little bit sad”. The matter is not in the scope of power of any EU institution, least of all that of the European Parliament, he added.

Gulyas said that, in legal terms, Russia was “100pc responsible” for the outbreak of the war; however, in political terms, he acknowledged a debate over whether the attack could have been avoided if NATO had offered a guarantee that Ukraine would not join the alliance.

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