Gulyas: Migration-related proposals against Europe’s interests
At the same time, Gergely Gulyas said it was welcome that the European Parliament had listened to the objections of the Visegrad Group countries, Germany and the Netherlands to ramming through the proposals. Discussions, he added, would continue in September.
He underlined Hungary’s objection to any kind of migrant redistribution mechanism and quotas. Current proposals would undermine Europe’s interests, he said, arguing that they failed to contain any guarantees against effective border protection and carried the risk of asylum procedures still being executed within the bloc’s borders.
Migration pressure in Europe would mount significantly if the proposals were approved, Gulyas said, noting that the number of people seeking to enter Europe would already reach a record high this year.
Hungary has spent 650 billion forints (EUR 1.7bn) on border protection so far and has requested compensation from Brussels, Gulyas said. The EU has covered less than 1 percent of those costs, but Hungary has asked it to cover at least 50 percent, he added.
If the EU wants effective border protection and a well-functioning passport-free Schengen area, then the European Commission should compensate member states for their border protection costs or make significant contributions to them, he said.
Meanwhile, Gulyas said Hungary had fulfilled the so-called enabling condition, the “milestone” related to the judiciary defined by the EC, adding that there could be no more obstacles to Hungary receiving funding from the EU’s seven-year budget.
Hungary has sent invoices for 238 million euros in European Union funding for the 2021-2027 financial cycle to Brussels, of which the EU must pay 85 percent, or 202 million euros, Gulyas said.
The EC has 90 days to confirm Hungary’s implementation of the enabling condition and 60 days to process the invoices and transfer the funds, he said.
Most of the invoices are for advance payments from the Economic Development and Innovation Operative Programme Plus (GINOP) to fund small and medium-sized businesses, Gulyas said.
Once Hungary receives the necessary funding from Brussels, teachers will be given a pay rise, he said, adding that the EC “owed” Hungarian teachers 800 billion forints.
Commenting on the state of the economy, Gulyas said the extremely difficult situation resulting from the Russia-Ukraine war, further worsened by European sanctions, appeared to be somewhat improving. The economic outlook is improving and economic growth will accelerate in the second half of the year, he added.
Gulyas called “realistic” the growth target of 1.5 percent GDP contained in the 2023 budget — “or at least 1 percent” — while 4 percent growth next year was “viable”.
He said inflation was expected to decrease rapidly, and “if everything goes well, inflation will be in the single digits by as early as October, while every month from now on there will be 2, 3 or 4 percentage point drops.”
Gulyas said the government had done much to shield households from the harmful effects of inflation, including the price caps on certain food products and the mandatory discounts supermarkets must offer regularly on a number of food products, which will be increased from 10 percent to 15 percent from August 1. He added that SZEP voucher card balances could be used for purchases in supermarkets from next month, and the balances could be topped up by 200,000 forints.
Gulyas said the government’s top priority was to tackle inflation, “but not everyone is involved in this struggle”. The authorities have imposed fines totalling 3.1 billion forints on entities trying to profit off inflation, he said.
He said an inflation rate of 6 percent or possibly as low as 5 percent was realistic for next year.
As regards the war in Ukraine, Gulyas said Hungary continued to urge a ceasefire and peace talks, arguing that this was the only way to “end the killing”.
The most conservative estimates indicate that more than 310,000 people have died in the war, he said, adding that some estimates even put this figure at 700,000-800,000. Close to 10,000 of those were, he said, civilian casualties and a least 16,500 civilians had been wounded in the conflict, he said.
He said Russian reserves and losses had been significantly greater, and the Ukrainian counteroffensive had yet to achieve meaningful results, he said. Gulyas added that it was very hard for either side to break through the other’s defences.
Gulyas said all this demonstrated that the Hungarian government had been justified in calling for an urgent ceasefire and peace talks.
Gulyas said the teaching profession was viewed by many as a source of secure income for the future, as demonstrated by the 10,514 applicants accepted to teacher training in Hungarian universities this year, the highest figure in the past six years. “There is a secure supply of new teachers in Hungary,” he added.
Gulyas noted that university admission thresholds were announced on Wednesday, and he welcomed the fact that some 95,000 people were accepted out of more than 126,000 applicants.
There was a 43 percent increase in the number of students admitted to universities outside Budapest and a 34 percent increase in the number of those admitted for technical, science, engineering and IT studies, he said. Eight out of every ten student will be able to start their studies with a state grant, he added.
The government has decided to support the construction of the new campus for Karoli University, providing 15 billion forints each in 2024, 2025 and 2026, and 45 billion forints in 2027. Construction is scheduled to be completed by 2027-2028 and Karoli University will have a highly developed campus that meets all European demands and modern higher education requirements, he said.
Meanwhile, commenting on shootings by migrants at the southern borders, he said professionally trained border units had been set up to tackle this problem and protect the borders by all possible means.
Zoltan Kovacs, the state secretary in charge of international communications, told the briefing that since the start of the war, some 1.15 million people had crossed the Hungarian border, 38,000 had submitted an asylum request and 34,000 of these have been approved. Many of these latter are staying in Hungary and there are also some who are commuters, he added.
On the subject of Ukraine, he said the government maintained three principles in connection with helping the country: Hungary supported the country under attack in various forms but “we do not supply weapons and we cannot give financial help”, and “we have a vested interest in Ukraine remaining functional”.
“We believe that a ceasefire and the start of peace talks as soon as possible would clearly serve these principles,” he said. “But we cannot support a non-EU country from the EU budget, certainly not as long as all member states are not receiving the budget resources they are entitled to,” he added.
Commenting on banning Russian sportspeople from international competitions, Gulyas said it was generally incorrect to exclude sportspeople based on their nationality. A good solution may be if they were not to compete under the national colours and only those are excluded that were members of the military, he said.
Gulyas said Hungary was trying to maintain a clear moral principle based on Ukraine being a country under attack which therefore needs help. “This is why we are providing humanitarian aid and receiving refugees, offering them financial support,” he added. However, when Ukrainian policies run counter to the ethnic Hungarian community, violating all European standards, “we will raise our voice and in certain cases make it clear that Hungary’s friendly behaviour has limits”, he said. “The fact that Russia has attacked Ukraine in violation of international laws does not make Ukraine less corrupt,” he added.
Responding to a question on reports that a concert piano designed by Hungarian pianist Gergely Boganyi would be purchased for 80 million forints (EUR 209,450) and exhibited at the headquarters of the Hungarian EU presidency in Brussels, Zoltan Kovacs, the government commissioner responsible for the preparations, said that the government had a duty to support cultural innovation. A Boganyi piano would greatly help the success of the Hungarian presidency, he added.
Gulyas said the prospect of Hungary losing the right to take over the presidency in the second half of 2024 “is not realistic”.
“Nowadays the most corrupt European institution, the European Parliament, is one to talk about corruption prevention and it judges member states, while the gravest corruption cases of the most repulsive and most spectacular kind are connected to MEPs,” he said.
Regarding Hungary’s support of Sweden joining NATO, Gulyas said parliament would approve its accession this year should two-thirds of Hungarian lawmakers support the proposal. Asked whether the Hungarian or Turkish parliament would be the first to adopt it, Gulyas said: “We have said we wouldn’t be the ones to hinder Sweden’s accession to NATO.”
Gulyas said Hungary continued to expect answers from Sweden on “why they would want to become our allies in another alliance if they continue to be hostile to us in the EU”.
On the topic of the extraordinary session initiated by the opposition for Monday, he said the parliamentary group of ruling Fidesz would stay away from the session. “There is currently no reason to hold an extraordinary session,” he added.
Gulyas rejected press reports that Sandor Pinter would be replaced as interior minister from September as “untrue and utterly unfounded”. The government was set up for a four-year term, and changes are always connected to developments such as the resignation of Justice Minister Judit Varga from Aug. 1, who is slated head Fidesz’s list for the European parliamentary elections next year.
Gulyas was also asked about Slovakia and Romania’s summoning of respective Hungarian ambassadors in light of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s recent speech at the Balvanyos summer university in Baile Tusnad, in central Romania.
Responding to Slovak Prime Minister Lajos Odor’s statement that it was “unacceptable for Hungary to question Slovakia’s territorial integrity”, Gulyas said that Odor’s criticism had been “in line with international law but totally unnecessary”, and Orban had not given any grounds for such criticism.
Regarding the phrase “territories separated from Hungary”, which Slovakia took objection to, Gulyas said it was a historical fact that Hungarian territories had been cut off from the motherland. The two world wars were followed by a “system of peace that brought the greatest trauma in Hungary’s history”, he said. “We respect and accept that, but we cannot be expected to celebrate it.”
Asked whether a Slovak prime minister of Hungarian ethnicity would improve ties between the two countries, Gulyas said long-term strategising and plans were not on the table in respect of the interim government. He welcomed Odor’s being of Hungarian ethnicity, but said that Hungary was hoping for a stable government after the September elections that would be open to “progress” in bilateral and Visegrad Group issues.
Regarding the state of the Hungarian railway system, Gulyas said that while “prices and the quality were higher in the West”, he thought it was “unlikely” that the Hungarian railway system would collapse. Scrapped railway lines must be replaced by comparable services such as buses, he said. At the same time, the ministry of construction and traffic has launched a 1,200 billion forint railway development scheme, he noted, with suburban railway developments focusing on the most popular lines to be partly EU-funded, he said.
Asked about the 580 billion forint battery plant planned in Nyiregyhaza, in eastern Hungary, Gulyas said sufficiently large local workforce was available in the region to meet headcount. Guest workers may arrive from neighbouring Transcarpathia, he said, adding however that the plant’s workforce-needs could be met without hiring “non-Hungarian speaking guest workers”.
He confirmed that the scheme for cheap utility bills and the brackets for average consumption would be maintained for households over the next “utility” fiscal year beginning in August. Gulyas said that out of the 1.7 million eligible consumers, 90,000 had already used the amount of energy allowed under the utility price cap scheme.
Due to the mild winter and energy-saving efforts, he said, the majority of consumers would not be affected by the changes in utility cap rules, adding that state-owned energy company MVM would offer the 90,000 consumers an option of 12-month payments in monthly installments.
Commenting on plans by the Budapest municipality to raise water consumption fees, Gulyas said that “in the current situation, the government does not support increasing the burden on people”. He said every municipality and the central government, too, must do everything in their power to prevent an increase in public service fees.
Asked about a court’s rejection of the Budapest municipality’s lawsuit over solidarity tax, Gulyas said the lawsuit had been entirely unfounded. “Nobody can be serious in thinking that a tax set in law can be challenged in court.”
Answering a question about a report that the Budapest municipality may become insolvent in the coming month, Gulyas said it was the municipality’s task to have a plan in place. He questioned how “the country’s richest municipality” that had enjoyed substantial reserves “could go bankrupt”.
In connection with the allegation that Budapest’s mayor, Gergely Karacsony, had received unlawful funding from abroad during last year’s election campaign, Gulyas said voters would decide his fate at the ballot box.
Asked about the EU’s planned tightening of driving license rules, Gulyas called it “unacceptable” that licenses above the age of 70 should be renewed every five years.
He dismissed claims of a shortage of teachers, insisting that despite a significant drop in the number of children, no such decline had been seen in the number of teachers over the past decades.
Commenting on reports that some teachers were tendering their resignation, Gulyas said their numbers had been lower than in previous years which, he said, showed that teachers had not feared “losing earlier benefits” under their newly introduced career model scheme. “Had the MEPs of the left-wing opposition not worked against the interest of teachers … then teachers would be earning a lot more and would be getting far sooner.”
As regards the EU’s Erasmus student programme, Gulyas said he saw a 60 percent chance of the issue being settled with Brussels this year, with an end-of-October deadline for reaching agreement with the EC.
Asked about the record debt accumulated by Hungarian hospitals, Gulyas noted ongoing structural reforms and IT upgrades scheduled to be completed within months and these would hopefully help to remedy the situation.
Zoltan Kovacs, the state secretary for international relations at the Prime Minister’s Office, was asked to comment on reports of “a crisis” in connection with the summer season at Lake Balaton, Hungary’s most popular holiday resort. He said that data suggested exactly the opposite, noting that already 700,000 guests had been registered and 2.1 million guest nights spent since early June. “Already this is 98.6 percent of the record year of 2019,” said Kovacs, anticipating a new record for this year.