Prime Minister Viktor Orbán - Photo: MTI

Orbán: Families to be in focus in 2024

The goal in 2024 is to return the focus of politics to families after a year of "great struggles", Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told an international press briefing on Thursday. If Hungarians spent 2023 "struggling and working to protect what they had", the government hopes that the country will be working to take a step forward in 2024, Orbán said.

The prime minister said 2023 had been a year of “great struggles”, noting the challenges of the war, the growing threat of terrorism, migration, inflation and Brussels.

He said the government’s goal concerning each of these struggles had been clear. Hungary, he noted, had to stay out of the war, keep the increased threat of terrorism outside the country, curb migration, push down inflation, and reach an agreement with Brussels “despite the constant impedance”.

He said the government had accomplished its goals when it came to addressing inflation, the war, migration and the threat of terrorism.

Orbán said families had also struggled this year because the war had brought with it sanctions and rising energy prices, which had endangered the value of pensions and wages.

He said the government had succeeded in protecting the value of pensions, adding that wages would also be protected to a greater extent than it appeared during the middle part of the year. After reaching 4-5 percent earlier this year, the decline in real wages is set to be pushed under 1 percent by the end of the year, he said.

Detailing the government’s support measures, Orbán noted the revamped home purchase subsidy scheme, saying the government trusted that the CSOK Plusz programme would help tens of thousands of families. He also noted a recent agreement between employers and employees under which minimum wages would be raised by 10 and 15 percent, respectively.

The prime minister also said the government guaranteed to preserve the value of pensions, adding that the purchasing power of pensions could even increase in the wake of lower-than-expected inflation.

On another subject, the prime minister said the European parliamentary elections would be at the centre of next year’s political goals. He said the general view in Hungary was that “the bureaucrats in Brussels live in a bubble”, that “Brussels is blind”, and could not see “real life”. Moreover, it ignored the problems that people struggled with, both in Hungary and in the whole of Europe, he added.

Orbán said the goal of the 2024 EP election therefore was to “open the eyes of Brussels, make them see reality and make European leaders capable of correcting the mistakes that they made in 2023”.

He said this year had been one of “great struggles”, while 2024 would be “a year of grand plans”, adding that Hungary would try to achieve a significant political turnaround in the EP elections.

Meanwhile, Orbán announced the launch of a three-year scheme to increase the salaries of school and kindergarten teachers that would see their average salary rise by 32.2 percent from January. He said the preconditions for the programme were “about to be met”.

He added, however, that a “legal act” was still missing: “Hungary must receive a letter from Brussels confirming they will cover a certain part of the pay hike.” He said the government had a plan in place for steps to be taken once the letter arrived.

He said the pay rise would be the first component in a three-year plan, to be followed by “smaller but still significant” hikes in 2025 and 2026, after which teachers’ average pay would reach 800,000 forints (EUR 2,080).

Orbán said teachers’ salaries could vary based on their performance and geographical location.

Meanwhile, the prime minister said the new migration pact agreed on by the European Union was “certain to fail”.

Orbán said that until the EU declared, as Hungary had, that anyone who wanted to enter the bloc’s territory must submit an application to do so and wait outside the EU’s borders for their request to be assessed, any package that was introduced would fail.

The prime minister said he was convinced that Hungary’s way of regulating migration could be taken as a “model” as the only one across Europe that had been proven to work, adding that “Brussels shouldn’t be attacking it”.

Asked to comment on the dismissal of the chief executive of Poland’s public television, Orbán said he did not want to interfere in Poland’s affairs, adding, at the same time, that the debate in question was not restricted to Poland alone.

The prime minister said “strange things” happened “in the Western democratic world”, adding that in one western European “model democracy”, efforts were being made to stymie a leading presidential candidate by judicial obstacles, while a party with significant parliamentary representation could be under national security surveillance.

“There’s a disease gnawing at the vitals of western democracies,” the prime minister said, adding that “if all this was happening in Hungary, we may already have seen an incursion of NATO troops.”

Regarding the recent EU summit, Orbán noted that he had tried to persuade the other member states over eight hours not to start accession talks with Ukraine as “that would be a mistake”.

Whereas Hungary did not “want the role of a Cassandra”, he said he could not say for sure what would happen, adding that Hungary had met the same kind of opposition in the EU over the issue of migration, which had then caused “great trouble” in Europe.

If Hungary persisted in holding the line after many years that Ukrainian accession was “not good”, then the Hungarian parliament would still have a decision ahead of it, and its approval ultimately would be required to ratify it. He added that a more realistic option, a strategic partnership, should be offered to Ukraine.

On the subject of the public finances, Orbán said it was possible to provide financial support outside of the EU budget.

Orbán said Hungary’s goal was not to “block things or to say no, but to say yes,” so that good decisions could be taken in Brussels. He said supporting Ukraine within the EU budget was not a good decision, as doing so may endanger other sections of the budget, such as funding earmarked for Hungary.

Concerning EU aid for Ukraine, the prime minister said: “This does not depend on whether the EU releases the funds payable to Hungary.” “The EU’s formula to punish Hungarian children through the Erasmus programme, when they have a problem with the country, is far from the Hungarian spirit … we consider this petty and we will not do anything of the kind; we will not couple things of a different nature,” he said.

“An agreement on Ukraine will not follow when Hungary receives money but when the proposal in itself makes sense,” Orbán said, adding the most important requirement was that aid for Ukraine “must come from outside the budget and should not be linked to other budgetary issues.”

The EU budget, he added, was appropriate and “it would cause problems if we touched it … we won’t ask for anything else; just that the budget should be implemented.” Money for Hungary was included in the EU budget and those funds were “due”. “But if they start changing the budget, Hungarian interests will be present and we will negotiate accordingly.”

The prime minister noted that Hungary had called for a ceasefire in Ukraine, regardless of any post-war settlement. After that, he said, time must be allowed to develop the framework for peace negotiations. “If Europe does not start negotiations, there’s a risk that Russia could come to an agreement with the United States and leave the Europeans out of it,” he said.

Orbán said it was important for Hungary not to share a border with Russia. “There should always be … a state in between. That has so far been Ukraine,” he said, adding that the situation had not changed because Hungary had willed it.

He added that Hungary will not consent to being drawn into the war. “We do not want to be part of an alliance with a country that is currently fighting a war on its eastern border,” he said, indicating that this was position was shared by NATO. He said Ukraine’s NATO membership would mean that Hungary would have to send troops to Ukraine the very next day.

Concerning an invitation by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Orbán said they had been “swept together” at the inauguration ceremony of the Argentinian president in Buenos Aires, where Zelensky “offered talks and I accepted”.

But first, topics should be clarified in preparatory talks between the two countries’ foreign ministers, he said. On the subject of Ukraine’s EU membership, EU ministers must first come to an agreement, he added.

Regarding the EU summit next February, he said that two issues on the agenda cold be taken separately: one was EU financial support for Ukraine and the other a request by individual member states for independent budget changes. Concerning the proposed aid for Ukraine, Orbán said: “Twenty-six member states support giving 50 billion euros to Ukraine over four years, a sum which we do not currently have, so the community would have to take out a loan as part of the seven-year budget framework.”

He said it was important to identify a “meaningful timeframe” for the aid to be forwarded, since “we have no idea what will happen in a quarter of a year”. The aid should be “tied to America’s commitment” because “commitments of an uncertain magnitude could unravel our own budget”. Alternatively, each member state could contribute “in proportion to their GDP”, he suggested.

“We don’t want to take out a loan in cooperation with anyone,” Orbán said. “We don’t want to make the same mistake as with the recovery fund. The pandemic is over, yet several member states have not received funds due to them.” “It isn’t sensible to borrow money in cooperation with other countries while we’re in a political dispute with those very countries,” the prime minister said.

Regarding initiatives for other amendments to the EU budget, Orbán said that if such a process started, “Hungary will do the same”. “This is ahead of us and will become clear in the next month,” he said.

Asked whether Hungarians in Transcarpathia would be better off if Ukraine became member of the EU, Orbán said: “Yes, that can be done in a way that they will be better off”.

The fact that former Ukrainian president Poroshenko was not allowed to leave his country because he was reported to be on his way to meet the Hungarian prime minister, Orbán said he was more forgiving than public opinion as he recognised that Ukraine was at war and must enforce extraordinary rules.

“I have no word of criticism on this: if the Ukrainian state believes that someone’s departure from the territory of the country poses a risk to national security, they must act accordingly”. At the same time, Orbán suggested that “if a Ukrainian citizen meeting a Hungarian prime minister carries a national security risk, how does Ukraine mean to become a member of the EU?”

Answering a question about whether Hungary was threatened under the Article 7 procedure, Orbán dismissed its significance, noting the procedure had been initiated long ago.

The current procedure, he said, was not aimed at taking away any rights from Hungary. In any case, stripping a member state of its right to vote could be initiated under the EU Treaty only if there was a persistent threat of the violation of the rule of law, he added.

The European Commission, he noted, had just declared that Hungary’s judicial system in compliance with EU norms, adding that “Hungary has the most freshly assessed and best judicial system in the entire European Union; we have just received a document that is proof of it.” Far from being pushed towards the end-goal of the Article 7 procedure, it has become obvious that there was no reason to initiate such a procedure, he said.

Regarding EU funding, Orbán said it was generally recognised that Hungary had been “blackmailed in Brussels”, and the blackmailers were members of the European parliament. Orbán said there was “not much we can do about that”. Hungary, he added, complied with all requirements regarding the rule of law and was cooperative. Whenever the Commission had specific requests, Hungary would implement “almost everything”, he said.

“In this situation of blackmail, Hungary will do everything in its power to assert its interests,” Orbán added.

Regarding the EP election, he said Fidesz MEPs were in talks with the European conservatives but they would not give up their status as independent MEP’s until after the election.

Orbán said “things are going unbearably badly in Brussels” as there was no peace along the borders of the EU and the European economy was not getting stronger. “Our plan is to join forces with the right wing that is now becoming stronger in Europe and create sufficient attraction on the centre right,” thus achieving a different kind of migration, economic and foreign policy, he said.

Regarding the Hungarian 2024 EU presidency, the prime minister said Hungary would largely assume an intermediary role. “How we can protect our national interests, too, is a difficult question,” he added.

Concerning Visegrad Group cooperation, Orbán said it was “sad” that it had fallen apart, partly due to internal divergences and partly due to external pressure. There is a chance, he said, that in February, during the Czech presidency, there would be a meeting of V4 prime ministers, where they could reconsider whether central European strategy still had any viability amid the changed circumstances. He noted that the V4 was created with the aim of not having a Franco-Germany axis decide all important matters in Europe, but for central Europe, too, to have weight, importance and a voice.

Asked about migration pressure seen on the Hungarian-Slovak border in recent months, he rejected the suggestion that there had been any fluctuations in the quality of the protection of the southern border in recent months. “We are doing as much as we can,” he said, adding that soldiers, police and border guards only deserved words of appreciation for what they were doing to protect the border.

Regarding his recent meeting in China with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Orbán said it was a “coincidence of intentions”. He dismissed press reports that he had been unable to avoid the meeting. Orbán said he never acted under pressure in foreign policy but represented the sovereign Hungarian state.

Asked about whether he had plans for a bilateral meeting with Putin, he said neither party had any intention for bilateral talks.

On the ratification of Sweden’s NATO accession, he said: ‘There is no Turkish-Hungarian agreement”, adding that the two countries would make a decision on the matter independently of one another. He noted that Hungarian MP’s were “not very keen on the decision”. This, he said, was because when the Hungarian parliament approved Finland’s accession, the very next day, the Finnish government took the Hungarian government to court in the EU on a different matter.

Asked about Israel and the Oct 7 terrorist attack, Orbán said Hungary had been one of the few countries in the EU that said, based on the specific situation in question, that Israel had a right to defend itself and do everything possible to prevent a repeat of such a situation.

He said Israel’s stability was in Hungary and Europe’s fundamental security interest. He indicated that differences had narrowed during a debate at the recent EU summit, and there was a chance that, sooner or later, there would be a pan-European position considering Israel’s stability as a strategic issue.

In response to a question, Orbán said sending money to “registered terrorist organisations” from the EU budget was a “capital offence”. He said an investigation would also be undertaken to determine whether humanitarian, education or other forms of financial aid had made their way to terrorist groups.

As regards the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to disqualify former US President Donald Trump from the Republican primary ballot, Orbán said Hungary had no say in the functioning of the US justice system, and only asked “respectfully that they urgently stop lecturing us”.

Meanwhile, he underscored the importance of the amendment of Ukraine’s minority law, saying minority protection regulations were pointless if the relevant legal practices were not solidified.

Orbán said Hungary was studying the new law and did not want to underestimate its worth, but proposed that Ukraine restore the minority law it “took away” from ethnic Hungarians in 2015.

Meanwhile, the prime minister advised caution concerning the assistance Hungary could offer ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia, citing “sensitivities regarding good neighbourly relations”. He said ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia formed “an extremely strong community” but were incapable of demonstrating that strength when it came to political representation. “This is something they have to be the ones to resolve,” he added.

Orbán said Hungary-Slovakia relations were at an all-time high, adding he trusted that the new Slovak government would be more sensitive and open to the needs of the Hungarian minority.

In response to a question, the prime minister said it was “obvious” that the Hungarian economy was in better shape today than it had been in 2010, and it would be “foolish” to debate this. He noted that there were 4.7 million people working in Hungary today, a million more than 13 years ago.

Concerning the personal income tax exemption flagged for mothers with three children, Orbán said he was “determined” to fight for the measure “against the financial reality and the finance minister”. He said the government had to put together a ranking of the various family protection measures at the finance minister’s request, and the CSOK Plusz scheme had been given top priority. He added, at the same time, that he intended to expand the PIT exemption to mothers of three.

Asked about the increase in the fuel excise tax, Orbán said his cabinet was “the government of tax cuts”, but EU regulations were forcing Hungary to raise taxes.

Asked about gas prices, the prime minister said the government was constantly monitoring the natural gas market, but “nobody can lose out” unless they wanted to “quit the utility price cap system and pay market prices”.

Asked about the causes of the high inflation rate, Orbán said Hungary was “greatly exposed” to fluctuations in foreign energy prices and had to defend against it by developing its own energy sources. He highlighted Hungary’s increased solar power capacity as one of the most important achievements of the last ten years.

Hungary, he added, was making quick progress towards energy self-sufficiency, arguing that the completion of the upgrade of the Paks nuclear plant would mean that by 2030-2032, nuclear energy would account for 60 percent of domestic electricity consumption, with 30-35 percent being covered by solar power and the rest by fossil fuels.

Most of these resources today, he said, went towards energy production upgrades, noting that gas-fired power plants “must be built behind solar farms”.

Orbán noted that three major investment projects have been announced and international public procurement procedures are under way.

Asked about the state purchase of Budapest’s international airport, Orbán said: “We’re at the end of the process … an announcement could be coming any day now,” adding that the purchase was complete and there were only technical details left to sort out.

Orbán said there was fierce competition for tourism, conference tourism and international orgainsations. “Everyone wants to be part of this, and the key question here is air transport in which Hungary has had a big disadvantage in the recent period because it hasn’t even entered into the competition,” the prime minister said.

He said it was “impossible to reach the top” in this sector without state involvement, noting that the government had found a French partner to operate the airport, “and we’ll be happy if it can bring in other investors.”

Asked about hospital debt, Orbán said Hungarian health care was neither public nor private, and this was a “problem”. The government, he added, wanted to keep the single state insurance model and was moving towards more regulated state health care without banning private health care altogether.

He said it was unclear why a surgical procedure in one hospital was priced differently than in another. To speed the process up, director-general positions and the role of hospital directors was undergoing change, he added.

Orbán said it had been a “historic, professional and moral gesture” on the part of the medical chamber to end the practice of gratuity payments and enter into cooperation with the government.

Meanwhile, the prime minister said the government was not linking pay hikes for teachers to EU funds, adding that it was indisputable that Hungary could raise their pay on its own. But this would be a 5-6-year process, while with external financing, this could be reduced to 3 years.

Regarding the sovereignty protection law, he said the aim was “to serve transparency and the public”. When Fidesz was founded, he added, it took the side of the public against the Communists; now the same methods must be used “to fight against the big foreign powers that want to exert influence over Hungary”.

Orbán dismissed the suggestion that the law would affect the media, saying that people making such accusations were doing so out of fear, but he preferred to “start out from the facts” rather from the emotion of fear.

The prime minister said that in the last general election, several million dollars had been used to influence the its outcome. This, he added, was not about the media but about the issue of foreign political financing. The law, he said, closed loopholes against attempts to influence the elections, and it would be clear in a few months how the law worked in practice. If it appeared necessary, changes could be made, he added.

Asked why the planned child protection law had not come before the parliament in the autumn, Orbán said the government could not “fight two battles at the same time”. Since the referendum on child protection, a Fidesz working group has been drafting the bill, he said.

Addressing the issue of guest workers, Orbán said fears were justified in the case of Western Europe, but not in Hungary’s case. Significant labour reserves were available and there was no need for a large influx of guest workers, he added.

Orbán said it was not the government but private companies that brought in guest workers, and this was subject to strict rules. These may be tightened if necessary, he added. No one, he said, could stay in Hungary illegally, and when the legal basis for staying expired, foreign guest workers would have to leave the country. Guest workers were allowed only from countries with which a deportation agreement is in force, he added.

Asked about wage increases for ministers and the prime minister, he said that since 2010 politicians had been last in the line for salary increases as part of a transparent system.

Asked about the debate on euthanasia launched by a terminally ill constitutional lawyer, Orbán said a referendum initiative was under way that the government had nothing to do with, and further action would be based on the plebiscite’s outcome. He said it was not simply a legal issue, but also a human one involving a “shocking human fate”. “All I can say to the person involved … is that we are with him, we sympathise with him; we wish him much strength, and, if he’ll let us, we will pray for him, too, so that he can get through these difficult times.”

Speaking in his capacity as leader of the ruling Fidesz party, Orbán said its board had decided to name its candidate for Budapest mayor “in March at the latest”, but he declined to name any possible candidates. He added, however, that “the greatest political force in Budapest is the alliance of Fidesz and the Christian Democrats”.

Concerning a recent change to the election law, Orbán said “no law was violated” when parliament passed the legislation.

On the subject of property development plans in Budapest’s Rakosrendezo area, Orbán suggested that the project be called “a maxi Dubai rather than mini one”. “Once we embark on something, it should be the maximum in terms of size and quality, within reasonable limits … we should strive for a national maximum, rather than minimum,” he said.

Concerning details of the project, he said “a foreign state” had approached the government and proposed property development at a location “which is considered more of an eyesore”. He said he had instructed Janos Lazar, the minister of construction and transport, to “clarify details”, adding that the process would consist of several steps. “The government is not far from signing an international deal with the country in question,” he said, adding that the deal could only signify the start of negotiations.

Answering a question about Sandor Pinter, the interior minister, Orbán said “we can never be satisfied when it comes to health or education” but added that “the minister is doing his job well”.

Orbán was asked about reports of Hungarian entrepreneur Lorincz Meszaros seen aboard a 27 billion forint yacht, Orbán said the government “does not engage in business issues” other than “economic policy, and this question is outside that scope”. It was suggested that the Hungary’s MBH bank, partly owned by the Hungarian state, owned a share in the yacht. Orbán said in response that “that share should have been sold long ago … there is no point in keeping that thirty-something percentage.” He added that the share had not been sold yet because Marton Nagy, the minister of economic development, “had not thought it timely”.

Asked about Meszaros and Istvan Tiborcz, Orbán’s son in law, getting “higher and higher in the list” of the richest Hungarians, Orbán said the government “does not distinguish between one capitalist or another … Hungary has laws that everybody must observe.”

Regarding the dismissal of Laszlo L Simon as director of the National Museum, Orbán said Janos Csak, the culture minister, had made a sovereign decision. He was asked if that decision could have been influenced by L Simon “promoting a book on TikTok involving a gay affair”, Orbán said: “Many books are available in Hungary, including lengthy descriptions of sentimental relationships between people of the same sex.”

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