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Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Kossuth Radio programme “Good Morning, Hungary”

Katalin Nagy: – Both domestic and foreign analysts were surprised when they learnt that annual growth in Hungary’s gross domestic product increased to 5.2 per cent in the third quarter of the year. In an interview this week the President of the Banking Association Mihály Patai said that not since Trianon [in 1920] has the Hungarian economy been in a healthier state than it’s in now. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. What tasks does this good news impose on the Government? Clearly you should ensure that this economic growth, this expansion, remains and is sustainable in the long run.

Viktor Orbán: – These figures are indeed capable of generating surprise, because I’d also expected the country to be capable of a growth rate above 4 per cent; but this is 2018, and 2010 was only eight years ago. If we look back and try to remember what Hungary was like in 2010 – its rate of economic growth, or decline, its unemployment figures, its debt level – we will see the image of a weak, exposed and sickly country. Only eight years have passed since then, and this has changed: now the Hungarian national economy is resilient, robust, capable of growth and able to provide jobs for the Hungarian people. Key to this turnaround was that we proclaimed a different kind of economic system: rather than patching up the old one – which I could see had led nowhere over the previous twenty years – we sought to launch a new economic model, which we call the Hungarian model. When we introduced this I remember the fierce debates among both economists and politicians, and I think that the people themselves debated a great deal about whether this would lead us anywhere. But eventually the people supported this economic policy, and this was the decisive factor – because it is easy to devise new economic theories, but it is a really difficult, technically tricky task for politicians to convince people to believe in them and to implement them together with us. But in 2010 somehow we managed that task. Clearly the failure of the socialist government, the nightmare of economic collapse, the foreign currency debt trap, unemployment running at over 10 per cent and the despair produced by this difficult situation all on the one hand contributed to our government back then winning the two-thirds majority which was needed to launching the new economic model, and on the other hand to people being able to believe – even if only for the want of something better – that this would take us somewhere. We started working, and this is where we’ve now arrived, posting this remarkable economic result. This has demanded a lot of work, a great deal of hard work. It would really need to be the focus of another discussion to describe what foundations one can build an economic policy on, when one thinks about planning or implementing an economic policy. I believe that cultural circumstances are determining factors. This means that a particular economic policy which is good for Hungarians will not be equally good for, say, the Chinese – nor even for the Germans, for that matter. So every nation has its own culturally and historically determinant features upon which economic policy can be built, while there are certain economic policies which some nations tend to resist. From what I knew of Hungary, I believed that Hungarians are talented. This is not really in dispute anywhere in the world, but Hungarians not only show their talent through intellectual and cultural achievements which attract world attention, but also in every walk of life – including in simple physical jobs. When I speak to investors, I find that there are factories where workers can regularly come up with initiatives on how they think work could be improved. Foreign investors are always surprised that Hungarian workers – so we’re not talking about engineers or economic philosophers, but workers – are able to offer insights and ideas related to their specific area which are well worth acting on. So first of all I thought we could build on talent. In addition, I grew up in a place where people liked to work, and I had learnt that when people thought it was worth working hard, they would do so. So the mentality of Hungarians is that if it is worth working hard, they are happy to work hard to support themselves and their families. So we built economic policy on the foundations of these two things: talent and hard work. And this has led to growth of over 5 per cent. Now, as to what we should do, I can tell you that we must continue to believe that these two things – talent and hard work – will sustain economic growth. At the same time our leaders – myself included – cannot afford to become complacent, we mustn’t think that we can “walk the ball into the net” – as they say in football – and we must be aware that renewed efforts are needed to attain future successes. This is why I don’t like using words like “done”, “satisfied” and “completed”. This work will never come to an end: we must perform better and better, we can always be more successful, and everyone can take a step forward. In general I like to talk about the economy by stressing that what we aren’t talking about guaranteed success, or completion of a particular job, but about the natural order of life in which we must continuously work, and thereby maintain and improve the circumstances in which we live.

– Competitiveness could be improved, and it is all the more important to do so, because these figures show that in itself 5 per cent is a very nice figure, but we’ve also reason to feel confident if we add that this is double the average rate in the European Union.

– You’re touching on a very difficult question now. There is a pattern In Hungarian public discourse whereby our own performance is measured in comparison with that of others. This is not unjustified, as it’s always better to have a broader view of the world, rather than locking yourself into your own world. So comparisons are meaningful, but I’ve never been interested in how we could catch up with others. To be honest, I’m not really bothered about others; they have their own lives, their lives have their own logic, they know how they can be happy and how they can ensure that they lead full lives. At the same time, the Hungarian people also have their own ideas about life: we think differently, and every nation thinks about this in a different way. There’s no point in playing at making comparisons. I want Hungarians, on the basis of their own unique logic – sui generis, as they say – to feel successful, and to feel that what they are doing has meaning in itself, and not in comparison with others. Naturally it’s also true that if we fall behind others we’ll be increasingly disadvantaged, because in the world there is competition and a national economy that isn’t competitive won’t be able to provide its citizens with an adequate standard of living. In this sense it’s worth keeping an eye on foreigners, but it’s never wise to define the quality and goals of our own lives on the basis of the expectations or development levels of foreigners. You are happy when you believe your life is happy according to your own logic. The question of competitiveness also draws attention to the fact that there is still a great deal to do. We’ve achieved a great many fine results in the Hungarian economy, we’ve made a great deal of progress, and we’ve taken a step forward almost every year. But there is plenty of room for improvement: I’d like to see qualitative progress in vocational training, and I’d like to see improvement in management skills within small and medium-sized enterprises. The competitiveness and performance per worker of large Hungarian and large international companies are much higher than those of Hungarian small and medium-sized enterprises. Therefore we’d like to provide assistance for Hungarians which enables them to operate their own businesses better, and we’d like to ensure that they pay their workers more. So we’d also like to see wages in Hungary increasing. But wages can only be increased if competitiveness also improves. If wages are increased without an improvement in competitiveness, sooner or later there will be unemployment. This is a complicated correlation, and I won’t go into it now, if you don’t mind, but in essence a precondition for awarding a worker a pay rise is that the company where they work is performing increasingly well.

– You’ve spoken about pay rises. According to Minister Kásler’s latest announcement, the salaries of healthcare workers and health visitors in the state sector will increase by 72 per cent over a period of four years. This is an enormous sum of money. Do you have the funds for that in the budget? And do you think this could stop people from leaving the sector?

– When I asked healthcare experts – not only the Minister, but others also – about what priorities and goals the available resources should be used for, or how they should be reallocated, everyone said that the top priority should be improvement of the situation of nursing staff. They believe this is perhaps the most critical element in Hungarian health care. To tell you the truth, I scratched my head a bit when the Minister made his recommendation, and together with [Finance Minister] Mihály Varga I spent many long hours figuring out whether we would be able to meet this request. We eventually announced a programme of pay rises spread over a period of four years. Naturally if you say something you must keep your word – especially if you are prime minister. This is what we’ve said we’ll do, and this is what we must do. But this is not guaranteed, because we’ve no way of knowing how the Hungarian economy will perform next year, or in the third or fourth years. We have an opinion on this, we have hopes and we have calculations; but next year has not happened yet. So after careful consideration we’ve been able to tell nurses and healthcare workers that we’ll be able to implement a pay rise above 70 per cent spread over a period of four years. We’ve told them the precise dates and amounts of the pay rises, and we’ve sought to create predictability. I strongly believe that Mihály Varga will be able to raise the necessary funds without putting the financial balance of the budget at risk.

– The national consultation on the family appears to be making good progress so far: more than seven hundred thousand questionnaires have been sent back, and there are another two weeks to go. Do you think people regard these consultations as genuinely important? This is the seventh such consultation. Can the trend be reversed? Can we achieve a fertility rate of 2.1? At present we stand at around 1.5.

– Perhaps we should talk about the consultation first. This is a method which didn’t exist previously. I myself thought that we should give it a try, but no one foresaw how it was going to work. What were the Hungarians used to before 2010? They stated their opinion once every four years – fine, there are also municipal elections, so twice every four years; then they waited to see what the Government could achieve, and at the next election they told them to stay in office or clear off. This is how I can sum up the cycle of Hungarian politics. I thought that while it’s very difficult to ask every single person for their opinion on one issue or another, there are matters which are so important that they call for common points of understanding, as I put it. We live in freedom, with as many opinions as there are people. And Hungarians are a clever breed, with everyone having at least two opinions about everything, so the whole situation is a free-for-all. In a free world it is normal for there to be such a huge amount of diverging opinions, the net result of which is that Hungarian public discourse resembles the busy swarm of an ant nest. Despite this, I thought that there are a few issues on which it would be good for there to be general agreement. If we can come to a common stand on four or five issues, then all the other opinions – the wide range of differences – will not divide the country. If there are a few fixed points, the differences will make everything more colourful and interesting, but we will still be able to remain united. One such issue is work, and we had a consultation about jobs; another is pensions, and we had a consultation about pensions; there are some fundamental issues related to the Constitution, and we had a consultation about them; there is migration, and we also had a consultation about migration; there are economic issues as well, about which we also consulted the people; and the issue of family policy is another such topic. We may be able to come to points of agreement if we manage to come to an understanding on these few points and seek confirmation – not only in elections every four years, but if the Government also gathers people’s opinions in one form or another before milestone decisions. These will be fixed points, and there will be both political and economic stability. Meanwhile diversity will not pull the country apart, but will enrich it while also preserving stability. This is what I thought, and we devised the national consultation as the vehicle for its implementation. It has worked. I’m glad that there are hundreds of thousands of people in Hungary who are prepared to read these questionnaires at the kitchen table, to honour the Government with their attention, read them, complete them and send them back. This shows that, beyond the confines of their own lives in an immediate sense, people are also interested in the wider context in which they live their lives – in the fate of the country and the nation – and they are prepared to voice their opinions. This helps us in our work. There have been initiatives – perhaps I won’t waste time on recounting them now – which I would have liked to introduce in Hungary because I believed they were logical, but they didn’t receive the necessary support in such consultations. And there were matters which I knew would trigger major political battles because the opposition wouldn’t support them, and on which I would only be able to push through decisions if I could argue that the majority of Hungarians who had stated their views were on our side. So national consultations are very useful, particularly in battles fought abroad: the national consultation on migration – for which the participation rate was the highest – clearly shows that in Hungary people’s basic life instincts are operating well. That was the consultation with the highest response rate. People understood that on this issue Hungary must be united and that they must show great strength in standing up against external attacks from Brussels related to migration; and they stated their opinion. So in foreign battles fought in the democratic sphere – because Europe is a democratic continent – what Hungarians say is extremely important. Election results count for the most, but surveys of opinion such as the national consultation are the next in importance. In international battles they add significant weight to the Hungarian government’s voice and arguments, and they help me a great deal. The present consultation is about families. Naturally, I cannot answer your question of whether in the years to come these measures will mean that we can stop population decline and turn it into population growth: there can be no guarantee of that. This is what we must do: we must work hard, and we must provide more and more help for young people to commit to having and raising children, so that they appreciate that by having children the quality of their lives will not deteriorate, but improve. They should see that raising children is important not only for them, but also for the community, and the Government should reward this in part with respect and appreciation, and in part financially. This is what is happening now: over the past eight years our budget spending on supporting families has approximately doubled – which is a positive result in European terms. I believe that if we help young people, if we make it clear that by raising children their lives will not be restricted, but wider, that raising children will not make them poorer but richer, they will decide to launch themselves into the way of life that we ourselves grew up in, and in which we are living today. We are families with children, fathers like me, and they will see that one can hardly find a more beautiful way of life. It is undoubtedly something which is full of struggles, undoubtedly something in which you must stand your ground, and undoubtedly something which demands financial resources. But if people feel that, through the community or the Government, that the budget is on their side, and is helping them with housing, wages, taxation, maternity benefits and allowances, and nursery facilities, they will see that it is worth going down this path.

– You’ve said that Europe is a democratic sphere. If Europe is indeed a democratic sphere, then how are we to respond to the fact that the LIBE Committee [the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs] has for the second time voted in favour of the migrant visa, and will again present this issue to the European Parliament? And how democratic is it that Guy Verhofstadt was allowed to send his billboard with your picture on it through the streets of Brussels, while the Hungarian government’s van was stopped by the Belgian police, who ordered that the billboard featuring Mr. Verhofstadt be removed?

– Well, no democracy is perfect. Perhaps we could use this generous comment to characterise what is happening in Brussels. Clearly Hungarian democracy is not perfect either, but democracy in Brussels is even further from that ideal. It seems rather funny that a vote on an issue must be repeated over and over again until the right result – the result that bureaucrats regard as the right one – is returned. But at the same time I think that there is something wrong with MEPs: why do they tolerate this? If I tried to do anything like that here in the Hungarian parliament, I would face a rebellion not only from the opposition, but also from the members of my own parliamentary group. So I always say that if there is a parliament and there are representatives, and they take action under duress, it is primarily their own fault. The people elect free citizens to be their representatives, and they expect them – despite all external pressure – to stand up for the interests of the people who send them there: to be brave, to be gutsy and – if necessary – to engage in conflict. In Brussels we see ever fewer signs of this. It is also true that parliaments grow tired. The Brussels parliament functions as a parliament elected for terms of five years, and now at the end of their term I see signs of exhaustion there. At times like this we need fresh blood. There will be parliamentary elections, there will be new MEPs, and in my view the quality of democracy will improve. As regards the dispute with Mr. Verhofstadt, it clearly demonstrates the difference between the democracy of Western European countries and the democracy of Central European countries. They have a weary institutional democracy. So there they are surprised when they are faced with opinions that deviate from the mainstream. If the elite perceives that they are being attacked, they take offence. We’ve never had the luxury of immunity from attack: I’ve been a member of Parliament since 1990, I’m in my thirteenth year as a prime minister, and every morning I wake up to find that someone’s taken another shot at me, that I’ve been attacked again. So all the time I must be on my guard and keep up the fight. This is the sort of work which is permanently being criticised. Things were going well in Brussels and in Western Europe: after World War II – or from the sixties onwards – that part of Europe experienced continuous economic success; they had freedom, and although in their countries foreign troops were stationed – and are still stationed today – these were, after all, NATO troops, and they had freedom. Even though those troops watched over them, they did not deprive those countries of their national sovereignty, and if anything they essentially guaranteed exactly that. So they lived in freedom, peace and prosperity. Furthermore, for many decades Europe’s intellectual achievements guaranteed the European economy’s ascendancy over the world’s other regions. So the situation was that, while there were a great many things that the people didn’t like, they were on the whole satisfied with the direction and development of things. Therefore although the elite in charge of those countries were used to being poked at every now and then, they’ve never had to put up with chants such as “clear off”, and harsh things like that which Hungarians sometimes hurl at me – as well as at other Hungarian politicians, of course. So these intense, emotionally charged, vigorous attacks on the governing elite through which we live our daily lives here have not been typical of European politics in the least. Over here, by contrast, one must survive in the face of every attack. Over here every measure – even one that is self-evidently good, like pay rises – is immediately a target for criticism. So here one cannot play the king. Over here one must fight like a street fighter – even for self-evidently good decisions. Therefore one must even fight to do good. So our democracy involves more combative or more rugged public discourse than we see in Western Europe. This is why over there they think that Mr. Verhofstadt can attack us, and we’ll just respond in the lukewarm way that is customary in Western European democracy. This is not the case. Hungary was attacked with the Sargentini Report, and we hit back at least as hard – or possibly even harder. And every time we shall defend ourselves and counterattack. We shall not allow Hungary’s reputation and integrity to be damaged or attacked without consequences. Those who attack Hungary, those who bite us, will need strong teeth; because that is something which we shall not tolerate. We shall always strike back. And now we have the interesting situation in which Mr. Verhofstadt has been free to distribute all kinds of posters in Hungary – which have also defamed me personally; but when we respond to this, then the complacent democratic reflexes of the past thirty to forty years lead the Belgians to say that we’re not allowed to do so. Well, that’s the difference! The truth is that today there is greater vitality in Central and Eastern European democracy than in its Western European variant.

– Thank you. You have been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.