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

Katalin Nagy: Day by day the number of new coronavirus infections is falling, with the latest daily increase being only twenty-eight. We are in the second phase of the defence operation. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Are you satisfied with the results of the past week, in which restrictions have been eased in the provinces?

A very good morning to your listeners. I’ll be satisfied when we’ve killed this wretched virus; but that won’t happen without a vaccine. That doesn’t exist now, and at the moment scientists around the world aren’t heartening us with rapid progress on finding one. So it continues to be true that we must look after one another, and it continues to be important for no Hungarian to be left behind. It continues to be important for us to be considerate to one another, to cover our faces when in those places where we need to do so. So while I think that we’ve make good progress in relaunching life, we mustn’t go overboard and behave as if the pandemic had come to an end. We political decision-makers and you journalists have been focusing on the coronavirus pandemic now for some months, and we decision-makers and you journalists have read hundreds of articles and analyses – I think thousands of pages of these have been produced. For us decision-makers – and you journalists also, I think – there is the risk that one feels one has almost become an expert; and this is very dangerous. So what is most important now is that we say to ourselves that everyone should “stick to their last”: so let’s not believe that we’ve become experts in virology. Let’s not look at the world from that standpoint. We should remain political decision-makers, and journalists should remain journalists. Let’s leave the field clear for the scientists, doctors and professors to prepare the analyses forming the basis on which we can later make decisions. Naturally the responsibility for the decisions is ours. Just as the responsibility for accurate news reporting cannot be shifted onto professors and scientists, so too we must accept responsibility for decisions. But let’s not believe that we have a deeper understanding of these matters than those who are professionals in the area. And I advise us to continue to rely in all our decisions on scientists, doctors and professors. We must operate the Operational Group: we must operate the college of disease control experts. We must follow the data, and we must request the opinions of as many clever doctors as possible. This is part of my everyday life.

When can we expect a relaxation of the restrictions in the capital or in Pest County?

Why have I said what I’ve just said? This is because they are all far more cautious than the average person: doctors, virologists, professors, scientists and researchers are more cautious. It might be true of Hungarians in general that we’re more easily emboldened if we feel that we can see light at the end of the tunnel. But one can never know whether or not that’s the headlight of an approaching train. We’ve learnt this, and doctors have warned us about this, as they are moderate, and they recommend an incremental approach. They recommend face covering and maintaining a safe distance from one another: they cannot repeat often enough that we should watch out for one another by wearing face masks and maintaining safe distances. So we should continue to watch out for one another. I’m one of those who favour a return to normal life. After all, we are at root a Christian democratic government, we stand on the side of life, and this is our basic attitude or approach to human existence. So we will be happy to restart life. Here I’m not talking about the economy. Although it’s very important, the economic part of our life is not the same as our life: the purpose of the economy is to serve our life, to create the material basis for our vision of our life; but the two should not be confused with each other. So although the economy is very important, I’m talking about the relaunch of life. People are hurrying and rushing, but the professors are pulling at the hem of my jacket, telling me to be cautious. For example, with regard to Budapest they say that we should wait for the proportion and numbers of deaths to fall. So let’s be cautious about opening up Budapest until the proportion of deaths decreases and for as long as the overwhelming majority of deaths continue to occur in Budapest and Pest County. We won’t be opening it up this week; the next steps in the relaunch of life could occur next weekend at the earliest.

Everyone is happy that students have been taking their school-leaving exams, with a huge number of those exams taken this week, as had been required. There were no obstacles to this, and the schools organised this process well. Again this proves that we can restart life if we organise matters very carefully and with great vigilance. We’ve seen that the healthcare system has also restarted, while clearly no one can deny that there are hitches with the restart.

As is customary, political debates often stray into the area of education. The nature of political debates – at least in the modern world – is that they simplify situations or the portrayal of situations; and these debates haven’t had a beneficial impact on education, because they’ve become matters of faith over what is good or bad. Of course nothing is ever completely good or completely bad. Now, for example, the education system has been taking its own test. We’ve gained very useful experience, and I think that certain fanatical politicians have also become a little more circumspect when speaking about education. Because it’s turned out that the system is functioning and our teachers are outstanding. They’ve solved a previously completely unknown and unexpected problem – changing over from education based on face-to-face personal contact to online education – in a way that I don’t think has happened anywhere in Europe. Perhaps I’m exaggerating and I’m biased in favour of our teachers, but I’ve studied the cases of what has been done where and by whom, and nowhere in Europe have I seen such a rapid switchover with so few hitches – not completely free of them, because there have been some, but I haven’t seen so few problems anywhere else in Europe. And, as I see it, mothers are tired: I’ve met many of them who say that it would be good if…

…the children could go back…

I understand this, because I’ve raised five children and I know what it’s like. Parents have undertaken a major role in solving the new situation. But the teachers have passed their exam with top marks. Of course there are always dissenting voices, and I’ve seen this in relation to the school-leaving examinations. There have been some such voices – perhaps among teachers as well, but certainly among Members of Parliament – saying that this couldn’t be done, that it’s dangerous, it shouldn’t be allowed, and that it’s irresponsible. So they’ve fiercely attacked the policy and the Government, but reality has shown them to be wrong. Just this morning I looked at the reports, and I found that a mere 3 per cent of students said that they’d rather not sit their school-leaving exams. The same number of us were worried when we were about to sit our school-leaving exams; so this isn’t a particularly high number. But the most important thing is that they haven’t been punished or penalised; they didn’t sit the exam and they’ve lost a year from their scheduled education, but this isn’t a tragedy, as that can be made up for. So they’re not in trouble either. But the other 97 per cent sat the exams: they went through it, took their school-leaving examinations and are ready for adult life. I wish every success for those who are now facing examinations. So our education system has passed its own exam. Many people are asking whether schools will open before the summer break. I’ll draw out this sentence, as I don’t quite know how to put it; I’m very uncertain about this, and I don’t see how the conditions for this can come about – conditions which satisfy parents and teachers. Meanwhile, if we reopen the schools, we wouldn’t want to send large numbers of children back to school. Incidentally, schools are open, as are nurseries and crèches: they’re not only looking after children, but also teaching them, so we’re attending to their needs. Even so, as I see it a very small proportion, a small number of parents, would allow their children to go back; and so – although a lot people are talking about it – there still isn’t sufficiently strong demand for the reopening of schools. So it won’t force us to take on the risk of opening schools. When there’s large-scale demand and pressure on us to do this then of course we’ll consider it, but at the moment I’m not experiencing it.

Is all the necessary healthcare equipment now in place?

In the course of the pandemic we’ve learnt some very important lessons. I’ve personally been in many places, and I’ve felt the sourcing of equipment to be my personal responsibility. There’s been a debate over whether it’s right for the Prime Minister to turn up at hospitals and for him to lead the defence operation himself. This is an understandable question, incidentally. But I’m not going to come out and say it’s right, because the situation will determine whether one needs to direct defence operations personally or if there’s a crisis in which one should instead give such authority to the Interior Minister or the Health Minister. But now I’ve felt it to be important that I should direct this defence operation personally. This is not because I understand health care – that’s not something that one could easily accuse me of; but I have common sense, and I know how one should mount a defence campaign in a time of crisis. After all, this isn’t the first crisis I’ve seen: there was an economic crisis, a migrant crisis, I’ve seen floods, and I’ve seen the red mud disaster. So I’ve been through the mill. And I think that in this crisis – which is a Europe-wide crisis – the Hungarian state must prove itself loyal to Hungarians. We tend to use the expression “loyal citizen”, but this is a two-way street: it must also operate in the opposite direction. So the state must also be loyal to its citizens. What does this mean? Well, if there’s trouble, then it won’t abandon them. The state can prove its loyalty by the Government being there alongside people: not a single Hungarian should be left behind. Because he leads the Government – and thus also the operation of state life – the Prime Minister should be there personally alongside people, to prove that there is indeed a point in citizens being loyal to the community and the state, because the state will also be loyal to them. At such times one can show with appropriate force that the Prime Minister himself is accepting a personal role and responsibility in the defence operations. On the whole for this reason I don’t simply leave the acquisition of equipment to the Foreign Minister, but I continuously supervise it, I continuously oversee it, so that not a single person will remain without provision because of a shortage of equipment. There’s something else that I’ve learnt, a marvellous thing: our people and Hungary have a talented and dynamic foreign minister, who in his capacity for work is perhaps even able to outperform the Prime Minister – although there’s keen competition on that front, and I don’t give up easily. But we mustn’t allow the success of the country’s management of the crisis to be dependent on our ability to obtain enough necessary materials. So an air bridge is operating, we’re bringing in everything that we need and in our warehouses we have several months’ worth of protective equipment “squared away”, as ex-soldiers say: neatly folded and packaged. But in the meantime I’ve learnt that, despite having friends around the world, we could find ourselves in a vulnerable situation unless we have our own production capacity. Therefore we must be capable of manufacturing our own masks here in Hungary. Production lines are being assembled: there are some which are already operating, and some which we’ll be putting into operation later. We must be able to manufacture our own ventilators and Hungarian industry must be able to produce all the important equipment needed for protection – including the vaccine when that has been found, and the reagents and materials needed for testing. Perhaps this wouldn’t be necessary in normal times, and in normal times this would be an unnecessary cost, as we’d be maintaining capacity which we wouldn’t immediately need. But the lesson is that when there’s trouble one has to rely on oneself: when there’s real trouble one can only count on one’s own efforts. Hungary can only count on itself. So we must build up these capacities; and this work is now in progress.

You’ve written a letter to the President of the European People’s Party. Have you received an answer? In your letter you wrote that falsehoods and lies are being spread about Hungary, everyone can easily read Hungary’s coronavirus law for themselves, and there’s nothing in it which runs counter to European Union law. But you weren’t the first person to say this: Věra Jourová, the relevant official on the European Commission, has publicly said this on two occasions.

You’ve raised a difficult question. It’s not a matter of who’s lying, because we know that they’re lying and we’re telling the truth. It’s also clear that we know the reality that we’re talking about, and they don’t. I don’t want to bad-mouth your profession – if you’ll excuse the expression – but incidentally a general problem is that it’s becoming ever more difficult to acquire trustworthy reports from the media about developments happening in other countries. So I understand that someone reading the newspapers in Western Europe and wanting to give an opinion on the situation in Hungary on that basis isn’t in an easy position, with few people speaking Hungarian. Quite apart from that, in order to understand a country one not only needs knowledge of the language, but one must also be familiar with the culture, the cultural aspects of the political struggles of the day, what is and isn’t important to the heart and soul of Hungarians, what seems to be irrational in one country but completely natural in another. Those who don’t have such a cultural insight will hardly be able to give a reliable and serious opinion on the political debates in another country. European decision-makers are all struggling with these difficulties. But the truth is that there’s a huge battle underway in Europe, and every conflict can be associated and understood according to this logic. After all, the huge system of international political interrelationships of the age in which we Hungarians live today centres on whether we will see an empire in Europe and formed from Europe, or if nation states will remain in existence. We Hungarians, who love our homeland, think that our country is the most beautiful in the world. Our state has a history of one thousand years, and on no account do we want to be dissolved into any kind of empire. We didn’t want to be in the empire of the Turks, and we pulled ourselves away from the Habsburgs. While seeing the need for cooperation, we sought modes of independence. And, as we wrote on the wall in 1956, over the course of 150 years we didn’t become Turks, just as in forty-odd years of occupation we didn’t become Soviets and didn’t want to integrate into and remain in the Soviet empire. And neither do we want to become part of a European empire. Those who want to build an empire in Europe want to break the nation states into conformity with an imperial order. This has an elegant name, so that they can speak about this in refined terms: they call it “the United States of Europe”. We want no part of that: we want to remain Hungarians, and we want Hungary to remain a Hungarian country. Because the current Hungarian government stands on this foundation, the believers in empire – the empire builders – will always seize the opportunity to weaken the Hungarian government. The most provocative point of tension and interest in the dispute in the European Union between Hungary and the Brussels bureaucrats, which has been rolling on for more than ten years, is precisely about them attacking the things which are supported by the overwhelming majority of people here in Hungary. What has the problem been? We introduced the banking tax, which is clear evidence of national sovereignty. The Brussels bureaucrats immediately attacked it, but here 80 per cent of people supported it. Reductions in household utility bills showed that we didn’t want multinationals to continue fleecing Hungarians; but the Brussels bureaucrats, who think in terms of an empire of huge European corporations, attacked us – while 80 per cent of Hungarians supported the reductions. The same was true for migration. Now the situation is the same with the distinctive national approach to managing the pandemic. So it’s clear that those who are attacking us have no interest in democracy, because the will of the people and majority opinion in general is behind the Hungarian government’s stance. We’re doing things which people want, ask and expect from us. So the dispute is not about democracy, but about empire and national independence.

Yes, I suppose that now the aim isn’t that you want Donald Tusk to literally apologise to you – although of course he could do that, because it wasn’t too polite of him to accuse the Hungarian government and the Hungarian prime minister of Nazism. But isn’t it the aim for everyone to believe in facts?

Well, I tend to agree. This was where I started my answer but I digressed into the world of empires. It’s difficult to decide how we should react at any particular time. Of course as an ordinary person in everyday life it’s simple: if someone has slandered you, accused you of something or said something unfair about you, you go over to them and say, “Stop doing this, my friend. Why are you doing this?” And then you try to sort things out, speaking in a harder tone if necessary. After this has happened ten times you just shrug your shoulders, and you don’t go over to that person again, because you just say that someone who speaks like a fool really is a fool. Now in politics there’s a similar dilemma over when you should shrug your shoulders and simply ignore unfounded attacks, and when the point in time comes when you should say, “Hang on, this has gone too far”. This is not a personal matter, especially not for the Government and the Prime Minister, but it’s about the honour of one’s country. So there are times when one must shake off baseless attacks, like a dog shaking water off on its coat; and sometimes it doesn’t harm to even laugh at them, make fun of them, mock them a little or – and perhaps this is a better expression – to adopt an ironic tone. But there are moments when one must call someone to account. So it’s not right that when tens of thousands of people here in Hungary are in mortal danger, with half the country fighting to protect the lives of these people, and when your guard is down as you direct all your strength towards those people and saving lives, that you find yourself being kicked from behind. So at such times you must stand up and say that this needs to stop, you must speak in a harder tone, steel yourself for a dispute and demand that the attacks stop. If we don’t do this then they’ll do the same next time. So we must make it clear that Hungarians cannot be bullied without repercussions – especially not when they’re in difficulty. Let’s not forget, let’s take note, and we will settle the account.

But Prime Minister, is there any point in talking about unity within the European People’s Party?

Yes. Because while there are disputes – as there usually are in families – we must never forget that we belong in one place. It’s not an accident that we are in one place. Having sharp, deep and often ill-tempered disputes doesn’t change the fact that we belong in one family, and we must work to keep the family together for as long as possible. This isn’t always successful, as we’ve also seen from numerous examples in everyday life. But people of goodwill work for as long as they can to try to keep a family together, because unity and cooperation always provide greater security and happiness than discord does. Then of course it may emerge that this isn’t possible, and just as we’ve seen this in so many families, it’s also true in politics. Then of course one must open a new chapter and try to choose a solution which is good for everyone – for every stakeholder, every family member. But let’s try to keep together for as long as it’s possible; this is also the rule in politics.

At the beginning of the interview you said that the most important thing is to restart life – that naturally restarting the economy is also very important, but the most important thing is to restart life. We’ve heard that the March data from the Hungarian Central Statistical Office shows a 5.6 per cent decline in production.

There will be worse to come. Excuse me for shocking the listeners so early in the morning, but the figures for April will be brutal. We’re talking about the first quarter now, and the virus started to dismantle the economy sometime around the tenth of March; so the data for the first quarter was brought down by bad figures for three quarters of one month. The figures for the whole of April will be absolutely appalling from an economic viewpoint. So we’re going to see even worse figures for April. The figures for May will be bad, as right now we’re in that month and the crisis is still with us, but they’ll be better than those for April. And, God willing, the figures for June will be far better than those for April or May. So now we’re going through a difficult period. At such times, when there are so many problems at once, the question is what reason we identify for this, and where we see the root of the problem to be; because that’s what we must focus on, and we must get a grip of the problem at its root. I see the problem as unemployment, so I believe that the remedy is to deal with this problem, to focus on how we can protect jobs and how we can create new jobs. I see this as a personal commitment. Something like this is rare in politics, but I repeat what I said to you earlier: we shall create as many jobs as the virus destroys. At the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday we talked about a state programme for job creation, and I’ve already instructed the Interior Minister and the Finance Minister to double the number of people in the public works programme. So we stand ready to give work to 200,000 people in public works schemes; the number of people involved in such work at the moment is under 100,000, by the way, so we can accept a huge number of people, if the need exists. And if this budget sum isn’t enough, then we can increase it. The army has begun more intensive recruitment, and state companies have received tasks for which they can take on new workers on temporary contracts. Every day I keep account of how many people are turning to us for help. We’ll see all kinds of unemployment statistics, and this science is at least as complicated as medical science. Here it’s also important that people aren’t reduced to statistics. So I always look to see how many people have turned to us – to the Hungarian state, to the Government – for help: how many are applying for unemployment benefit; and how many have been unable to find work in the three months covered by unemployment benefit, and are therefore requesting income support from us or some form of work organised by the state. As I recall, the figures yesterday evening showed that there are around 160,000 people, around that number of Hungarians, who have lost their jobs in the recent period – not only because of the crisis but also before that – and who are applying for assistance, for unemployment benefit or some form of welfare benefit or income support after the expiry of their unemployment benefit. It is my duty and the Government’s duty to give these 163,000 people the chance to work – and that is what we shall give them.

The budget has been restructured. What is the sum earmarked for this, how much must be spent on it?

I’m going to have to say some enormous sums, and I’m not sure that the listeners will be able to relate them to their own experiences and their own lives, because I’m talking about thousands of billions of forints. I believe that we will need investments and developments. Where will the jobs come from? There will be investment in jobs, there will be developments. So if unemployment is the problem, then jobs must be created and, in addition to preserving their health, Hungarians must be assisted in this, so that they’re able to develop their companies and create new jobs through investment. Therefore we’re creating investment worth thousands of billions of forints to support enterprises, with loans at an interest rate of around zero per cent and wage support. So Hungary will employ every instrument known to contemporary European policymakers. From country to country the balance or emphasis among methods will differ, it will vary; and every country will establish this balance according to its own traditions. We are building a work-based economy, and so in Hungary the main thrust of the instruments being used is the creation of jobs. I shall not be diverted from this path. Of course wages are important, but someone will only receive a wage if they have work. So the precondition for a livelihood and receiving a wage is that there is work. One can debate over whether we should or are able to increase wages, but we can only talk about wage increases if there is work, because that is what gives rise to incomes and livelihoods. So when in 2010, in the middle of the economic crisis, the people entrusted me with the leadership of the state, I announced – and we committed to – a policy of creating one million jobs within ten years. We created those jobs. We promised that everyone who wanted to work would have work. And there has been work for everyone. Now the pandemic has brought about a new situation, but the way of thinking which was effective in 2010 and pulled us out of trouble then will also be successful now – mutatis mutandis, of course, because new instruments must be employed, and the world has changed. It will pull us out of this trouble, there will be jobs and we will be smoothly restored – more quickly, I think, than a lot of people today believe – to the path of a successful Hungarian economy. We shall find our way back to that path.

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