Katalin Nagy: More than 800 new coronavirus cases in one day, and so far only 5.9 million people in Hungary have received their first dose of the vaccine. Every country, incidentally, is struggling to persuade people to have themselves vaccinated. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. What do you think about the proposal that’s been put forward in one EU country – which morally is perhaps a little problematic – to pay 100 euros each to people who are willing to be vaccinated?
Good morning. It’s autumn, and a rainy, dreary autumn at that. We don’t like it much, but for the virus there’s no better weather – as we experienced last year. Somehow the virus spreads faster in this kind of autumn weather. The only thing that will help is vaccination. Of course you can shut yourself indoors and wear a mask, but that won’t protect you; the epidemiologists tell me that against this kind of virus the only thing that helps is vaccination. Those who don’t accept the vaccine are in danger. In fact, in our consultations, some people – some professors – have gone further, and said that everyone who doesn’t get themselves vaccinated will be found by the virus. So we’re in danger, and we need to look after ourselves. I see the Hungarians as a serious people, we’re a serious country. So to Hungarian ears the idea that we should pay someone to protect themselves sounds somewhat strange. Well, serious people are well aware when they’re in danger, they assess the extent of the danger and then make personal decisions: to be vaccinated or not, to accept the risk or protect themselves. Everyone must be aware that of course if they don’t get vaccinated they’re not only putting themselves at risk, but also others; because they can infect others who still haven’t been vaccinated. So the responsible thing to do is to accept the vaccine. At the same time, there are many people in Hungary who are agitating against vaccination, spreading all sorts of scare stories; and these haven’t been without effect. Unfortunately this is why many people haven’t been vaccinated. I’d advise everyone to take the third dose. The number of our fellow citizens who have done so now stands at around 800,000. I’ll also take it next week – I feel that the time has come. Even though I’m not a fainthearted type of person, I somehow feel that I need this third vaccination. I’ll get it, and I advise everyone to follow my example.
Are the experts unambiguously saying that we need the third, booster jab to ensure that we don’t lose our immunity over time?
This is a very young virus, so no one can be sure about anything. Nevertheless, God knows how many variants are already out there, there will be new ones, and what the doctors can say for sure is that vaccines work. And it’s also certain that it’s better to have the third dose than not to have it. Maybe two would be enough. I’ve been accepting of the fact that people aren’t happy about having to get vaccinated. I knew that two were necessary, but I wasn’t sure about the third. Now I look at the data from surrounding countries, I look at the numbers here, and from them I see that it’s better to have the third vaccination than not to have it. Maybe that’s what will protect me from getting the disease, and maybe it will protect the elderly from leaving us before their time.
The media is reporting that there’s a recession in Western Europe. Youve just been at a meeting in Slovenia, and you said that Brussels is partly responsible for this situation, for this astonishing explosion in the price of energy. What does this mean?
For countries like Hungary, household utility charges are an extremely sensitive issue. There are richer countries for which utility bills aren’t as important an issue as they are in Hungary. But when the cost of utilities goes up it can bring misery to Hungarian families. Housewives know this better than I do. When they calculate the monthly family budget, they can see exactly how much they have to pay in energy bills. Moreover, this has also been an openly political issue in Hungary for the past 20 years. Young people may not remember this, or may not even have been born back then, but in 2002 there was a big election battle which we happened to lose and which the Socialists won. At the time we warned the Hungarian people that whenever there’s a left-wing government the big international suppliers are always given a free hand, because back then almost all electricity and gas supply was in their hands; and they always give them permission to raise prices, as they’re usually on the side of the international companies and demand that prices are determined by the market. At the time they denied that they had any such intention; but then later they raised the price of gas and electricity eleven times, with the price of electricity doubling and the price of gas more than doubling – perhaps even tripling. So in Hungary there’s still a battle between the political camps, and a debate about what to do about utility prices. Now a week or two ago – or a month ago – in Parliament I also clearly heard the left-wing parties saying that energy prices should be determined by the market, exactly as had been the case under the Gyurcsány-Bajnai government. I didn’t accept that, the Government rejected it, and in Parliament, too, we defended low energy prices. If energy prices now were at market levels, if we’d accepted a return to the situation during the Gyurcsány-Bajnai era, then the average annual Hungarian family energy bill would increase by more than 360,000 or 370,000 forints, and family budgets would be reduced by 32,000 thousand forints per month. So I think we must insist on the status quo, we must defend the cuts, we must make it clear that in Hungary there’s a fixed price, that it won’t change, and that families can certainly count on that. How good it is that this is the case. In many Western European countries now price rises are causing panic. Hungary isn’t unaffected, because fuel prices – which aren’t regulated, but fluctuate with the market – are bringing home to us precisely how much world energy prices have risen. Hungarians can see this in the prices at filling stations. But it wouldn’t be right for us to supply households with energy at world market prices, because that would create a hopeless situation for very many families. This is why we won’t compromise on this. Well now, where does Brussels come into this? Brussels comes into this because those fine bureaucrats have come to the conclusion that the way to fight climate change is to continually raise the price of energy – the price of energy produced from coal or gas, which push each other up. And now that the price of gas has gone up on the world market, there have been sharp retail price increases. They’re deliberately raising prices, so their thinking is diametrically opposed to that of us Hungarians. We say that we need to reduce the cost of electricity and protect the situation of families within society, while they think that the only way to force economies to switch to a less polluting energy regime is to raise the price – because if the price of gas-generated electricity is high, people will buy something else. I say that people will buy something else if they have access to it; but if they don’t, and poor people can’t buy anything else, then up goes the gas price, and we’ll all have to pay that higher price. Well, that’s why I say that the decision from Brussels has played a decisive role in creating the world gas crisis. In Spain prices have risen by 400 per cent. And there are a number of other countries which are stronger and richer than us, but which are suffering quite a lot. So we must reverse these decisions, and we must change this. We’re most threatened by the European Commissioner called Timmermans. He’s threatening the people of Europe with high energy prices. They’ve calculated price development for the period leading up to 2050. And the prices and energy prices we’re seeing now are those we should be facing sometime around 2035.
So they’ve miscalculated.
Well, it’s been botched – I can’t put it any more elegantly than that. This is a serious policy error. The problem today is Brussels. So it isn’t the solution, it’s the problem. This is why the Poles and the Czechs have made it clear – and, rarely, they’ve been even more forceful than the Hungarians – that for them this is unacceptable. So the three of us – the Czechs, the Poles and the Hungarians – have made it very clear that we demand withdrawal of the rules that have contributed to the current high prices.
Will you have new proposals for the next summit in two weeks’ time?
We’ve already made several proposals, to change certain rules, to withdraw certain regulations, and to mobilise funding designed to be used in the European Union in times of crisis. So we’re not just being negative and we’re not just using our veto, but we’re making proposals on how to deal with this situation. This has been a big battle. So perhaps the best phrase is that there’s been enormous outrage. Instead of helping, Brussels is making the situation worse. This blew the fuses. There was an atmosphere that I’ve rarely experienced, and we weren’t able to come to an agreement. The outcome was that at the next summit of prime ministers in two weeks’ time the issue of energy charges should be on the agenda, and that the Polish-Czech-Hungarian line would hold.
Hungary’s economic growth forecast has been revised, and it seems highly likely that the annual growth rate won’t be 7.5 per cent, but 8 per cent. What opportunities for action does this give the Government, in addition to keeping its promise to pay back income tax paid by families with children, to pay the pension bonus of 80,000 forints, or to fight to bring back the full thirteenth month’s pension for senior citizens?
What’s the key point here? The key point is that the Hungarian economy has been able to reproduce the level of performance that it saw before the pandemic. It hasn’t managed this on its own, but has done so as a result of the work of the Hungarian people. When world energy prices change we’re disadvantaged, for example, by the fact that the Hungarian economy is one in which we don’t have our own resources for extraction – or we have very little in terms of energy resources or raw materials. So compared with many countries which – unlike us – haven’t lost territory, or which have been blessed with better economic resources, when there’s a problem we can’t protect ourselves by extracting more wealth from the ground – more gas, more oil or more ore. We lack all that. So all we have is the option of an economy which functions through work. So the performance of our economy always depends on how people perform, and how it works depends on how they work. This relates, by the way, to all workers – both skilled and unskilled, engineers, company managers and economic policymakers in government. If the people working in the economy perform well, the Hungarian economy performs well. If any of these people – be they a labourer or the economic minister – perform at a lower level, if any of them make a mistake, then it will be instantly visible in the performance of the economy. For example, when there were bad regulations under the Gyurcsány-Bajnai government, and it was better to live on benefits than to work, there was an instant effect on the Hungarian economy’s performance; because we can only live from work. So now, when we say that the economy’s performance has reached the level we were at before the pandemic, this is a great collective success for the whole of Hungary. And this is why we have the opportunity to do things that we didn’t dare to think about earlier. By the way, only 10 out of 27 EU countries have managed to do what we’ve done, which is to reach the level of economic performance we were at before the crisis. Unprecedented things are happening now. For example, we can pay pensioners a pension premium, linked to economic growth, which will be paid next month, in November, and will amount to 80,000 forints. We’re also adjusting for inflation, which is higher than we’d previously planned, and we’ll give that to pensioners. And in Hungary no one has ever given people back the tax they’ve paid. People tend to think that once the tax office has taken it, you can say goodbye to it. If you ask anyone, they’ll say that there’s hardly any more hopeless enterprise than trying to get money from the tax office. And there’s a lot of truth in that: the tax office isn’t there to give money back, but to take it, because it has to collect tax. By contrast, what will happen now is that the tax office will give back 600 billion forints. This is a huge figure, which should be visualised as giving back to 1.9 million families the tax that they paid in 2021. So after having deducted the family tax credit, if they’ve paid tax they’ll get it back – subject to an upper limit, of course. But this affects almost two million people. And we’ve just decided on wage increases. From 1 January 2022, we’ll increase the wages of nurses by 21 per cent, nursery daycare workers by 20 per cent, social workers by 20 per cent, and workers in the culture sector by 20 per cent. And although we’re in a great battle – and I’m talking about next year, about the economic performance of the coming year – I haven’t given up hope that we’ll succeed in achieving and creating the conditions for not only paying the second week of the thirteenth month’s pension, but for possibly paying all of it. The conditions for this aren’t yet in place, but if we work well in the next three to four months, and everyone in the country works well, then this will become possible. I think it’s important that in Hungary we’ve never had a situation where, for example, young people under the age of 25 don’t pay income tax. This affects one million young people, who can start their working lives while keeping their entire earnings for the first few years. The tax office won’t take anything from those earnings. I think these are all great things for Hungary. We’ll have had a good year if we can even manage – and this is dependent on the negotiations over the next few weeks – to actually raise the minimum wage to 200,000 forints; this would mean that in 2021 and 2022 the minimum wage would be higher than the average wage was under the Gyurcsány-Bajnai government. There are conditions for this, because entrepreneurs say that raising the minimum wage too quickly will be unaffordable for them, and that rather than raising wages they’ll be making people redundant. We need to find a solution to this – the usual approach being to cut taxes. So if employers are willing to raise the minimum wage, we’ll cut their taxes. The debate here is about numbers. We’re not far from an agreement: a week or two, a month, and an agreement could be reached. By the way, the national consultation has made it clear to the Government that it should fight for a minimum wage of 200,000 forints.
There are a lot of people who will be happy about the wage increase, but we know that there are also many other people keen to join the queue: there are teachers and local government workers. When can they expect a pay rise?
Everything depends on the performance of the economy. There’s a rule that we don’t break, that a civic government never breaks: you mustn’t take on debt to pay for wage rises. If only the Left never broke this rule. So, if we raise wages or pensions without higher economic performance, the country will go bankrupt. There have been several examples of this. This is how Hungary was bankrupted under the Gyurcsány-Bajnai government. So we need economic performance; if there’s economic performance, then there are resources to cover wage and pension increases. What’s more, economic performance must be sustainable. So it must be capable of being calculated, predicted and planned over a number of years – because once we’ve increased wages, we can’t reduce them again. And if you can’t reduce them, then without economic performance you take out loans, get mired in debt and the country goes bankrupt. So the important element of economic policy is that the rate of economic growth and the rate of wage increases must be in step with each other. This is why we can’t raise everyone’s wages at the same time. This isn’t for a lack of will: everyone would be happier, myself included, if everyone earned twice what we earn now. But this demands economic performance. The teachers are right, because they were the first to have a pay rise, sometime around 2013–14. At that time there was a large increase, they were ahead of all other occupational groups, and we placed them ahead of others. But in the meantime other wages have gone up and inflation has risen, and so they’ve slipped back. This isn’t fair, and so the teachers are right to want a pay adjustment. As I see it, a 10 per cent increase for teachers is possible next year; and if the economy continues to perform like this, then a bigger pay rise can be made in January 2023. They’re preparing for a strike, I think, so there’s some movement on that side. We’ll negotiate with each other and try to come to some sort of longer-term agreement, so that they get what they deserve for their work.
If the economy is in such good shape, and it has taken off, and – as you’ve mentioned in relation to 10 countries like this in the European Union – it’s regained the level that it was able to reach before the pandemic, then is there perhaps no need for the European Union credit line that we’re still fighting for, negotiating for, and that they’re very reluctant to give?
The clause you started your question with is a very dangerous one: “the Hungarian economy is in good shape”. We can indeed say this, but we must also remember that what we’re standing on – what the Hungarian economy is standing on – is thin ice. Because at the same time Hungary’s national debt is high. It’s always been high; when communism collapsed it was already higher than in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, since then we’ve managed to bring it down several times. Once during the civic government between 1998 and 2002 we managed to bring it down below 60 per cent, but under the subsequent Gyurcsány-Bajnai government it went back up to 82 per cent. Then we managed to get it down again to 61 per cent or so, and I thought we were about to reach 50 per cent. And then the pandemic hit, and we needed money to deal with the problem. Public debt subsequently increased again, so now it’s in a range between 75 and 80 per cent. When a country has public debt of 75 to 80 per cent the economy may be doing well, but there’s thin ice under its feet. So one needs to keep one’s wits sharp. Here a misguided economic policy decision or bad timing will break the ice beneath us. For example, I’ve never seen Austria get ahead of us in terms of public debt, to have a higher rate than us; they’re now at almost 90 per cent. And there are countries with desperate national debt levels of 150–160 per cent. That’s the gateway, the antechamber to debt slavery. They’ll be paying for the rest of their lives. I don’t want Hungary to slide into that band, so we need to use the wage increases and the revenues from economic performance in a way that also enables us to reduce debt. We need to bring the public debt back down to somewhere around 50 per cent. This will be a huge job in the coming years. So on the one hand things are going better than usual, and we can raise wages; but on the other hand the fundamentals – the foundations on which we stand – aren’t yet solid enough, and simultaneously they need to be strengthened. While we redecorate our house, we also need to strengthen its foundations. This isn’t eye-catching in the way that house redecoration and wage increases are eye-catching. In the meantime we also need to strengthen the foundations, which is less spectacular but just as important as raising wages. Reducing public debt, raising wages and development are all important at the same time. Now, as far as the money from Brussels is concerned, in Brussels we decided that collectively we’ll borrow money on the world market and give this money to the Member States, setting certain targets, so that they can rapidly emerge from the crisis. There was a big debate about whether or not this was necessary. I was one of those who wasn’t firmly committed one way or the other on that question, but in the end the collective wisdom was that on balance we should try this. But the starting point for this, for this decision, was that every country should get its share of this money quickly. By contrast, however, some countries received their money in June, and some – including Hungary – still haven’t received it. This isn’t fair. It means that the playing field isn’t level. The EU itself affects economic competition between countries, because those it gives money to gain an advantage – perhaps for several months – over those who don’t receive money. Why aren’t they giving it to us? Because of the LGBTQ lobby. The European Union is saying that it will give Hungary the money if we let into our schools LGBTQ, non-traditional – I don’t know how to say it and I don’t want to offend anyone – people who don’t live like us. This isn’t about girls who love boys and boys who love girls, but all mixed up. So they won’t give us the money if we don’t let the spokespeople for that world into our schools with our children. But, I ask you, what does this have to do with the economy? So the EU is abusing its power, it’s overstepping the powers that it has been invested with. No wonder there’s growing opposition to it in almost every country. Fortunately the Hungarian economy is doing well, and we don’t want to accept money from them if the price is to hand over the sexual education of our children to LGBTQ activists promoting all kinds of strange lifestyles. That’s out of the question! And we’ll get that money in the end, because it’s due to us – it’s just that unfortunately this debate is resulting in a delay. So the resources will have to come from elsewhere. Since the Hungarian economy has to function, we couldn’t have allowed the Hungarian economy to go without the money going to other countries, because then we’d be left behind in the competition. But for them this money is coming from the EU budget, and we’ve had to find it ourselves. But we’ve launched all the programmes on which we were going to spend the Brussels money. So the Hungarian economy must not be allowed to suffer just because Brussels confuses economic policy with sexual policy.
And finally, many people were surprised that Katalin Karikó, the Hungarian scientist, didn’t win either the Nobel Prize for Medicine or the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Were you also surprised by that decision?
We don’t know exactly what goes through the minds of the people who adjudicate the Nobel Prizes. This doesn’t dampen our enthusiasm at all, because Katalin Karikó is our hero, and she’s saved the lives of millions of people. So she’s saved the lives of millions. She may not have won a Nobel Prize for this, but the work that she’s done over many, many decades to achieve this is heroic, and we’re very proud of her. At the same time, Hungarians like to receive international recognition, and scientists, cultural figures and sportspeople are always in the spotlight, and when success is achieved in these fields, the spotlight is immediately on them. But there are other kinds of competition. We may not have won a Nobel Prize, but our young skilled workers have excelled in an international competition. There’s an international contest in which young skilled workers compete. The Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, which deserves recognition, organises Hungarian participation in this contest. There are Hungarian qualifiers, rounds and so on. Hungary has a large skilled work sector which isn’t visible, because it’s not as sensational as a Nobel Prize or a major discovery, but this world exists. It’s a densely populated, strong world, and it’s churning out ever better Hungarian skilled workers, one after another. Hungary once hosted such a competition, and we did well here, too. As far as I know, this time we finished somewhere around fifth or sixth place worldwide. And Hungarians prove to be the best in such classic trades as furniture making, garden design, website design, hairdressing, and so on, with almost 20 of our young people winning either a special prize or some kind of medal. So congratulations to them and their teachers! Hungary’s future not only depends on Nobel Prize winners – Hungary’s future depends on whether we will have world-class skilled workers. Indeed, Hungary must have the best workers in the world, because otherwise we cannot be among the best economies in the world. So we cannot function without their work. So I’m very happy that prizes for skilled work have been awarded to Hungarians, even if not a Nobel Prize.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.