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Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Hír TV programme “Hungary Live”

Andrea Földi-Kovács: Good evening, this is Hungary Live, and I’m Andrea Földi-Kovács. The coronavirus pandemic could once again lay Europe low. A record number of new infections have been registered in several countries. In such a situation decision-makers face a serious dilemma, as the economy and people’s health must be protected at the same time. My guest is Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Good evening.

Good evening.

Prime Minister, you’ve just come from a Cabinet meeting. What decisions did you make?

We made around a dozen decisions, as we usually do, but in relation to your question, the decisions about the pandemic are the ones worth recounting.

Among these, were there any with, say, a direct influence on people’s daily lives in the short term?

The usual procedure is that the Operational Group reports on the situation in an international context, and then makes proposals – some of which we accept, and some of which we don’t. The situation now is that the key issue is the provision of hospital beds. I’ll try to avoid giving a complicated explanation. We’re preparing for a worst-case scenario in which 200,000 Hungarians could be infected at the same time. Their care would require 16,000 hospital beds and 800–1,000 ventilators. The first question is always whether these numbers are still true – and whether we would have enough beds, equipment, people, doctors and nurses if the number of infections were 400,000. And then we always decide on whether or not, in order to deal with the pandemic, we should postpone operations and the medical care forming the backbone of the healthcare system’s normal work. In other words, whether or not we should involve more hospitals in pandemic-related care. And today we decided that we don’t yet need to postpone operations. How do we know this? I, too, always ask the Minister how we know that we don’t need to do this. Usually the answer is that in the spring the Hungarian medical community and scientists – medical mathematicians and epidemiologists – were able to predict such eventualities about a week and a half in advance. So the Minister was able to act in a completely responsible manner when he reported the predicted development of the pandemic over the following week and a half. Now that we’re in the second wave and have gained experience, our ministers can usually venture to make predictions three weeks in advance. Although the pandemic will remain on an upward curve, at the moment we don’t expect the kind of large-scale change over the next three weeks that would lead to the cancellation of scheduled treatment and operations…

I’m sorry to interrupt, but a state of emergency has been declared in the Czech Republic, and the Slovenes are also enacting stricter measures. You’re saying that there won’t be any need for such a move now in the upcoming three-week period. What would be the point at which you’d say that such measures would, after all, be needed?

Those who’ve served in the army might more easily understand what I’m about to say. Army barracks used to be classified as Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3. Now we’re classifying the hospitals in that way. We have first-line hospitals, and now they are where people infected with the virus are being treated. If the beds there are fully occupied, then the second-line hospitals will be brought into play, followed by the third-line hospitals. Yes, a hospital is not enough on its own, because you also need doctors and nurses. In favourable circumstances these people are located more or less optimally, but favourable circumstances aren’t very common. So we’ll often need to relocate or redeploy hospital staff, doctors and nurses to the hospitals where they’re needed. We’ve also heard this today in the report on the situation related to redeployment measures. This is always the most uncomfortable thing. And today we’ve received a report that the number of people who have been redeployed is still less than 1 per cent of all doctors and nurses. So we even have reserves in that regard.

We’ll address that later, because the Hungarian Medical Chamber has raised objections, including on the relocation of doctors, but these are healthcare considerations and healthcare institutions. Can stricter measures be expected in the short to medium term?

Not initially, because we believe that the voice of the public expressed in the national consultation provides a good foundation for our decisions, and that voice has said that the country must function. We succeeded in defending ourselves in the spring, and that unity has given confidence to the public, to the Government and, I hope, to people working in hospitals. If we pull together we will again succeed together, without having to shut down the country. So now we’re still moving in that direction, the country is functioning, and meanwhile we are defending ourselves.

In April you personally announced a major economic protection package, which will be worth hundreds of billions of forints. Will this continue along with the continuation of the pandemic?

Today we also decided on quite a few questions that were brought before us by the economy protection operational group. These included tax breaks and economic stimulus measures. Katalin Novák, the newly appointed Minister for Family Affairs, presented the pillars of a new home-creation programme. We have also accepted a VAT rate of 5 per cent within this – so the VAT on housing construction projects lasting up until 31 December 2022 will again be 5 per cent. And the Minister presented a number of other similarly important proposals. We’ve employed a 5 per cent rate of VAT before, it is well developed, and so I feel confident in talking about it. There’s still work to be done on the other measures, we have to work on them, and when the details are resolved the Minister will describe them to you, to the media.

Will legislative amendments be needed in the meantime?

There will be some in the meantime, yes; this will definitely require, for example, the simplification of tax rules, tax procedure rules, and a reduction in bureaucracy.

As you’ve mentioned, doctors and nurses are needed alongside hospital beds. The Government has announced that for doctors there will be a 120 per cent pay rise, introduced in several stages. You’ve said that this is a historic step, because although in the past every government has stated that it’s necessary, until now no one has taken action on it. Why is this happening now?

The word “historic” is rather overused, so perhaps many people find it boring. So many historic things are happening to us every day – the pandemic itself being one of them – that I wouldn’t approach it from that direction, from the direction of history. We can nevertheless say that here in Hungary this hasn’t happened at any time over the past 50, 60 or 70 years, and so we can call it a breakthrough. Yet I don’t look at the world in that context, but in the context of the pandemic. And we’ve had to answer the question of whether it is right to risk pay increases of such a size during this pandemic, in an economic crisis and in the midst of budgetary difficulties. And as this pandemic will last another seven or eight months, and we’ll be seeing it on an upward curve with no escape until there’s a vaccine, the doctors will be under enormous pressure. The line of logic in my head has been “When, if not now?” So when there’s such a burden, when everyone can see that doctors really do need superhuman strength in their work, when will we take these important steps to increase pay, if not right now?

As this is a global pandemic and good doctors are needed everywhere, in every Member State, I’d like to ask you whether this has generated additional force drawing them towards other countries.

There is such an effect generally, because Hungarian doctors are world-class. I don’t know if this is an age-old talent, an instinct within Hungarians, or if it’s due to the standard of our training. It’s possibly due to both of these factors, and definitely to tradition, as in Hungary the medical profession has a highly prestigious tradition going back hundreds of years. So it may be that Hungarian doctors are among the best in the world and have world-class abilities as a result of all these factors. The reason that in the spring, in the first wave of the pandemic, we were among the top 20–25 countries in terms of defending ourselves was because our doctors did world-class work – better than their counterparts in many Western European countries. So there will always be a pull factor drawing them elsewhere, because Hungarian doctors will always be very good and sought-after; they will always be in great demand.

Can this pay increase counteract this pull factor? What’s the calculation on this?

On paper, yes. In documents I’ve seen various levels of pay rise, with consequences assigned to each. Generally this is what decision-making material looks like. Those presenting the material told me that there’s a point, a level, at which there’s a chance of doctors remaining here at home. I repeat that our best doctors can continue to count on getting better financial offers abroad than here at home. But it’s difficult to live in another country, and after all we are Hungarians, and people like to pay back the knowledge gained here, where they received it from their teachers. So I don’t think that doctors’ salaries are the sole factor determining where they work. Of course if pay is inhumanly low and working conditions are uncivilised, and if, say, the culture one has to work in – the hospital culture – tends to be repellent, then one doesn’t grin and bear it, but escapes from it. So everywhere we need to improve, we need to create friendly, inclusive workplaces in hospitals for both patients and doctors – places where it is good to work. In essence a hospital is a difficult place, because people don’t go there for fun. So in essence it’s a very difficult place; but if possible it can still have an encouraging atmosphere and culture. Let’s be good to one another: doctors to patients and patients to doctors. Let’s have decent wages and decent career opportunities, so that if someone works harder and better, they will enjoy more success. I think that in combination all this fundamentally influences someone’s decision to go or stay.

How much of this particular pay increase will need to come from the central budget?

There’s a small risk in this, because we’ve made calculations, but no one can give a cast-iron number, because in our hospitals today we employ doctors in ten or eleven different forms of legal relationship – each of these legal relationships having its own pay consequences – and we want to transform the system so that no one loses out. We can say that we’ll definitely be paying at least twice as much as what we’ve paid so far from the budget, from the treasury. This is 100 billion forints, or more like 200 billion.

And you have the funds in the budget for that.

The Finance Minister approved the proposal. I’d like to emphasise again and again that the pay scale and the new rules on gratuities were proposals from the Medical Chamber, word for word, number for number. So we accepted them, and the Finance Minister gave them the go ahead.

Yet the Chamber is voicing criticism again. They say that they’re not soldiers, or the Government shouldn’t treat them like soldiers. They’ve mainly voiced criticisms in connection with the redeployment of doctors and the regulation of secondary work in the private sphere. What’s your view on that?

These are different issues. As regards redeployment, there is a pandemic. Everyone in the country can see that redeployment is a matter of life and death. I think we must all accept – myself as well as hospital workers – that if we have to go we have to go. Because if someone doesn’t, or if we can’t find someone else to replace him or her, then someone will die because they won’t get the care they need. The appropriate legal regulation of redeployment is inevitable in a pandemic, when work circumstances are not normal, and trouble strikes sometimes here, sometimes there. Legislation on status must provide for a redeployment system. Naturally redeployment mustn’t be routine and doctors mustn’t be sent from one place to another at a moment’s notice. Redeployment mustn’t be used to correct for poor organisation: hospitals must be managed well, there must be good planning, and then redeployment will only be needed when problems arise. But problems will arise at times such as these, and hence there is the need for redeployment. They won’t need to be soldiers – and incidentally we have enough army doctors: if it’s very important for soldiers to be doctors, our army doctors can do that special work outstandingly well. Hungary’s military hospital is our NATO Centre of Excellence for Military Medicine, and exceptionally talented people work there.

You mentioned gratuities. We’ll see whether or not the country will be able to rid itself of this old habit. Despite the fact that both giving and taking gratuities will be illegal, doctors will have to get used to refusing them, and patients will have to get used to not offering them. Do you think we can eliminate this habit in the short term?

If I knew the answer to that question, I’d be a happy person. We must try. Here, too, all I can say is that it’s difficult to be smart from a distance. We could have adopted such rules years ago, but it would have been more than risky to take such a political stance until doctors started demanding that we adopt them. This is what the Medical Chamber has asked for, however. They themselves developed the texts of the bills and the relevant passages of the Penal Code. So I ventured to stand by them, and I can tell the Medical Chamber that we did this together, and now we must defend it together. The Medical Chamber – whose cooperation and work I will continue to rely on in the future – is right to say that the adopted legislation contains more than ten questions which must be regulated with future decrees. We haven’t solved all the problems, we haven’t answered all the questions, and without the Medical Chamber there are quite a few questions we won’t be able to answer. So we will continue to need them in the future. This is quite apart from the fact that, beyond the sphere of decrees and not regulated by them, there’s also a moral sphere, in which the Medical Chamber will have to set standards and ensure that they’re observed. So the healthcare system can’t be operated without the Medical Chamber.

We’ll have to wait and see whether we’ll be able to get rid of the system of gratuities. At any rate, we probably won’t be able to get rid of foreign criticism any time soon. The latest news is that today George Soros called upon the EU to launch a “test case” against Hungary, after the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in favour of the European Commission on all counts related to its infringement procedure against Hungary in response to the so-called “lex CEU” legislation. What is your view on that?

First of all, we always implement the judgments of the European Court – regardless of whether we believe them to be right or wrong, professionally sound or unsound, intelligent or perhaps absurd. This will also be the case now. This won’t cause much difficulty, as there are a number of legal solutions that will satisfy the European Court’s decision – although we need answers to some questions that have yet to be clarified. This means that dialogue will continue. So if anyone wants to launch a test case against Hungary, we won’t spoil their fun.

Were you surprised by his suggestion?

After all is said and done, George Soros is Hungarian; and he’s the kind of patriot who doesn’t surprise us when he attacks his own country from abroad. And, if I may put it this way, another reason these things don’t surprise me is that what matters here is not what is said but why it’s said. The attacks against Hungary are attacks by the European Left on countries – and in this respect Hungary is an important country – where the Left is not in power. They always and only attack governments in countries where the Left isn’t in power. And they’re attacking these governments because they want to enable the Left in these countries to sooner or later get back into government. You’re young and might not remember it, but people of my generation remember what I’m talking about when I say that this is what was called “internationalist assistance”. It was internationalist assistance when Russian troops – pardon me, Soviet troops – were directed here to defend the communists. Today the situation is the same: the Hungarian Left is weak, and the people are more against them than with them – and they themselves are against the people, but that’s another matter. At such times international troops are deployed, and internationalist assistance is provided in order to assist the Left into government. This is what the attacks against Hungary are about. Naturally lawyers must look into everything thoroughly, interpret every issue and answer every question – because this boxing match is fought by having to answer every question. But the heart and meaning of the matter is not this, but why what is happening is happening. I repeat: it is happening because in Brussels they want to help the Hungarian Left into power.

You’ve talked – also with reference to the orchestrated attacks – about the phenomenon of the “Soros sausage”, which is a processed product manufactured with many different additives. What role is the Hungarian opposition playing in these orchestrated attacks?

Sometimes one expresses oneself bluntly. I’m a patient man who accords everyone the respect they deserve, but at times I also feel flashes of anger, and that’s when blunt expressions like “Soros sausage” emerge. The Hungarian opposition parties – from the far right all the way to the communists – really have been ground up and stuffed into the sausage. They’re all there inside the skin, and – as the person standing behind all this and financing it is none other than George Soros – I can only call it the Soros sausage.

Recently the Government has also been fiercely criticised by Věra Jourová. She has described Hungary as a “sick democracy”. And then there’s the Vice President of the European Parliament…

Let me just say that “sick democracy” doesn’t sound good, but this alone would hardly have caused us to raise our voices or our eyebrows. The truly intolerable statement was not this, but when she said that the Hungarian people are not in a position to be able to make independent decisions. This is not about politics and democracy; this is about the Hungarian people. This gentlewoman from over there in Czechia thinks that Hungarians are dimwits who aren’t in a position to make their own decisions: the poor souls make decisions, but they’re unable to make decisions of their own, because they’re not in a position to do so. This is such an insult that at times like this we must say, “Enough of that talk: this is no longer about politics, it goes deeper, and so it’s best to call a halt to it.”

Yes, but nothing happened in response. You suggested that Věra Jourová be removed from her post as Vice President, and you’ve also said that you’ll discuss this in person with Ursula von der Leyen when you get the chance. Have you received a reply yet from the President of the European Commission?

Not yet; everything in its own time.

Another brief question related to the activities of the Soros Open Society Foundations. Věra Jourová maintains good relations with Gerald Knaus, the head of the European Stability Initiative. The intelligence services have launched an investigation. If they conclude that Mr. Knaus has committed a crime, can he be banned from the country, or can banning this gentleman be placed on the agenda?

The Hungarian legal system has a wide range of instruments. But I don’t think that these facts are new: the fact that Ms. Jourová is one of George Soros’s people – or, to put it even more strongly, that he has her eating out of the palm of his hand – is something we all know, and something we’ve known all along. So Věra Jourová is George Soros’s representative in the European Commission. She doesn’t represent the Czechia, she doesn’t represent Czechs, she doesn’t represent Europeans, and she doesn’t even represent the Commission. She represents George Soros. This is the situation; this is European politics. One shouldn’t be offended, but neither should one be silent about it. We must simply face the fact that this is where we stand. Just consider how absurd things have become: if today the European press want to say something bad about, say, the Hungarian prime minister or Hungary, we are classed together with the American president or the British prime minister. But for 150 years the ambition of Hungarian democracy and Hungarian politics has been to be classed together with model democracies such as the United States or Britain. That is what we’ve achieved now. This is how absurd the situation is in European politics today. And so let me underline once more that words are not unimportant, but what truly counts is the intentions behind the words.

Let’s look at the intentions behind the words. Together with other city leaders, Mayor of Budapest Gergely Karácsony has proposed that the EU should directly finance Hungarian left-wing councils or left-led councils. They claim that while EU bodies and leaders can legitimately criticise the Government with regard to the rule of law, such rule of law criticisms don’t apply to local governments led by left-liberal politicians.

Peeling away the political intention behind this and taking it seriously, I can tell you that there are already very significant sums of money in the European Union’s budget which are not disbursed to Member States. These funds are not distributed by the Member States, but can be applied for directly to fund certain programmes. Hungarians are not performing heroically in this field. I’m glad that, all of a sudden, Hungarian left-wing local governments have girded their loins and now feel that they’d be able to strongly represent their cities’ inhabitants in the fight for European funds; but they’ve had exactly those opportunities up to now, and they haven’t performed well. So my message to them is to be cautious. I think that local governments are also better served if the Hungarian state represents the interests of the Hungarian people: we are better able to represent the interests of the people of Budapest or other settlements led by opposition councils, and we can acquire more funding for them. But if someone thinks that they want to try this, I won’t talk the Mayor of Budapest or anyone else out of doing so. Let them try; such opportunities already exist. Incidentally, money isn’t simply being thrown at the Hungarian government: firstly, we must pay a contribution; secondly, most funding is awarded for specific programmes. So if you haven’t got a good programme, if you’re unable to defend its foundations from a professional point of view, then you won’t be able to receive funds from the European Union. We must also remember that EU funding isn’t a gift: they’re taking more money out of Hungary than we’re receiving. So as regards the balance of monies coming into and going out of Hungary, today more money is going out of Hungary than is coming in, including EU funds. To complicate things further, the current EU regulations are setting up a new recovery fund to deal with the economic crisis. At last! Because I think that in Europe today we have no more important task than focusing on the pandemic, the fight against the virus and its economic consequences. The fact that meanwhile the European Left is fighting duels over the rule of law is deeply irresponsible; now is not the time for such things. The crisis management fund known as “Next Generation” is a loan. It’s not something that Hungary will be given: together we’ll take out a loan on the financial markets. And if one country or another is unable to pay, then we will have to pay instead of them. I don’t want to name particular countries, but there are southern countries that haven’t been able to pay in the past, and dark clouds are gathering over more than one of these. So that is absolutely not about some EU money coming to Hungary: it’s the part of the loan we jointly take out that is due to us, and somewhat more. If my calculations are right it will be somewhat more, but on the whole this is debt.

Just a very short question on this. Will taking out this loan benefit Hungary? Our share from the loan would be around 16 billion – unless they withhold some of this, or decide not to pay us a single cent because of objections related to the rule of law. Is it worth joining this collective borrowing or collective debt, considering that we might not get any of it?

If I only consider the Hungarian interest in a narrow sense, it’s difficult to say for sure. They want to provide us with two types of credit. One of these will be available for individual Member States to draw on directly, but under the EU flag: a country takes it out directly and pays it back directly. The other part will be taken out collectively and paid back collectively. So whether it would benefit Hungary is more than questionable. Why, therefore, did we agree to it? Why did the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government accept it? We did so because there are countries, particularly in the South, which will collapse if they don’t receive this financial assistance. And while they won’t drag us down with them if that happened, because we’re not a member of the eurozone, there’s no doubt that we would also suffer, and we would share some of their affliction. This is why we decided that while from a narrow Hungarian perspective the costs are equal to the benefits, or perhaps somewhat higher, it’s worth sharing this risk with the others if we follow the European logic and take solidarity into consideration. This is what we eventually decided. But let me repeat that this is not some manna from Heaven that we only have to pick up to instantly enjoy its sweet taste: this is debt, which we will have to repay. It’s true that repayments will not start immediately, but we’ll start repaying them in seven years’ time, and we’ll continue paying for thirty years. Our children will also be paying.

There are still very many unanswered questions, and we’ll see how they turn out. Prime Minister, thank you for joining us this evening. You’ve been watching Wednesday evening’s edition of “Hungary Live”. Thank you for watching.