22 February 2016, Budapest
Honourable Speaker, Honourable House,
Following the EU summit at the weekend I concluded that, due to the importance of the decisions adopted there, it would be right and proper for the Honourable House to receive a first-hand account of the summit’s consequences. These are far-reaching, and it only stands to reason that they should attract a great deal of interest.
We have rarely spoken about the British initiative before the wider Hungarian public, but in fact what the British have initiated is nothing less than a reform of the European Union. In Hungary only the referendum is usually mentioned: whether there will be one or not, and if so, under what conditions. But in fact the British have proposed that we should thoroughly reform the European Union – without treaty amendment if possible. They proposed this because, in a referendum to be held sometime this year, they are planning to ask the citizens of the United Kingdom whether the people of Britain wish to stay within a reformed European Union, or to leave. So what we are talking about is not just a series of not very significant decisions in preparation for a referendum, but a United Kingdom initiative which seeks to reform the very essence of the European Union. Following lengthy discussions at the latest EU summit, the EU finally approved these reform proposals.
The British argument is that their proposals – these reforms – will serve to make the European Union stronger. According to the British this must be achieved in three ways. We must make the European Union more competitive; we agreed on this, and therefore changed a few things. We need less bureaucracy and fewer bureaucratic procedures; on this we also agreed. And the British also said that the role of national parliaments must be enhanced. I am speaking about these issues before the Honourable House because these reforms not only apply to governments, but also to national parliaments. The role of national parliaments must be extended, and we must stop Brussels withdrawing powers by stealth; we must stop powers being delegated to Brussels without treaty amendment and without having agreed certain issues on their merits. The United Kingdom has said that this practice must come to an end, and the role of national parliaments must therefore be strengthened. We shall achieve this as part of a complicated procedure, and we shall increase the role of national parliaments in the EU legislative process. Interestingly these issues attracted less interest, despite the fact that from a historical perspective these are more significant.
What the British also proposed, and what we had to decide on, is related to the United Kingdom’s specific social benefits system, which is different from the systems of all other EU Member States – not only in its solutions, but also in its very foundations. Given the specificities of this system, is it possible to change the system of in-work benefits for non-UK nationals working in the United Kingdom? There were some major threats here, and we had to protect very important EU principles – including Central European and Hungarian interests.
The solution eventually arrived at means that, as a result of the V4 countries’ joint action, we have succeeded in protecting the principle that the freedom of movement for workers continues to extend across the entire territory of the European Union and to every one of its citizens. In other words, there is no scope for restricting the right of the citizens of a single EU Member State in taking up employment in another MemberState.
Similarly, we have also succeeded in upholding the principle that, no matter how complex the United Kingdom’s social benefits system, if somebody – say a Hungarian – works there and pays contributions, they are eligible for social benefits based on these contributions; this is something which cannot be touched. So those who pay for social benefits or contribute to shared risk management continue to remain eligible without restrictions of any kind.
Due to the specificities of the British system, the real debate was about there being benefits which workers do not pay for, but for which they are nonetheless eligible. The question was what should happen with benefits paid to third-country nationals, for which no contributions are paid in Britain. Here, too, we have succeeded in ensuring that these social benefits cannot be taken away. In the future it will only be possible – on justified grounds and after a specific decision – to initiate suspension of these benefits for a fixed period if the resulting social expenditure causes problems; after this fixed period the former regulation will have to be reverted to. This means that we have even succeeded in protecting benefits which people working in the United Kingdom did not pay for in the form of contributions.
And finally, an important result is that right at the beginning of the talks we managed to exclude any changes relating to cross-border commuters. Therefore there can be no changes to the situation of Central Europeans and Hungarians who do not settle in another EU Member State, but go there in the morning to work and come home in the evening, or go there at the beginning of the week and come home at the weekend.
Heated debate developed around the issue of child benefits. Here the situation is that there are families where one or both parents work in the United Kingdom and claim child benefits, but their children do not live in the United Kingdom. The question was about what we can do in this case. To illustrate the dimensions of the issue, according to British statistics for 2014 – the accuracy of which we are not responsible for – some 55,000 Hungarians now work in the United Kingdom. According to our data, our surveys, there are approximately 220–224 Hungarian families with one or both parents working abroad, and with children living in Hungary. These are the numbers, as far as we can see. We are happy to discuss whether these figures are correct or not and how they can be established; all I want to say now is that this does not concern Hungarian workers in Britain in general, or workers who live in Britain with their families. What I am talking about now concerns families in which the parents work abroad and the children are here in Hungary. This challenge is not the greatest for Hungary, as in Poland there are tens of thousands of families registered in this situation. Our situation is more or less the same as that of the Slovaks; it affects us about as much as it does the Slovaks. In this regard the solution we accepted was that if the child does not live in the country where the parent is working, the child benefit can be indexed. In other words the benefit can be indexed using a mathematical model which adjusts it to the cost of living in the country where the child lives. Without mentioning specific figures, this is how things stand: there are countries in the European Union where the local benefit per child amounts to between seven and ten pounds, while in Britain this is more than one hundred pounds. This is the sensitive point which the British wanted to address. We agreed that these benefits cannot be taken away, and the parents continue to remain eligible for child support. If the children live in Britain, they are entitled to it the same as everyone else. If, however, the child does not live in Britain, the benefit must be indexed: it must be calculated according to the cost of living in the country where the child lives. This is a fair agreement.
There are two important things which we have protected, however, and which are perhaps even more important than the specifics of this arrangement. The first important thing is that the European Union has a principle, and if we do not honour that principle the entire European Union will disintegrate. This is called, in Brussels terminology, the “principle of community preference”; this means that, within the territory of an EU Member State, no MemberState’s citizens may be worse off than a non-EU national. In other words, a non-EU national may not be subject to more favourable regulation than the citizen of an EU Member State. This is relevant in countries which once had extensive colonial empires.
And finally, an important conclusion to this debate is that in the talks Hungary would not have been able to achieve the results it did if it had acted alone. No doubt we have good negotiators in Brussels, and we do not normally back down; but nonetheless I have to say that to attain these results Hungarian heroism would not have been enough. For these results it was also necessary for the governments of Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland to share a common stance and to make common declarations throughout. So I would like to thank the governments of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland for having persevered, and for having proved good partners in this battle.
Now the matter is for the citizens of the United Kingdom. We have changed and reformed the European Union as much as was possible without treaty amendment and, following these reforms, whether the British wish to remain members of the European Union or not is their decision entirely; we do not wish to influence them. Naturally, without influencing their decision, it is important to state that Hungary – or at least this part of the House – sees it as an honour to share a community with a country with such great traditions as Britain has. We would be happy if we could continue to share this community with them. We believe that it would also serve our interests best if Britain remained a member of the European Union; but what would be best for the British must be decided by the British themselves in Britain, as part of the referendum to be held in the United Kingdom, rather than in the Hungarian parliament.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Naturally we also reviewed the European migration situation, and adopted a few decisions. I would like to provide further information on this topic. First of all, there was and is agreement in Europe that 2015 was a difficult year not only for Hungary, but for the whole of the European Union. Millions of unidentified and unknown people emerged on the southern borders of the continent and Hungary. In 2015 the Hungarian response was loud and clear: controls, identification, interception and turning back, as required under the Schengen Agreement. While this was costly and difficult, so far it has proved to be a successful and effective method of protection, and we wish to continue this in the future.
Regarding migration, the most important development at the EU summit was that for the first time the Hungarian approach was adopted for the whole of Europe. It was finally declared that the main priority and the most important task is stopping the migrants. In the past all sorts of other criteria took priority. This is the first time that this was designated as the main priority. We made it clear that the external borders must be protected; earlier this had also only been a secondary consideration compared to various international asylum and humanitarian criteria. And we made it clear that everyone must observe the terms of the Schengen Agreement. I have to say that, in a political sense, at this point in time we are where the European Union should have been one year ago. Anyway, the countries on the Balkan route, including Austria, have embarked on a path of common sense.
After all the criticisms levelled against Hungary because of the policy it introduced a year ago, everyone else is now adopting this policy, and in fact the whole of the European Union has approved these principles. But due to all the criticisms, of course, no one comes to shake our hands in acknowledgement of the fact that a year ago we introduced the same principles that they have introduced only now. This would be a nice human gesture, because a proper dose of self-awareness and self-evaluation is an admirable human virtue; but it would be unreasonable to expect this in politics. Let us point out, however, that whichever way they may put it, and no matter how they argue, in fact the European Union approved the very principles and designated the very tasks on the issue of migration which the Hungarian government has proposed throughout. It follows from this that the protection of our southern borders is now a realistic option, and if the Austrians keep their word and the other countries on the Balkan route do likewise, it will be easier to protect Hungary’s southern borders. This will not be truly easy, as you have also seen the news reports showing the need to reinforce the physical barriers; and it is also conceivable that they will have to be extended. The Government has not yet decided on such extension, but is prepared for this eventuality.
At this juncture I would also like to point out that while in 2015 Hungary adopted its own decisions unilaterally, we would not have been able to defend them and make them general within the European Union had we not succeeded in incorporating them into a common Central European V4 stance. On this issue the Czechs, the Slovaks and the Poles stood by Hungary throughout, providing us with support, and – when necessary – coming here physically, thereby giving an international dimension to the efforts Hungary initiated on a national basis.
This is the good news. The bad news, Ladies and Gentlemen, Honourable Members of Parliament, is that we shall be forced to face very significant threats in 2016. While the situation is perhaps improving in the South, the situation will be increasingly difficult in the West. At the weekend the European Union decided that its summit on migration and the reform of the entire asylum system, which was originally scheduled for 17th to 18th March, should be brought forward to around the 5th, 6th and 7th March. This clearly indicates the gravity of the situation. This rescheduling is not only because of the German state elections – though that is easy to see. There is much more at stake. The situation is urgent indeed, and Hungary – along with the other V4 countries – is under enormous pressure. This matter relates to whether or not the EU will succeed in pushing a new EU asylum and migrant system down the throats of the Central European countries, including ours; such a system would authorise those EU countries which are taking in migrants to distribute them among the other EU countries – including those which have not taken in migrants, do not want to, are opposed to this and do not want any part in it. So what is at stake in the next EU summit at the beginning of March is whether the heads of state and government will sanction a compulsory resettlement quota system which would, as part of the EU’s legal system and as a kind of permanent asylum mechanism, continuously transport to Hungary migrants whom we do not wish to let in and whom Hungary has been stopping at its southern borders. This is what is at stake over the next few weeks.
A completely different question, of course, is that the European Union has already adopted a one-off decision on the resettlement of 160,000 migrants, to be split into two groups: one of 40,000 and the other of 120,000. We did not accept this decision, and as a result we launched a legal challenge. Two countries – Slovakia and Hungary – did not even accept this one-off decision. Try as they might to force its implementation, it is a very complex legal issue as to whether we are required to implement such a regulation while it is subject to legal review. We do not wish to implement it, but we wish to wait for the judgement of the court, and we want it to rule that this obligation was imposed on Hungary unlawfully. As to how our fortunes will play out before the Court of Justice of the European Union, we shall see. At all events, both the Slovaks and we are continuing to hold out and we shall not accept the one-off decision on the compulsory resettlement quotas; and while now I cannot speak on behalf of the Slovaks, on behalf of the Hungarian government I can say that we shall also not accept the idea of turning this one-off decision into a general regulatory principle and settlement in the future. This will be the question for the March summit.
I am convinced that taking action against the European Union’s attacks from Brussels will be the main priority over the next few weeks and months. I would like to inform our Members of Parliament that the Hungarian government will evaluate the situation at its Wednesday meeting and will formulate a government position on how we should seek to avert Brussels’ attempt to use its regulatory regime to transport and settle in Hungary – on an ongoing basis, over the years – unforeseeable numbers of people with whom we do not wish to live. Once the Government has decided on Wednesday, I shall inform my fellow Members of Parliament and the public of our decision.
Thank you for your attention.
The transcript of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s address to Parliament before the start of daily business and his response to comments on 22 February 2016.
Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister