Prime Minister of Hungary

Speech made to the Assembly

Thursday, 2 October 2003

Mr President, Mr Secretary General, ladies and gentlemen, to me politics is all about people. The art of governing begins precisely with human rights. This is why it is a particular pleasure for me to be here today at the invitation of the Council of Europe, the institution that was specially set up to protect human rights. I thank you for this honour.

I am representing a country which, almost fifteen years after the change of regime and thanks to the work of four different governments, is now a democratic law-based state with a competitive market economy. A modern Republic of Hungary will be definitively resuming its place in Europe next spring.

I say “resuming its place” because throughout its centuries of existence as a nation Hungary has always been part of Europe. At the turn of the last millennium St Stephen, the first King of Hungary, converted to Christianity and at the same time founded a European state. Thanks to its diligence, competitiveness and the European values which it has consistently embraced, Hungary has often been among the most progressive nations on our continent. This was the case, for instance, when in 1222, seven years after England, our King Andrew II enacted the second written constitution in Europe, the Golden Bull. This basic law, remarkable for its time, provided the seedbed for the rule of law in Hungary.

Mr President, I would like to briefly digress and say how touched I was to see that document on the wall in your office. I consider it a sign of interest and friendship, and was delighted to witness this.

Hungary is coming back to Europe after proving several more times during the twentieth century that Europe is its home. Two extremist dictatorships have soured the destiny of the Hungarian people. And yet neither of these dictatorships could divert it from its natural community of interests with Europe. The third Republic of Hungary that emerged immediately after the change of regime definitively committed itself to democracy, the market economy and the rule of law.

Even during the cold war our country managed to make itself heard on two occasions in favour of Europe and human rights. In 1956 the Magyar people attempted to restore democracy in the face of 4 000 Soviet tanks: this attempt was unsuccessful at the time. There was something else that surprised and touched me; coming into this room, I saw that our 1956 flag was on display, which bears witness to your interest for this historic episode. In 1989, during the peaceful change of regime, it was Hungary that began tearing down the Berlin Wall. Its role in the dismantling of the iron curtain gave fresh impetus to the establishment of the rule of law in the country.

Today, a free and independent Hungary is re-joining Europe of its own volition. Its admission to the Council of Europe around ten years ago was an important step along the road leading to Europe, because Hungarians want to live in a Europe in which peace, security, human rights and equal opportunities are decisive factors, in which performance and solidarity go together, in which success is a virtue but poverty no matter for shame, and in which the most successful bear the most responsibility.

If equal opportunities are to prevail, we need security in the international environment. We need a world in which our children can grow up in safety. I am convinced that one of our primary tasks is precisely to create such security in the home, in the streets, everywhere in Europe and the world. This explains the crucial importance of adopting effective and continuous measures against all threats to this security, against terrorism. This is the spirit in which Hungary is contributing to international co-operation in this field.

Honourable Assembly, we all need Europe. We need a Europe that can successfully represent its solid values in the world. I have spent much of my life in the business world. I have learnt that in order to be a good manager one needs a sound base. If Europe is to emerge as a good manager in international politics, we must first of all put our own house in order. This requires effective institutions that function smoothly. After Strasbourg I shall be going to Rome to attend the Intergovernmental Conference, at which I shall be representing Hungary as a nation that now has full member status.

After the success of the Convention, I am expecting this conference to conduct efficient business. The draft constitutional treaty is a good basis for negotiations. During these talks my government will be holding to three basic principles. First of all, the European Union must be effective and well coordinated, able to act at the international level. Second, it is in the interests of the whole continent to preserve legal equality among all member states. This is why the Commission must maintain the principle of “one country, one commissioner” and we must clearly spell out the rules on the presidency of the Council. It is out of concern for efficiency that we would wish to reinforce Community methods while maintaining the institutional balance. Third, it is also important within the European Union to clearly establish human rights and the rights of minorities. We are consequently proposing the protection of national and ethnic minorities in the constitutional treaty.

One of my government’s aims is to ensure that Hungary can play a stabilising role in central Europe and the western Balkans. We consider that good relations with our neighbours and the European integration of the countries in the region constitute the keystone of stability there. We have come down in favour of Nato membership for Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Once the conditions have been fulfilled, we would back the accession of Romania and Croatia to the European Union.

I consider the recent accession of Serbia and Montenegro to the Council of Europe a major step forward. Our task is to help the countries of the region, through our experience and with all the means at our disposal, to succeed in the democratic transformation of their societies and the reorganisation of their economies.

Co-operation can be meaningful only if it provides tangible results for all. This is why Hungary, under its general regional policy, has been providing free Hungarian visas for citizens from Ukraine and Serbia and Montenegro. It is vital and urgent that framework regulations on cross-border traffic on the periphery of the European Union are drawn up.

Europe is the home of minorities. This diversity is, at the same time, one of the continent’s great strengths. There is not a single country in Europe that does not have minorities. The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1201 are all major instruments whose guidelines are followed the length and breadth of Europe. This system of regulation needs ongoing revision, however. The latest Parliamentary Assembly report on the positive impact of regional self-government, and the rights of national minorities, merits attention. I am confident that, even after EU enlargement, the Council of Europe will manage to retain the role that it currently plays in protecting minorities.

Hungary is a typically European country even where its minorities are concerned. It has responsibilities towards these minorities, irrespective of whether they live inside or outside our national borders. The population of Hungary is ten million, and there are a further three million Hungarians living in neighbouring countries. The Hungarian Government follows three basic rules when it comes to providing support for Hungarians living abroad. First, we help Hungarians living abroad to safeguard their national identity, to preserve their language and culture. In so doing, we aim to ensure that they lead fulfilled lives, in dignity, in the place where their parents and grandparents lived, in the place where they have their roots – that is, their native land. Second, we seek to provide this aid in co-operation with neighbouring country governments, thus further improving bilateral relations. Third, we believe it is important that the support given to Hungarian minorities be provided according to European standards, with the backing of the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union.

It was with these principles in mind that we set about amending the law on benefits granted to Hungarians living abroad, the earlier version of which was no longer appropriate. In so doing, we have sought to align this law with Parliamentary Assembly Resolution 1335, with the recommendations of the Venice Commission, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and the European Commission. Last week, in Bucharest, I signed an agreement in which my Romanian counterpart and I managed to iron out all the contentious issues arising from this law. Talks are under way with other neighbouring countries as well, notably Slovakia, and there is a good chance that these will lead to an agreement in the not-too- distant future.

As I have just explained, the welfare of minorities living inside Hungary is also of crucial importance to us, and a subject close to our hearts.

The social integration of the Roma in Hungary is not merely a matter of protecting minorities. Unless there are major improvements in the lot of the Roma community, enabling them to catch up with the rest of society, Hungary cannot hope to become a modern European state. It is important to realise that non-discrimination, while it is an achievement in itself, is not enough. We must also provide opportunities for learning, employment, participation in public life, and offer ideals to which people can aspire. I felt it was important to make a personal contribution here, so when the present government took office, we set up a Roma Affairs Bureau under the supervision of a state secretary, who is present here today and is very active in the integration of Roma in Hungary. In this way we award grants worth a total of €4 million, mainly to pupils of Roma origin.

Integrating the Roma into society has become one of the main aims of our national development plan. My Secretary of State, when I was preparing for this meeting, added that we had done a lot to offer as many job opportunities as possible to Roma – an essential issue.

The existing law on the rights of national and ethnic minorities marked a new stage in the protection of these minorities, and the introduction of elected self-governing minority councils. The Roma-elected bodies, indeed, have now become training grounds for the new generation of Roma politicians, preparing them for public life.

I must be frank and sincere. What we have undertaken takes time and this problem will only be resolved over several generations. Nevertheless, one has to start somewhere. We have started, and we will see the results.

Narrowing the gap between the Roma and the rest of society is not something that Hungary can do on its own, however, and requires action at European or even international level. It was with this in mind that my government decided to host a regional conference in Budapest entitled “Roma in an expanding Europe”. Allow me to repeat what I said then: I am in favour of the idea of creating a European Roma forum.

The Council of Europe’s activities aimed at protecting minorities are extremely important in my view. It gives me great pleasure, therefore, to offer the Hungarian Government’s assistance in setting up, under the auspices of the Council of Europe, a European centre in Budapest for national and ethnic minorities. I believe it is important that this centre, besides exploring the scientific aspects of the rights of traditional national minorities, should also look at the problems facing new migrant minorities.

Still on the subject of social policy, the decision to appoint a female minister for equal opportunities in Hungary was an expression of my own personal commitment. Thanks to her endeavours, the parliament will be in a position to adopt the Law on Equal Opportunities by the end of the current year. Action has also been taken to speed up the implementation of the programme designed to alleviate the problems facing people with disabilities.

At the beginning of my speech, I made the point that politics was about people. The history of Europe, so rich in diversity, has been punctuated by numerous bloody conflicts. The problem with history is that, unlike a stage play, it is impossible to act out the same event twice. In real life, there is no such thing as good performances and bad performances. We only get one crack of the whip. Today, we are hopefully entering an era when there will be no more wars in Europe. For the first time in history, we in Europe have the chance to focus purely on things that matter. So let us seize this historic opportunity. Let us create opportunities, set about the task of enlightenment, eliminate social injustice and empower our citizens.

For Europe is not just a continent. Europe is also a spiritual entity. It is, indeed, not unlike this chamber in which we are gathered today, where different people, bristling with ideas, have come from various parts of the continent to work together. Your Organisation is a faithful reflection of this spirit, and is making a major contribution to our common future. I can safely say that the Council of Europe is now, and will continue to be, the living conscience of all Europe. Thank you for your attention.


Thank you very much, Mr Medgyssey, for your most interesting address. Members of the Assembly have expressed a wish to put questions to you.

I remind them that questions must be limited to thirty seconds and no more. Colleagues should be asking questions and not making speeches. I will allow supplementary questions only at the end and only if time permits. The first question is by the Right Honourable Terry Davis.

The Rt. Hon. Terry DAVIS (United Kingdom)

I wished to ask the Prime Minister what practical measures have been implemented by his government in the field of equal opportunities, but I fear that he has answered most of that in his speech to us.

Mr Medgyessy, Prime Minister of Hungary (translation)

I should inform you that, following the change in regime, the gaps between different strata of the population have increased. The ratio between the highest and lowest incomes has grown from 4 to 1 to 10 to 1 in the space of 13 years. I am sure you can imagine the problems this can cause. By comparison, the average ratio in Europe is 7 to 1. Opportunities therefore vary hugely, causing particular difficulties for the Roma, who are the poorest, least-informed section of the population.

At the same time, Hungary is affected by the same phenomena as the developed world, particularly an ageing population and problems with the social security and health systems, hospitals and so on.

At the risk of sounding self-contradictory, I would like to suggest, as Prime Minister of a social-democratic and liberal government, that the welfare state is a thing of the past. It is necessary to find a new concept of the state, something we are currently seeking.

Our thoughts should be guided by the following principles. First, it is important to help those who are down. Some sections of the population do not have the strength to defend themselves, so we must help them. Second, we need to start trying to give equal opportunities to the most disadvantaged, who are untrained and poor, particularly young people. Third, it is important to improve economic results and the performance of society, which is the only way to enhance the redistribution of wealth. What have we done to achieve this?

As far as the integration of the Roma is concerned, we have given young people better access to education, particularly by offering grants. We have also provided employment subsidies.

The Hungarian Parliament will soon pass an antidiscrimination law and we have taken a number of measures to combat poverty. Special provision has been made for the most underprivileged groups: a 20% rise in family benefits and an annual bonus equivalent to one month’s payment for families with children at school. September is the most difficult month for poor families as it is the start of the school year. We have also increased pensions for widows, widowers and people living on their own.

In addition, we have passed a law providing tax exemption for those on the minimum wage. We have also increased salaries for teachers, doctors and nurses because growing numbers of people were leaving these professions. Even after a 50% rise in salary, a nurse still earns an average of just €300 per month.

I am sure that we have done the right thing, even though these measures are hugely expensive. We had to accept this social necessity. Other steps have also been taken to provide much-needed help to certain groups. These have involved huge sacrifices, but such is the price of a fair, peaceful society.

Of course, much as we would like to, we will not be able to pursue this policy for ever. From now on, we will be focusing on the performance and competitiveness of the economy. We are trying to promote foreign and domestic investment. We want an economic policy that is predictable, stable and reliable. After a while, we will look at the possibility of taking other social measures.

I am sorry my answer was so long, but I hope these explanations were useful.

Mr EORSI (Hungary)

Mr Prime Minister, it is a strange feeling for me to ask you a question in a language other than Hungarian.

After your detailed answer to the previous question, I wonder whether my question makes sense. I speak as the leader of the Liberal, Democratic and Reformers’ Group. Everyone in the Hemicycle knows that you became prime minister as a socialist, and that you are the head of a socialist government. It is a coalition government, and ninety liberals from forty-five countries would like to know what makes your government liberal.

Mr Medgyessy, Prime Minister of Hungary (translation)

Allow me to tell you a little anecdote. I have a French friend of Hungarian origin. He is a 95-year-old politician, author and political expert, very popular in France and Hungary. His name is François Fejto. Throughout his long life, he has been questioned and even criticised for sometimes being left-wing and sometimes being right-wing. He would reply as follows: “Maybe. I accept your criticism. Sometimes I have been leftwing and sometimes history has pushed me to the right, but I have always been a liberal”. I think his answer is remarkable. Being a liberal is a vision! However, I am not trying to avoid answering your question.

Human rights are the foundation of the Hungarian Government’s activities. The question of minorities is key. We have often debated the Roma problem. We are endeavouring to safeguard the rights of national minorities living in Hungary. Although they are few in number, they definitely deserve to be treated properly. We have set up a Ministry for Equal Opportunities to find ways of improving the prospects of people who are discriminated against for whatever reason. As I said before, our parliament will soon pass a law on this subject. Furthermore, we have passed a very modern and liberal law on drugs.

Our government is not nationalist; it is patriotic and internationalist. We know that globalisation is a fact and we are seeking suitable answers to the problems it creates. We have an open policy towards persons who wish to live and work in Hungary.

We have also decided to continue reforming the pension system. We have introduced a fairly modern system, which was already in place when the liberal/social-democrat coalition took power in 1997, when I was Finance Minister.

We are truly determined to reform the health care system because it is not functioning well and needs to be reformed.

Although we are a social-democratic and liberal government, we are very keen to complete the privatisation process. Nowadays, 80% of GDP comes from the private sector, but there are still a few areas where we need to take action, as we have decided to continue our privatisation policy. Two weeks ago, for example, we sold the final Hungarian commercial bank for a remarkably good price.

We are in favour of foreign investment because we need capital to support our own growth.

Our economic policy is not interventionist. On the other hand, I could mention certain western countries where, despite conservative governments, I see signs of interventionism. I am talking, of course, about my favourite European country, one of which I am very fond and whose language I speak willingly and with great pleasure.

We are also in favour of decentralisation and the transparency of government decisions. These are a few small signs that our government is social-democratic and liberal.

Mr MURATOVIC (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

On Monday, we had a debate and accepted a resolution on the threat posed to democracy by extremist parties, and passed a resolution on racist, xenophobic and intolerant discourse in politics. Three years ago in Mr Gjellerod’s report on extremism, Hungary was mentioned as a case of a country where an extremist party sat in parliament. What is the status today? Have any measures been taken? What is your experience of the matter?

Mr Medgyessy, Prime Minister of Hungary (translation)

I can assure you that the Hungarian electorate is wise. Nowadays, no extremist parties are represented in our parliament. To be quite honest – though my views are open to discussion – some members of parliament display certain extremist tendencies, but there are definitely no extremist parties.

Of course, there are extremists in our society and, as everywhere, they make more noise than is warranted by their political weight. However, to finish answering the question, I must admit that, unfortunately, the debates in the Hungarian Parliament are extremely heated. This can disappoint the voters and may even be dangerous: if voters feel let down because they think the politicians are not really looking after their interests, they are likely to resort to extremism. It is the responsibility of the parliamentary parties, which, I can assure you, are not extremist, to see to it that this does not happen.

Mr WIELOWIEYSKI (Poland) (translation)

Prime Minister, you have set out your three basic principles for the Rome Intergovernmental Conference. In my opinion, one of the most difficult problems you will face is posed by the differences between the proposals of the Convention and the Nice Treaty as regards voting rules within the European Commission.

The Nice Treaty is the result of a very difficult compromise reached after months of negotiation. It strikes a certain balance between the larger and smaller states within the European Union. Today, the status of the larger countries is growing. Although this might facilitate the decision-making process, it could also affect cohesion among smaller members, which will be forced to go along with decisions made by their larger counterparts. What is your opinion on this subject?

Mr Medgyessy, Prime Minister of Hungary (translation)

You are quite right. It is very hard to find a compromise. I therefore think we should leave the current situation as it is. To be honest, whether it is fair is debatable, but it has been accepted by all parties. So I think we should stick to it.

Clearly, if we could find a new compromise and if all countries agreed to change the current balance, I would be prepared to accept a new proposal, but I doubt that we could genuinely achieve a better compromise than that reached in Nice.

Mr SFYRIOU (Greece) (translation)

Prime Minister, as you know, European Union finances are extremely limited at present because of a very restricted Community budget. What is Hungary expecting in the way of post-accession EU funding to help it implement all the programmes that are in the pipeline?

Mr Medgyessy, Prime Minister of Hungary (translation)

A very good question. In this connection, I would like to begin by stressing how important it is that European integration should be based on solidarity. Solidarity benefits not just recipients, but also donors, because it can accelerate Europe’s economic performance and growth as a whole. It is vital that we hold on to that principle.

With regard to the various possibilities and different funds that exist in Europe, the most important question for a country, particularly one of our countries, to answer is whether it is able to absorb sufficient capital. I can confirm that Hungary is probably one of the countries with the highest capacity for capital absorption. This is demonstrated by the very high level of direct investment per capita as well as by other indicators. We are definitely able, therefore, to absorb capital.

It is necessary to develop institutions capable of absorbing capital because we need to maintain dialogue between the European Union and Hungary. We will be trying in particular to develop these institutions. According to our calculations, the most that Hungary might receive from the European Union is US$4 billion per year. Of course, we intend to use most of this enormous sum. Admittedly, it will not all be spent immediately, but we will seize the opportunities it offers. It is vital for us and for European development as a whole that, under the new financial arrangements due to start in 2007, the net contributors do not lower their payments. If that were to happen, it would be very difficult to implement a solidarity-based system.

What are our policy priorities? First, we need to develop our infrastructure, particularly the road and motorway network, as well as environmental protection. We also want to help the different regions of Hungary to step up their own development and we are prepared to give priority to spending on research and development. I believe this is an excellent strategy. If Europe continues to offer these opportunities in the future, Hungary will be one of the countries capable of benefiting most.