Far from showing unease about his many critics who accuse him of an authoritarian drift, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in Brussels yesterday (23 April) that his country should be seen as a "laboratory" for transforming the EU economically and politically.
Speaking at a public event organised by the European Policy Centre (EPC) think tank, Orbán presented his views on the ongoing crisis in Europe and the world, and said the deep reforms in his country were an example for the EU to follow.
Speaking in English and interacting with the audience in a relaxed manner, Orbán presented himself as a "promoter of the European project" and said he was worried by the alarming news coming from France, where anti-European forces got 30% of votes at the first round of the presidential election.
This, he said, was more than "the candidate who came in first position", François Hollande, whom he didn't name.
Orbán was adding the score of far-right leader Marine Le Pen (18.1%), who was the sensation of the election night, with the one of leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was in fourth place at 11.13%. Both are harsh critics of the EU.
He also voiced concerns over the political situation in the Netherlands, where Prime Minister Mark Rutte resigned yesterday after failing to reach agreement on reducing the country's budget to meet European guidelines, and in the Czech Republic, where the Prime Minister Petr Ne?as managed at the last minute to find supporters in Parliament to avoid snap elections, after the departure of his coalition partner Public Affairs.
EU leaders obsessed with markets
Orbán said the main driver of decisions at EU leadership summits was "what markets will say". He said that Europe's economy was declining because of national debt and budget deficits, but also because of its ageing population and sluggish performance.
"If we look at the percentage of working people in the active communities of Europe, America and Asia, we can see that 65% of people work in Europe, 75% work in the States and 85% in China," he said.
He then said that his country had set the goal of reaching the same 75% rate as the United States.
Orbán said his country had reduced unemployment benefits to a three-month term, and that those who did not accept public work received no benefits. He added that the same applied for those who did not send their children to school.
The prime minister said his country had cut by almost 50% the seats in Parliament and in local councils. "Sharing the burden" also applied to banks and for specific sectors, for which special taxes have been introduced.
"The real question is not which players we levy taxes on, but on which players we did not," he said.
Yesterday, Eurostat confirmed the 2011 budget-deficit estimates of most European countries, with the exception of Ireland. Hungary is the only country with a substantial budget surplus, at 4.3% of GDP, resulting from a one-off measure related to pension funds.
'From welfare society to work-fare society'
Turning to social and economic issues, Orbán said his government was leaving behind the welfare system to replace it with a "workfare society".
The system of early retirement and the "inherited social system" in which one million active Hungarians out of four million paid no taxes had been abolished, he said. One of the stated goals was to reinforce those "strata of society which want to work" and start families, because Orbán sees them as the backbone of economic and political stability.
Employed people had a natural tendency to vote for the centre-right European Peoples' Party, and those making a living from social benefits were voting to the centre-left, he explained. Orbán is a vice president of the EPP.
The Hungarian leader said the goal for his country was "not to be amongst the declining European countries" by the end of 2012, but to be among the most dynamic economies. As banks had restrained their activities, he said that his government was planning to put in place a system to finance the economy "outside the system of commercial banks" as soon as this year.
"For this reason, we must jointly work towards the renewal of the European Union as well, because Brussels cannot survive unchanged … Hungary is currently undergoing the phase of major reforms and is, in a certain sense, a laboratory for Europe," Orbán said.
Asked by EURACTIV whether he was suggesting that Europe should be "Orbanised", the prime minister referred to his long history as a politician.
"I know what democracy means, I know what political competition is, because this is the key of my political success as well. Then you can be sure that when Hungary makes any laboratory progress for the European Union, it is on [the basis of] political competition and democracy," he said.
No compliments to Sarkozy
Speaking in a very open way, Orbán stunned the audience on several occasions. On EU economic governance issues, he said there was "no evidence" that the "six-pack" of reforms, which the Hungarian EU presidency helped negotiate in the first half of 2011, were "good".
Asked about the French election, he said he would not give his outright support to fellow EPP leader Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy is of Hungarian descent.
"I do not want to say anything nice about him, because that would be dreadful for him. The image of Hungary in France is very bad," he said amid laughs.
Asked to comment about Hungary's support for the Russia-sponsored South Stream gas pipeline, Orbán said the Nabucco project, its EU-backed competitor, was "in trouble" and its Hungarian partner MOL was leaving the project.
Criticism against Hungary 'normal'
For Orbán, it was only "normal" and "rational" that there was so much criticism against the reforms his government untook. Hungary had the chance, he said of his government's supermajority in Parliament, to put in place a new constitution and 165 laws, thus "changing the cardinal law system of the country".
"Now we have to do the job and we have to accept the criticism. It was calculated," he said.
Orbán is to meet today with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso to discuss two infringement procedures against his country for government interference in the judiciary and in the data protection authority. He is also expected to discuss 'precautionary aid' from the EU and International Monetary Fund support as insurance against possible financial difficulties.
On this latest topic, Orbán complained of "double standards", saying that Egypt, Belarus and even Pakistan had been able to kick-start negotiations while Hungary was still waiting for the EU to decide on starting the process.
Hungarians voted overwhelmingly in April 2010 for a radical change in leadership, sending the ruling Socialists into opposition and giving the centre-right a qualified majority in parliament.
The election marked the biggest victory for any political party in a general election since the fall of communism 21 years earlier. However, several measures put in place by the new government have since fuelled controversy.
A controversial new constitution that entered into force on 1 January brought tens of thousands of protestors. They believe it undermines the independence of the central bank, the judiciary and the news media. Critics also say that the new measures represent an assault on religious freedom by cutting down the number of recognised religious groups from 300 to 14.