Just as I said yesterday, I have been–and I'm not alone–completely bogged down with the media law to the exclusion of some other newsworthy events. Although Viktor Orbán has made quite a few appearances and delivered some speeches lately, relatively little was reported on their content.
Let's start with the press conference that was hastily arranged for the fifty or so foreign journalists. That was the occasion when he lashed out at France and Germany for daring to criticize Hungary. But that wasn't all. He had some other interesting pronouncements.
Here is one I don't fully understand: "Hungary belongs among those European countries that still have a chance to significantly reorganize their state and thus make it competitive." What does this mean? Why does Hungary have this chance when others perhaps do not? What does the state's reorganization have to do with competitiveness? With which countries would Orbán want to compete? "I want to make Hungary competitive with China and Brazil." A tall order, I would say, and note the use of the first person singular.
Then came another interesting piece of information that Orbán would never, but never, say in front of a Hungarian audience. He praised Hungary for doing an enormous amount to increase competitiveness. Mind you, he got a bit mixed up as far as the dates were concerned because he claimed that all this happened in 2010. "The Hungarian government" reduced the pension payments by one month; it raised the retirement age from 62 to 65. Of course, these austerity measures were taken not by the Orbán government but by the Gyurcsány and the Bajnai governments. In 2009 the budget deficit was less than expected: 3.6%. Although Orbán told the journalists that the actual budget deficit was 7.5% in 2010, I'm afraid that figure is simply wrong. The Bajnai government's deficit target was 3.8% and, although this was tight, it could have been held without extra bank levies and taxes on certain businesses. It wasn't necessary to "nationalize" the private pension funds that have accumulated in the last twelve years to keep to the deficit goal. All this was necessary because of the Orbán government's decision to switch to a flat tax of 16%. As for raising the retirement age, Orbán could say such a thing only to foreign journalists unfamiliar with the Hungarian political scene. It was in fact his government that lowered the retirement age for women who spent forty years on the job. So, if someone started working right after high school she could retire at the age of 58.
He also stated that he was planning to lower the sovereign debt from 80% to 70-73% by 2014. This might not be as difficult as it looks at first blush. After all, 80% of the private pension funds by law had to be invested in government bonds. By nationalizing them, the government is performing what some might benevolently call a magic act: a great deal of the domestic debt will simply disappear.
Then, there are the so-called "structural reforms" about which we still know nothing. According to some economists these reforms might not be as substantial as foreign investors expect. They base that opinion on the lack of any funds allocated for changes in the 2011 budget. However, Orbán announced at this press conference that "the structural changes planned will be instructive and useful as a model for other foreign countries." The man's hubris is amazing. Here is Hungary, a country that in the last twenty years managed to introduce only one meaningful structural reform, establishing and making compulsory for certain age groups participation in private savings for their old age. It was the current government that dismantled this pension plan, and yet the prime minister now wants to teach other countries how to introduce structural reforms! Moreover, in the last four years every attempt at reform was torpedoed by this very same man!
Viktor Orbán demonstrated the same kind of hubris at a joint press conference with José Manuel Barroso. Orbán announced that "in Hungary we recognized and I assume that some other European countries will also recognize–and this sentence sounds ominous but it must be said sooner or later–that in the next fifteen or twenty years we will not be able to live as well as we did in the past." Again, Hungary is ahead of all other countries in the Union in recognizing that Europe must tighten its belt and lower its standard of living.
Naturally Orbán couldn't escape at least one question about the media law. He simply repeated what he had said earlier, but there was one sentence that was telling: "If there is no reasonable argument and common sense criticism I will not make any changes whatsoever." He alone! The first person singular also cropped up later when he talked about the fact that Hungary is a poor country. He mentioned that almost a third of the country's population lives under the European Union's poverty line. Pensions are low and "I will have to come up with a budget with a deficit of 3.8%, lower the sovereign debt, begin economic growth, attract foreign investment and at the same time make the country competitive." Single-handedly!
Let me add that for the time being none of these ambitious plans seems to be realized. In fact, unemployment is growing. In October unemployment stood at 10.9%. In November it was 11.3%. And it might be even higher in the next few months when most likely more civil servants will be fired.