Minister in charge of putting Hungary's case to the European Commission regarding rule of law and corruption speaks to the Hungarian International Press Association.
On a wing and a prayer? Minister Tibor Navracsics, speaking to foreign media on Nov 29. The Hungarian tri-colour stands next to the EU flag to the right (out of picture). Photo: Martin Fejer / estost.net
Tibor Navracsics, Minister of Regional Development and Utilisation of EU Funds, met journalists from Hungarian International Press Association on November 29. This was one day before the official announcement by the European Commission on its assessment of how Hungary has been enacting legislation designed to address the EC's concerns about rule of law and corruption in Hungary. (However, the EC gave background talks to certain journalists in the previous week – so the results were an open secret.)
The Commission's official communique is here, headlined: Commission finds that Hungary has not progressed enough in its reforms and must meet essential milestones for its Recovery and Resilience Fund (RRF)
The RRF is the EU's special fund to help member states' efforts to recover from the Covid pandemic.
If you are not a keen observer of the EC – Hungary wranglings (and even if you are!) it may seem all rather complicated. Suffice to say that at stake here is EUR 5.8 billion in RRF, non-refundable subsidies to Hungary, along with 65% of the 'cohesion funds' worth some EUR 7.5 billion. (Cohesion funds are the regular payments made by the richer EU states meant to help the poorer member states get to the average income levels of the EU.)
So, we are talking about EUR 13.3 billion of European taxpayers' money (including, it must be said, a small amount from Hungarian taxpayers themselves) which should come to Hungary, if it is deemed to have put its house in order.
You see, the European Commission is suspicious – and the European Parliament seems jolly well certain - that the Hungarian authorities have not been watching too closely how EU funds are being spent, and – perish the thought – they have the feeling that some well connected, especially favoured Magyar folk have been getting rich, actually very rich, by, shall we say, dipping their hands in the till?
Jumping on the gravy train?
Putting their snouts in the trough?
Do I need to use any more metaphors?
Anyway, Minister Navarcsics has the (cynics might say unenviable) job of persuading the European Commission (EC) that the Hungarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has its heart set on cleaning up any dubious dealings when it comes to spending further EU funds.
The following is a selection of the conversation between Minister Navracsics and journalists in the meeting.
Tibor Navracsics: (Introductory address). Well, we haven't got any official information about the EC's proposal, which will be adopted next Wednesday [ie the following day], so our speculations are based on rumour and articles, which is a pretty strange move, because we've kept the informal or formal rule of mutual trust during our negotiations with the Commission.
And that's why we think it's pretty strange that, one week ago, the EC suddenly organised an informal meeting with some selected journalists, and they informed them about their position on the Hungarian implementation in the framework of the Rule of Law conditionality procedure, and also the state of play in the RRF [Recovery & Resilience Facility] negotiations, and also the negotiations on the cohesion funds. Which is a good sign for us, that according to the articles, the EC will propose the approval of the Hungarian National Recovery Plan to the council.
Which means that on 12th of December, most probably, the Ecofin, the Council of the Economic and Finance ministers can adopt the Hungarian National Recovery Plan, which will, theoretically at least, open the pathway to [access] the RRF.
On the one hand, as a result of our negotiations with the Commission, most probably we can sign the partnership agreement with the EC, which will give us the opportunity to gain access to the cohesion funds.
On the other hand, let me mention that a part of the EU funds are already [here], because two weeks ago, the EC approved, with the agricultural and rural funds. So, we've got all these EU funds, so approximately one third of the EU funds is already there, at the Hungarian government's disposal.
So, what we are expecting now is the green light coming from the European Commission that we can conclude the negotiations on the operational programmes and the cohesion money, and we can sign the partnership agreement in December, and that the Ecofin on 12 December will support the Hungarian National Recovery plan, and we can get access to the EU funds, in the framework of the recovery funds.
Also, we are expecting to continue our roadmap in the implementation of the Rule of Law conditionality procedure.
As you may know, we've had several deadlines in that road map. The first was the 5th of September, which was the first government's resolution on the conception of the Integrity Authority. And then we've had several deadlines in the legislation, but also the 19th November, which was the inauguration of the Integrity Authority.
Now, the next deadline, if I'm not mistaken, will be the 15th of December, when the anti-corruption task force will start operating.
And we also have some deadlines in legislation next year, The last one on this roadmap is the end of March, when we will adopt a new round of legislation. Actually, next week, we'll also adopt a new package of legislation with a qualified majority, with a two-thirds majority.
So, we are delivering, we are implementing our commitments, and that's why we hope that, even if the European Commission proposes to the council to prolong the suspension of the EU funds and controlling the implementation process, that next year all the suspended EU funds can be at our disposal, because we're implement properly and correctly.
That's my five minutes introduction. Questions?
Tijn Sadée: How does it feel for you to be so mistrusted by Brussels?
TN: Do you mean personally? Or as an institution?
TS: The government. You know Brussels well.
TN: I know Brussels pretty well, but I know a different European Commission, I know an EC which concentrates on facts, and which has an unbiased attitude to conflict resolution, or handling conflicts.
While now, I witness a huge pressure coming from the European Parliament towards the Commission.
I'm afraid that the EC will be exposed to that political pressure, and of course, that is not good for us, because there is a left majority in the European Parliament, and the left political parties are highly critical of the Hungarian government, which can be ok, and can be fair,
But it's a political conflict, but the EC must base its evaluation on facts. That's why we hope that the EC will acknowledge our efforts and our commitment and will evaluate our implementation process as a good one.
TS: Do you agree with events now? What's on the table now, and the conclusion is Brussels is saying we don't trust you.
TN Well, it's not friendship, of course, but that's a political business.
I don't know if the EC has a fundamental trust towards any other member states, but it's a multilateral organisation, based on co-operation.
We are a loyal member state of the EU, we deliver and we implement our commitments. I don't know if they trust us or not, but we'll prove that it's worth trusting us.
TS: What you're saying is that you don't trust the EC to be neutral.
I fully trust the European Commission. That's why I hope they will base their evaluation on facts, and not on political opinions.
Florence LaJeunesse: The Hungarian government has said that teachers' salaries will be raised if the EU funds arrive in Hungary. Can you increase the teachers' salaries with these EU funds?
TN: Yes. We've reached an agreement with the EC on teachers' salaries. There is a commitment of the Hungarian government which means we can increase teachers' salaries by approx 10% per year, that's what the national budget allows us
The Commission can help us in co-financing the increase in teachers' salaries in the framework of a broader reform of public education. A part of this project is about teachers' salaries.
We've reached an agreement with the EC that from 2023 on, up till 2026, teachers' salaries will increase, it will reach 80% of the average salary of [professional employees]. It will be front-loaded, the co-financing scheme will be front-loaded, which means that in the first two years, the EC will fund the increased salaries.
And later, the Hungarian government will take over the financing role, and the Hungarian government will fund the teachers' salary increases in the last two years. That's the compromise.
Zoltán Simonyi: At the meeting [of the EU finance ministers] whenever that is, do you see a chance that perhaps the EC proposal could be watered down somewhat?
TN: That would be very good for us! But we have no influence on the EC's behaviour. We have negotiated for six months now, but in the end, the EC announced their evaluation with the journalists and not with us. That's how we work.
Kester Eddy: You say that the European Parliament is leftist, but as far as I know, many of the centre-right parties, which are members of the [centre right] EPP grouping, also voted against the Hungarian government.
So, it's not really true, is it, that the European Parliament is just a leftist [institutional vote]?
TN: I would say that there's a difference between the EPP's position and the left parties' position, because the left parties' position is no money for Hungary, while the EPP's position is let the EC make its evaluation, and we will be loyal to the EC's position.
I think that's a very important difference between the positions, because the EPP is relying on the Commission's evaluation.
The Liberals, the Renew Europe, the GUE [The Left in EP] and the S&D [The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats] are openly against Hungary and the Hungarian government, and they try to [prevent] the EC from giving any funds to Hungary. That's a difference, I think.
Florence LaJeunesse: There is a European flag behind you …
TN: Exactly! That's the Hungarian one!
FL: But right now, across the city, you can see lots of posters - I know you are not responsible for this government campaign – but huge posters, criticising Brussels, Brussels sanctions, which are destroying our economy.
Since you did not decide about this campaign, I would like to ask you, don't you see a contradiction with what you are doing, what you are negotiating? Are you happy with this campaign now?
TN: I'm a loyal member of the Hungarian government, so I would never contradict any decisions of the Hungarian government.
A government information poster. The text
reads: The Brussels Sanctions [on Russia]
are destroying us.
FL: But you could give a personal position?
TN: No, I can't give you a personal position.
Kester Eddy: There's been a lot of concern in the European Commission about procurement in Hungary, and the emergence of certain oligarchs in the past 12 years.
When you started your negotiations as Minister for EU Funds, ... I thought there might be some sort of cooling down of awards to certain oligarchs in this country, but on the contrary, I keep seeing two-three times a week, certain well-known names coming up winning more and more [government] contracts.
Do the Commission bring this up with you in your negotiations? Do they ever say: what's going on? Because it feels as if the government is poking its fingers in the eyes of the Commission? It seems like a provocation.
TN: Well, you surely wouldn't believe me, so you should consult the European Commission's single-market scoreboard, which [shows] there are fewer problems with the Hungarian public procurement procedures than with, for instance, the Austrian, or the Slovenian or the Spanish or Portuguese, or the Cypriot or Maltese, or the Romanian or the Bulgarians.
We are in the middle of Europe, and we have problems with the procurement procedures, that's why we made our commitments to improve our transparency and clearness of the public procurement procedures, but we are absolutely not the worst one in the EU, we are among the middle-ranking countries.
Kester Eddy: So in the negotiations, nobody ever brought this up? Like, 'Today, I saw Mr Mészáros , or one of his companies, has won yet another tender, Tibor. What do you say to this?'
TN: - No, it wasn't raised [like this]. Never. We had a systemic approach, which means our commitments and our implementation procedures focus on systemic solutions.
That's why we have a new institution, that's why we have new legislation, that's why we are strengthening the policy and legislative framework of the anti-corruption activities, and that's why we are supporting anti-corruption activities.
We are not taking personal … or persons in the focus, but the systemic solutions.
For the view of Transparency International Hungary on the same theme, see: