In an effort to save energy, the winter break at Hungarian schools will be longer than usual this year, lasting from Dec. 22 to Jan. 8, the prime minister’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyás, told a government press briefing. While the winter holidays for schools would be longer, the autumn break would be cut. Government offices will also stay closed in this period for the same reason, Gulyás said, adding that employees in the sector would be required to take their paid holidays off for those days.
The cabinet also discussed the effect of rising energy prices on local councils, Gulyás said, noting that some local councils are seeing a 10-20-fold increase in their gas bills. The government has therefore tasked Fidesz MP and ministerial commissioner György Balla to coordinate talks with local councils together with the finance, the interior, and the technology and industry ministries on finding a solution to help local governments survive the coming year, Gulyás said. Most local councils will be able to afford their energy bills this year because of their long-term contracts, but it is certain that they will have to cut costs and will need government support next year, he said. The government will hold separate talks with the local councils that need additional help, he added.
Meanwhile, Gulyás denied press reports that the government had ordered a halt to its payment obligations, adding, however, that all payments must be made with the approval of the finance ministry. He said the reason for this was that Hungary was committed to keeping this year’s budget deficit at 4.9% of GDP. Hungary has no solvency issues, Gulyás said. Although the global economic environment is hectic and there are strong fluctuations in currency exchange rates, the government is doing everything in its power to stick to its deficit target, he said. The Hungarian economy “is performing particularly well”, he said, arguing that it had strong foundations and unemployment was not on the rise.
Concerning the forint’s new historic low against major currencies, Gulyás said monetary policy was determined by the central bank. The National Bank of Hungary is committed to keeping the exchange rate stable and correcting gyrating exchange rate movements, he added. Gulyás said he did not believe there were any real economic reasons behind the movements in the exchange rates. He stressed that the government was not in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on raising a loan. Government members were in agreement on Wednesday that the 2022 state budget was sustainable and the 4.9 deficit target achievable. He said there were few countries in Europe that would be capable of sticking to their original deficit targets.
Concerning the EU’s planned eighth sanctions package, Gulyás noted that Hungary had made it clear that it would not approve any package that contains sanctions on energy. Gulyás said the time had come for Slovakia to oppose the sanctions. Put to him that the EU had not imposed sanctions on Russian gas deliveries, and it was therefore unclear why the price of natural gas would go down if the sanctions were lifted, Gulyás said there was a correlation between the prices of oil and gas. When the EU imposed its sanctions, the prices of oil and gas both increased, he added.
Meanwhile, Gulyás said Hungary shared the EU’s position and did not recognise the outcome of the referendums held in four Ukrainian regions occupied by Russian forces. He said the solution that would be in line with international law would be if Russia pulled out of Ukraine.
Asked about Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s remarks on EU funds in a speech to parliament on Monday, Gulyás said Orbán’s comment about “securing funds from elsewhere” was made in reference to the loan part of the post-pandemic recovery fund. Gulyás said Hungary’s talks on the EU funding it was entitled to were “going well”, adding that there was “no reason to assume that Hungary would not be given access to the total amount of funding we are entitled to”. But a loan, he added, was a “different matter”, arguing that Hungary could secure one from other sources if necessary. The European Commission was clear about the changes it wanted Hungary to enact, and the sides reached an agreement, Gulyás said, adding that it would therefore be “unfair” to assume that the EC would not honour the agreement. Asked if Hungary was mulling withdrawing from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery programme if, as Poland did, it were denied access to the recovery funds, Gulyás said the Hungarian government has a vested interest in reaching an agreement with the European Commission and sees no obstacles to it.
Concerning the strike by teachers, Gulyás said that only a small number of teachers had participated in the illegal action. He confirmed that the rights to legal protest and strike are guaranteed in Hungary, unlike in Germany, for instance. He said unions had sided with the opposition during the election campaign, but teachers themselves had expressed solidarity with the country, for which they deserved credit. Gulyás said the government was not considering the introduction of a four-day week for employees or schools.
Asked about the damaged Nord Stream pipeline, Gulyás said an international investigation was warranted. Pipeline disruption was a serious issue, he said, adding that Europe’s energy supplies were tricky to maintain without Russia, while in central Europe it was impossible, he said. Gulyás said Hungary’s energy supplies were secure, with the majority of gas storage facilities 72% full. Sufficient energy is available for the operation of the economy and households, he added. Alternative supply routes, including TurkStream, were all the more attractive in light of the damage done to Nord Stream, he said.
Commenting on the recent Italian election, Gulyás said the government’s room for manoeuver had grown now that its allies were forming the new Italian government. Conservatives now govern twice as many European citizens as the European People’s Party, he said, adding that the EPP was “the biggest loser of the elections”.
On the subject of local councils and their energy costs, Gulyás said the government was not planning to introduce a price cap on energy bills for local councils because this would require identifying who would pay the difference between the acquisition price and the capped price. The local councils have so far not answered the question, he said. “In the end, the state will have to get involved in offering help,” he said. But considering that various local councils are in very different situations, the government decided on Wednesday to negotiate with them individually, he added.
Asked whether the government was planning to purchase software to monitor social media, he said there was no such plan and press reports to that effect lacked any basis.