Zoltán Kovács is the Hungarian Minister of State for International Communication and Relations.
Earlier this month in his annual State of the Nation address Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister, revealed his government’s latest pro-family policy package, seven measures to ease the financial burdens on couples who would like to have children.
The package includes expanded subsidies for home and automobile ownership for families, increased child credits, mortgage relief for child-bearing families, income tax exemptions, more nursery places for expanded childcare, and expands maternity leave to grandparents so mums and dads can quickly get back to work if they choose.
Protection of the family has long been a priority for the Orbán Government. With these latest measures the government hopes that, by making it easier financially, Hungarian families will have more children.
Not surprisingly, these bold measures have attracted some international attention. Most of the responses have been quite positive, but others have attacked the policy with criticisms so odd it’s as if we have gone through the looking glass. It’s a peculiar day indeed when a writer at ConservativeHome claims a pro-family policy “is an attack on Hungarian women,” echoing a Guardian columnist who wrote that it undermines “women’s reproductive rights.”
It’s bizarre, and judging from the many comments below Garvan Walshe’s article, many of the ConservativeHome readers felt the same.
Reasonable people may disagree on the most effective ways that a government can support families, but we must have our facts straight if we’re going to have an intelligent conversation. Unfortunately Walshe, whose biased understanding of today’s Hungary may be influenced by his associations with Migrant Matters Trust and Unhack Democracy Europe, falls far short on the facts.
Let’s start with the argument that supporting childbearing actually “takes women out of the labour force” instead of “getting them to work” and therefore will aggravate the labour shortage. If you’re thinking in the short term, yes, women electing to have children will take breaks from active employment.
But family policy is not about the short run. One of the main reasons behind Europe’s alarming demographic trends is that many couples feel they cannot afford to have children because they need two incomes to make ends meet. As long as women feel they cannot afford to stop working to have children, Europe is destined for population loss.
And this is exactly what Hungary’s seven-point pro-family package hopes to reverse. Here’s the complete list:
- Every woman between the ages of 18 and 40 years living in her first marriage and in employment for a minimum of three years will be eligible for an interest-free, all-purpose loan up to 10 million HUF. The whole debt is forgiven upon the birth of a third child.
- Hungary’s family home ownership subsidy program, also known by its Hungarian acronym CSOK, will be expanded to include used homes as eligible for the financial subsidy. This means 10 and 15 million HUF grants for families with two and three children, respectively.
- The government will deduct one million HUF from the mortgages of young, married couples after the birth of a second child and four million for the third child. If the couple has more children, they will receive an additional deduction of one million HUF for each additional child.
- Women who have given birth to at least four children will be granted life-long exemption from personal income tax liability on income derived from work.
- Families with three children or more can now apply for a 2.5 million HUF, non-repayable grant toward the purchase of a new, seven-seater car.
- The Government will provide complete creche coverage through the construction of 21,000 nursery places over the next three years.
- Hungarian grandparents who are still active on the labour market will be eligible for childcare allowance.
Walshe attempts to depict this somehow as a “sinister” policy, and paints it against a backdrop shaded by the political narrative that freedom suffers in Hungary, comparing Orbán to the Taliban. Here, again, the author exhibits a poor grasp of the facts.
He claims that the Central European University has been “expelled” from Budapest. That’s false. In fact, it received accreditation for five more years in February 2018. What the author may have referred to is the relocation of several of CEU’s programs to Vienna, which would have continued to hand out American diplomas despite the current legislation. Yes, it may be detrimental to the university’s business model, but it’s a legal and administrative matter, not a political one.
On press freedom, Walshe claims that 80 percent of Hungarian media is controlled by one of Prime Minister Orbán’s “cronies”. Once again, not true. On the contrary, liberal media outlets in Hungary reach a much wider segment of the public. The online media, for example, is dominated by left-liberal giants: HVG, Népszava, Index.hu, 444.hu, Mérce, and átlátszó.hu, just to mention a few. On this front, it’s fair to say that those portals that are staunch critics of the government make up a clear majority.
Judicial independence and the construction of the new administrative court system have, of course, also made it to the author’s list of concerns. While Walshe suggests that administrative courts are being set up to limit the freedom of the judiciary, their establishment serves a rather practical purpose.
Under the new system, citizens and companies are enabled to have their administrative cases heard in front of a special court, dedicated to this particular field of law. This means, that the scope of judicial control has been, in fact, widened. There are many similar examples in Europe, including in Austria, Bulgaria, Finland, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, and to a certain extent in the Czech Republic, Belgium, Italy, and France.
The author writes of an opposition reinvigorated by all this bad government. Polls, however, show that the governing parties maintain a massive lead among voters, whereas attendance at the demonstrations highlighted by many in the British media remained very small.
The Hungarian Government has made family policy a priority and spends around three percent of GDP on such financial support, compared to the EU average of around two percent. We’ve already begun to see some positive results. Between 2010, when Prime Minister Orbán took office, and 2017, marriages increased by a striking 42 percent in Hungary. In the same period, the number of divorces fell from 24 thousand to 18 thousand, while the number of abortions dropped by more than a third.
That’s not the kind of behaviour typical of a population suffering under a dictatorship, and those are the kinds of results that most true conservatives would applaud.