Thursday 25 September 2014

Hungary boosting birthrate with pro-family policies
Full transcript, in the original English, of interview with Katalin Novak, Hungarian minister of State for Families and Youth. News story, in Portuguese,here.

Transcrição integral da entrevista com Katalin Novak, secretária de Estado da Família e da Juventude da Hungria. Reportagemaqui.

You are in Portugal to receive an award; can you tell us exactly what this is about?
The award is for the Hungarian government, because we run a programme which is called the Elizabeth programme, which is a social tourism initiative.

From a non-state budget, there is a social tourism programme for 1% of the Hungarian population. This means that children, people, families, elderly people from underprivileged social situations can go for a low fee to Lake Balaton for a summer camp, at three euros a week.

This is a social tourism system which was awarded now by the European Large Families Association, which meets for a congress every second year, and are currently meeting in Cascais.

This is one policy, are there more examples of family friendly policies in Hungary?
Yes, of course. One important example is the creation of this secretariat of State, which is only responsible for families and youth. We are dedicated only to families and we are currently facing a demographic situation which is similar to the one in Portugal. We are fighting these challenges, promoting family values and strengthening families, through measures which give more income to families, or leave more income in their pockets, on one hand, and on the other hand we are trying to change people's mind-sets, towards really appreciating the values of the classical family models.

Leaving more money in their pockets, does this mean tax cuts for people with large families?
Exactly. There is a new tax reduction system. After the first and second child it is more moderate, but after the third it is quite a large tax reduction.

There are also more measures concerning the family allowance system. We try to make it easier for mothers to decide if they want to stay at home with their children, because in Hungary maternity leave is quite long, up to three years. But for our economy it is also positive if mothers who are about to go back to work don't have to choose between staying at home forever with the children or going back to work. Before they didn't get child care allowance if they went back to work, but now if they do they will still get all the benefits which they deserve.

It is still early, of course, but have you begun noticing an increase in the fertility rate?
Yes. The population of Hungary is about the same as Portugal [+/- 10 million], so you will understand the numbers. For example, just these measures I have mentioned influenced 18,2 thousand mothers. For them we could create a better financial situation, and for their families also. On the other hand the demographic figures are quite positive. In the first seven months of the year, the increase of the number of births is now 3.1%, in relation to a year ago. This is a good sign.

Of course when you talk about demography you have to think long term, you have to be cautious, but I see very good signs, all the measures our government is implementing in terms of family and demography are having their effect on the situation of families and demographic rates.

You met with representatives of the Portuguese Government, have you given them any advice regarding these issues?
I met with the minister of solidarity issues, so we have common themes, we had a very fruitful meeting and we see that we face, if not the same challenges, very similar challenges concerning demography, pension system, family allowance system, and he just told me about all the new measures the Government has just accepted, or is about to accept, they seem very interesting and I think we will have a fruitful exchange of experience. We also have a new ambassador here in Portugal so she is going to be very active in bringing the two countries closer to each other. 

Lake Balaton, Hungary
Did you detect interest in learning from the Hungarian experience?
Yes, we had mutual interest towards each other’s experiences.

This award seems to be public recognition of a serious change in policy regarding family, moral and social issues, by your government, is this so?
I think it is important that we don't only criticize each other, or if we talk about the EU level also, there is a lot of criticism concerning the steps any government makes. I think it is important to really focus on the real activity of Governments and appreciate programmes and activities which are positive or which have positive results, or result in positive changes.

I think also Portugal and Hungary, and the European Association of Large Families share common values, European values and Christian values. I think that for us, for the Hungarian government, it is a big recognition and we very much appreciate that there is a real interest from the Portuguese Government and this association.

Interestingly you mention European values, but many people criticize the European Union and precisely because they are not emphasizing those values, on the contrary. Do you think the European institutions, mainly the ones which have criticised Hungary so much, are they drifting away from those values?
I wouldn't say that. I say that we share common values, but we also have values which are specific for each and every country. It is very important that we recognise the common European values and that we can be free to have the added values which we share, or that we as Hungarians or as Portuguese, consider important. In the meantime we have to recognise and never question the common values we share, but also to have the liberty of emphasizing the values which are important to us. 

But the new constitution was severely criticized when it was first drafted, with people accusing Hungary of limiting democracy and so on. Were these criticisms justified?
Not at all.

We all heard these criticisms, but there was a democratic vote and the Government was elected by a two third majority. If the voters are voting for the continuation of the work we did for four years, that underlines the fact that we are on the right path.

On the other hand I think there were all these disputes and all this criticism, but if we had these debates in the European parliament, the Commission, the Court of Justice and so on, we could defend our values and our contributions, and we never failed in that.

Others defended Hungary saying that the criticisms were motivated by the fact that Hungary was passing laws defending life from conception, defending marriage when many countries are going in the opposite direction. Could that be the main reason behind the criticism?
We will never know if it is the main reason or not, but I think it is one of the reasons, yes. Because we are very open in stating the values which we consider important and which our voters, the Hungarian people, also consider important. For example, in the Hungarian constitution we included the words Christianity and God and there was a big debate and we always said that in our national anthem that is the first sentence and it has always been that way.

The tolerance which we always talk about would also be very much appreciated from the other side. There are these debates on values which are also behind this, and there are also economic interests which may have been hurt thanks to some economic measures which we introduced in the last four years, and these cannot always be separated from the debates going in Europe concerning Hungary at the moment.

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