Minister Overseeing the Office of the Prime Minister János Lázár and undersecretary András Giró-Szász held their weekly marathon press conference on Thursday. A majority of the time was spent discussing Hungary’s refugee crisis (or “illegal border crossing” problem, as the government officials like to refer to it), but issues such as the sale of state-owned land, the government’s first ever self-assessment meeting, EU fiscal transfers and the future of the national tax authority were also discussed.
Lázár said the Hungarian government is doing everything it can to stem the flow of migrants into the counry but that the situation has become unsustainable.
Hungary’s actions in dealing with the refugee crisis have taken place in accordance with Hungarian law and international practices, he said.
“Hungary will continue to provide asylum for those seeking asylum who are the subject of political persecution in their homelands,” Lázár said.
Giró-Szász quickly followed up the Lázár statements with his own and said the government will indeed provide asylum as long as the asylum seekers don’t arrive through a country designated a “safe third country” under Hungarian law.
Giró-Szász’s “safe third country” statement is very significant because it reflects the duplicity of two statements Lázár made, namely that Hungary is dealing with the refugee crisis in accordance with international practices, and that Hungary will provide asylum to all those subject to political persecution in their homelands.
Before breaking for summer recess, the Hungarian parliament modified legislation governing immigration and asylum protections. The legal modification designated Serbia as a safe third country. The change was criticized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and goes against European Union practices because Serbia lacks the infrastructure to facilitate a working asylum system. By designating Serbia a safe third country, the government paved the way for Hungarian immigration authorities to reject asylum claims from legitimate asylum seekers simply because they passed through Serbia on their way to Hungary.
Lázár also compared Hungary’s refugee crisis to that of Italy and Greece, and said the European Union has not been fair when it comes to providing financial assistance to Hungary to deal with the crisis.
He was especially critical of the European Union for not helping Hungary defend the Schengen border (an area comprised of 26 European countries in which individuals are free to travel without passing through passport control or customs).
Hungary being a country on the periphery of the Schengen area, Lázár reasoned, deserves support from the European Union to help protect the Schengen area from the mass influx of refugees. “The European Union is incapable of defending Europe’s borders or of guaranteeing security in the EU,” he said.
The minister said the government is planning on spending several million euros to hire an ad agency to develop a campaign that would try to stop asylum seekers en route to Hungary from actually coming to the country. (Hungarian news site Origo.hu today published an article claiming the government may have just appropriated HUF 1.016 billion to the National Communication Agency for this project).
Turns out they couldn’t erect the fence by the end of August
The 175-km border fence will not be finished by the end of August. Lázár said the August deadline pertained to the completion of laying out barbed-wire fencing along Hungary’s border with Serbia. Those working on constructing the “temporary border defense fence” have until the end of October to complete the 3-meter-high chainlink fence which will stand behind the barbed-wire fence.
Maybe they should build a moat with alligators
Lázár said a third obstacle may be erected between the barbed-wire fence and the chainlink fence, but he did not elaborate.
“Maybe they’ll pull more barbed-wire between the two obstacles,” Giró-Szász chimed in.
More laws and modifications to the criminal code!
Parliament will convene next week for an extraordinary session, Lázár said. The national security and national defense committees will also meet to assess the refugee crisis.
Lázár expects the parliament to modify the criminal code to increase penalties for those caught engaging in human smuggling. Parliament will also craft legislation to address so-called “transit zones” organized around the country where civilian volunteers have been providing aid to refugees arriving in Hungary.
Parliament would do everything legislatively possible to involve the Hungarian military in “protecting Hungary’s borders”. The minister doubts the parliament will need a two-thirds supermajority to adopt such legislation, but will require a lot of political support.
He said the military needs to get involved in border protection because there is no guarantee that the number of refugees crossing into Hungary will not increase to 30,000 people per day.
The criminal code would also be modified to increase penalties for damaging the freshly erected border fence.
When asked whether Hungary’s prison system could accommodate a large number of refugees should they be arrested for “damaging” the border, Lázár said there is plenty of room in penitentiaries for them.
The sale of state-owned lands
The minister discussed government plans to sell state-owned agricultural lands. Minister of Rural Development Sándor Fazekas has been assigned the responsibility of preparing a plan for the liquidation of between 300,000-380,000 hectares (741,000-940,000 acres) of such lands, not including forests and state parks.
Only Hungarian citizens engaged in farming would be permitted to purchase the lands. Foreigners, speculators and locals would not be allowed to take part in the sell-off.
“Those who work the land should own it,” Lázár said.
The government was keen on providing 100,000 citizens access to the state lands for agricultural purposes. The details of every purchase will be made public and land purchases for lands over 3 hectares will be subject to an auction, Lázár said.
The government assessed itself and liked it so much it might do it again every year
Lázár talked about the government’s first ever self-assessment conference, which was held behind closed doors and overseen by the Prime Minister.
Lázár said the conference was a “huge success” and the government would consider holding one or two such events every year.
No one had lost their job as a result of the self-assessment. Lázár assured reporters that the sudden resignation of Ministry of Human Resources undersecretary for health Gábor Zombor was completely unrelated to the conference.
EU officials will visit Hungary to talk about money
Plans are in the works for a trip by EU officials to Budapest in October to debate Hungary’s use of EU funds, Lázár said.
The minister praised Hungary’s outstanding use of EU funds because the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, only found corruption issues in connection with 2 percent of the total amount of funding provided to Hungary during the 2007-2014 funding cycle.
He said the government will do everything to avoid again ending up in a situation where EU funds are hastily called down at the tail end of a funding cycle, as was the case with the 2007-2014 funding cycle.
The government would try to announce the use of all EU funding in Hungary by June 30, 2017, (two and one-half years before the current funding cycle ends) so as to avoid being hasty.
Tax authority to be restructured?
Responding to a reporter’s question about the future of the National Tax and Customs Administration (NAV), Lázár emphasized that the government has not yet finalized any plans for an overhaul.
Minister of National Economy Mihály Varga is expected to prepare a report on his recommendations for the future of NAV for the Prime Minister by September 20.
Lázár did not comment on rumors that have been circulating in Hungarian media that Minister of National Economy undersecretary András Tállai is expected to take over the scandal-ridden tax authority, but he did praise Tállai for expert knowledge of accounting and tax law.
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