ECHO TV - Future of Europe

Joint V4 action against the Austrian decision

Katalin Novák, State Secretary of Family and Youth Affairs of the Ministry of Human Capacities talks about the joint action of the Visegrád 4 countries against the Austrian decision that would lower family allowances to children of non-Austrian EU workers, starting in January.

Good evening, and welcome to the program about the Visegrád 4. Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia are successfully acting together in more and more instances. Their last joint action was the initiation of an investigation on the Austrian family allowance benefits that discriminate against foreign workers. As the result of the V4’s action, the European Commission will soon launch a probe into the matter. Here are the details.

The Visegrád 4’s step was successful against the Austrian decision that would lower family allowances to children of non-Austrian EU workers, starting in January. The decision affects Hungarian families to the greatest extent, including almost 40,000 children. The Visegrád 4 countries, alongside Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Slovenia think that the Austrian decision seriously violates EU law, the principle of equal treatment, and the principle of social security coordination, and unjustifiably discriminates foreign workers as they pay the same taxes and contributions as Austrian nationals. Marianne Thyssen, EC Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Mobility, said that the EC believes that all EU citizens are entitled to equal rights on the basis of the principle of free movement and should not be discriminated in terms of family allowances.

Katalin Novák, State Secretary of Family and Youth Affairs of the Ministry of Human Capacities, is our guest today. Welcome and good evening. I would like to provide some context to the issue and talk about how the proposal came about. According to a survey from last year, an average Christian family has 1.6 children in Europe, 2.2 in North America, and 4.2 in Sub-Saharan Africa. Am I right in thinking that we have no reason to be relaxed in Europe?

If we look at the European demographic rate, we indeed have reasons to be worried. There is not a single country in Europe where enough children are born. We can say that none of the EU member states’ populations have the “life instinct” to have at least as many children as is necessary to maintain the population at its current number, not to mention the goals of growing the population or making it younger. Therefore, we can talk about an old and continuously aging Europe, which presents a serious challenge to all of us. I believe that the issues are whether we are willing to face this challenge, whether we are willing to face it honestly, and what kind of answers we can come up with.

And, also, whether those countries that have a traditionally family-centric attitude, such as Germany, Italy, Spain or Greece, are facing the same challenge. These countries have experienced a dramatic population decline too. On the contrary, France, the UK, and Scandinavia do not face the threat of population decline. A lot of people say that the better trend is due to the large immigrant population residing in these countries, but, as a result, Christian families are losing their dominant position in these societies. Is this statement correct?

The situation in France is not as good as it used to be. I think that the relatively higher reproduction rate seen previously in France was partly due to the good family support system. France traditionally has offered an elaborated system of family benefits; tax allowances were available for families, and the principle that families raising children received support regardless of their income situation was introduced. This system, however, was changed; the left-wing government abolished these regulations, and, as a consequence, the willingness to raise children decreased significantly. If we look at the European level, the population of the continent is still growing. However, if we investigate the reasons of the increase in the population, then we see that emigration has been the exclusive source of it in the past couple of years. So, it is not true that the population increase is due to the number of childbirths. This also shows that some people view emigration as an external solution to the problem of demography. However, in my opinion, it will have very serious consequences in the long run. We are talking about the integration or unwillingness to integrate of people who have very distinct cultures and religions from the native European population. The first signs of this challenge are already showing in some Western European countries. All countries will have to cope with the consequences of the solution that they agreed to, or, in my opinion, to the supposed solution that they are trying to apply.

It seems that the societies affected are already aware of these problems and are giving adequate answers, as the results of national elections in Western Europe in the past years have shown. However, the political elite of these countries should make a change. In the meantime, we are showing the viewers a comparison of fertility rates in European countries. I am glad you mentioned the system of family benefits, because we know that the countries we are talking about have very different benefit systems. To what extent do family benefit systems affect fertility rates and the number of childbirths?

If you allow me, I just want to briefly address what you said about the political elite. It is true that the whole issue is partly the problem of political leaders, and the political elite in Western Europe have distanced themselves from the people, and they do not represent what a great proportion of their electorate believes in. However, it is the people that unfortunately will have to suffer the consequences. The decisions that are made now will impact the future of the continent and its population for decades or centuries, and the trends will be very hard to reverse. For this reason, it is very important for us that whenever we make decisions that will be crucial for our future, we have the authorization of the people we represent. This is why we always ask the citizens. In the matter of emigration, we had not only the election results but also a referendum and a national consultation. I think this would be important in other European countries, too. Now back to your question about the correlation of family benefits and childbirths. Not only me, but researchers as well see a correlation between investments and the willingness to have children. So, financial, moral, and emotional support for families do pay off. We are witnessing this in Hungary, since the willingness to have children was not so high over the past 20 years as it was last year. We still have a long road ahead of us, but we started from a very low point. It is difficult because the consequences of the large decrease in the population are palpable: there are fewer and fewer young couples in Hungary, and the few young couples have to have more children.

The difference between the desired number of children and those actually born has been growing, and it is still the case today. If we narrow the picture to the V4 countries, are there significant differences between the countries?

These countries have more or less the same data, and there are no significant differences in the reproduction rate.

The socioeconomic situation is also very similar in these countries.

The only difference is that the level of increase is now outstandingly high in Hungary, while it is minimal in the other three countries. We are experiencing a positive change. The willingness to have children grew by 20% and the number of marriages grew by 1.5% over the last couple of years. It is fair to say that the trend in Hungary is going against the general tendencies. I hope that we will be able to keep up this positive trend.

Let’s examine another aspect of the matter, which is also noteworthy in Hungary: emigration.

Some of the greatest assets of Hungary becoming a member of the EU were the freedom of movement, the freedom to study on Europe, and the freedom to work and stay. I believe it is a great achievement, and this was one of the most attractive prospects of the EU membership. We have to preserve and cherish this. I do not think that the freedom of movement is a bad thing. If you allow me to be personal here, my family lived both in France and Germany before, and those were very exciting and educational periods in our lives. And, then we came home and we are raising our kids here and we are living our lives here. So, the fact that the freedom of movement exists is a natural benefit of the EU and the internal market, and it is important to us. What a challenge and a task for us is, and now I’m speaking on behalf of the Hungarian government, to offer a perspective for the future for young Hungarians, so that if they go abroad it is not out of necessity but out of adventure and excitement.

To some extent, the topic leading up to our conversation relates to the issue of working abroad. The V4, together with Lithuania, Slovenia, and Bulgaria submitted a proposal to the European Commission on the occasion of Austria’s lowering of the family benefits. The lowering would, starting in January, discriminate against non-Austrian workers, among them many Hungarians, and would affect approximately 40,000 Hungarian children. How big of a decrease are we talking about?

Let me provide the viewers with the background regulation of the matter. There is a so-called principle of social security coordination in relation to the freedom of movement, according to which EU nationals are entitled to the social allowances in the country they are working in. For example, a Hungarian citizen who is working and paying taxes and other contributions in Austria is eligible to the same social and family allowances as Austrian nationals. This is one of the outcomes of the freedoms of the European Union. There are, however, many cases where the entire family does not move to the country where one of the parents is working. Indeed, there are 40,000 children in Hungary who are affected because their mother or father is working in Austria. We should add that in many of these cases, the family lives near the border and one of the parents is working and paying taxes in Austria, but the family actually lives in Hungary. The Austrian decision, which will be effective beginning January 1, 2019, affects these families, because they will deny the full family allowance from taxpayers whose children do not live with them in Austria. The benefit for one child now is 172 euros, but as the result of the decision it would go down to 90 euros, which is a 40% decrease. The reasoning of the decision is that according to Austria, the level of benefit should be adjusted to the living standards of the country where the child is living. So, in the future they would only pay as much as is reasonable based on the place of residence’s living standards. However, this decision goes against European Union regulations. And, to be honest, it must hurt the sense of justice of every reasonable person, since these workers pay their taxes in Austria. They contribute to the maintenance of the system and to the budget, and so it is not fair that their children are handled differently than Austrian nationals’ children.

There is not much time before the 1st of January, and the probe has not started yet, although the proposal is on the European Commission’s table. Do you expect a positive outcome?

I think that what is important is that we, the seven countries, acted together in the matter. The respective political representative from each country—from Hungary, that would be me—signed the letter to the European Commission, and we called the attention of the commissioner to the violation of the EU law. We cannot hope for an actual decision before the 1st of January, but I encourage everybody who is affected by the decision to ask for legal help individually. We immediately and very firmly reacted once the Austrian decision entered into force, and we will continue to exercise political pressure and will not let the case be forgotten. It does not make our situation easier that the European parliamentary elections will happen in May and that the composition of the European Commission will change. I can only hope that, as in other cases when there is political interest, the EC will accelerate the process in this case as well and that there will be measures as soon as possible. So far we got a reply letter from Madame Commissioner in which she explains that she does not agree with the Austrian decision. I would add that there was an attempt to make it a part of the European law, because, in connection with Brexit, the UK demanded that we introduce the indexation of social allowances. This would have been the UK’s condition for staying in the EU. Later, the UK took the issue off of the agenda; Britain left the EU and the indexation remained, but we were able to prevent it from becoming part of the EU law. It was a huge achievement. Now, the Austrian decision is a unilateral measure, and, therefore, it is very important that we stand against the decision very firmly to prevent it from becoming a precedent and to prevent other European countries from following in Austria’s footsteps. So, we are continuing to stand up against the matter and I hope that there will be a quick and wise decision.

We will certainly monitor the decision making process and will continue to discuss it. Katalin Novák, thank you for coming.

Thank you for your interest.

“The Visegrád countries are working on a project that will support the development of Tunisia’s border protection,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó on Friday in Prague. Our reporter, Zselyke Jambor-Miniska, asked security policy expert József Horváth about the V4’s support program for Northern Africa.

“Europe’s security begins in Africa,” said Péter Szijjártó about the V4’s program that aims to help Tunisia in controlling migration. The Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade coordinated with his Tunisian counterpart, Khemaies Jhinaoui, on the phone after having agreed with the V4 Ministers of Foreign Affairs that, following the V4’s support for development in Libya, they will prepare another support program.

“It will be crucial for the next years. Since 2015, the EU lost three years in assisting migrant-sending countries to strengthen their border protection. There were some trial programs in Libya, but a significant part of the money disappeared there. Tunisia is one of the transit countries; therefore, I think that the V4’s initiative could be a good example for other countries.”

By May this year, 1910 Tunisian migrants reached Italy, while last year in the same period only 231 did. Over the past 5 years, more than 600,000 migrants departed from Northern Africa to Europe. Security policy experts believe that such a crowd can only be stopped by an organized and trained coast guard that has modern equipment.

“Obviously, communication technology, boat and guarding equipment, weapons or satellite systems could be useful for coast guards, just as training and preparation. The Tunisian coast guards should learn skills that are necessary for new technologies, and they should know the security technologies that are indispensable to combat illegal migrants, crime, and human trafficking.”

In contrast, the pro-migration majority of the European Parliament considers long-term developments and the support of migrant sending countries as the solution. The so-called humanitarian visa is still on the agenda in Brussels. The humanitarian visa would allow asylum seekers to legally apply for the visa at any EU member state's embassy or consulate in their home country and secure their entry into the EU without having to go through security checkouts and without the grounds of their claim for asylum being examined. The visa is not the only migration-related issue in which there is disagreement between the V4 and Brussels. The European Parliament issued a statement recently in which it welcomed the adoption of the UN’s global migration pact. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic have previously withdrawn from the pro-migration plan of the UN.

“We are witnessing the clash of two fundamental value systems and principles. The V4 collectively believes that illegal migration needs to be stopped preferably outside the borders of the EU, while Western European countries and the leaders of the EU for some reason are invested in continuing illegal migration.”

According to analysts, the longer the stream of asylum seekers continues to come to Europe, the harder it will be to reinstate safety and order. Leaders of the V4 trust that their joint action will inspire other countries to join the programs that are necessary stop illegal migration outside the borders of the EU.

With the news of the V4 we will be back in a week. Thank you for your attention and goodbye.

 

 

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