February 29, 2016 / 11:18 AM / 2 years ago

Orban says Hungary faces 'serious challenge' in euro decision

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The euro zone’s troubles are forcing its member states to forge closer integration and Hungary will have to decide in coming years whether to give up some sovereignty in economic policy and join the group, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Monday.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during his state-of-the-nation speech in Budapest, Hungary, February 28, 2016. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Orban, in power since 2010, has clashed with Brussels on a range of issues from the economy to immigration. A feisty nationalist, he has often accused the European Union of meddling in areas he says should be the preserve of national governments.

All EU states are required eventually to join the euro, except Britain and Denmark which have legal opt-outs. Orban’s right-wing government has not set a target date for joining the euro and the constitution, which stipulates that the forint is the national currency, would first have to be changed.

“There are so many problems in the EU that several countries are warming up to the idea that after the single currency a deeper integration could also be created,” Orban said in a speech to Hungarian ambassadors.

“This poses a serious challenge to us, to all countries who are not members of the euro zone.”

He said it was not clear whether the efforts for closer integration within the euro zone would work, but added Hungary faced an inevitable choice - give up important parts of its national sovereignty and join the euro zone or remain outside.

“This will be the big intellectual challenge and exciting debate of the next few years,” Orban said.

Orban said any decision about joining the euro zone would have to be based on “national unity”, noting that a two-thirds majority would be needed to amend the constitution. His government currently falls just short of such a majority.

A small central European country of 10 million people, Hungary conducts some 80 percent of its trade with the rest of the EU, especially with euro zone members such as Germany. Nineteen of the EU’s 28 member states use the euro.

Hungary has been a major beneficiary of EU funds for infrastructure and other projects, like Poland. Polish President Andrzej Duda said last year Poland would be ready to adopt the euro when Poles start earning the same as western Europeans.

David Nemeth, an analyst at the Hungarian unit of Belgian lender KBC, said Orban did not exclude eventual euro zone membership but probably wanted to play down expectations that Hungary will automatically join the common currency.

“Sovereignty is visibly important to him,” Nemeth said of Orban. “We can see he is not the kind who will waltz into the euro with his hands up, just to get it done at all costs.”

Reporting by Krisztina Than and Marton Dunai; Editing by Gareth Jones

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