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Novák Katalin interjút ad a Mandinernek

Hungary has become an example to follow - Mandiner interview with Katalin Novák

"We must learn to desire what is ours." This quote was on your wedding invitation card. How can you apply this quote in everyday life?

What is given, what is already ours, we unfortunately forget to appreciate over time. The French philosopher Simone Weil's call is that, beyond appreciation, it is actually worth longing for what we already "have", what is already ours. This longing is also present in our marriage, and we try to live this approach in other areas of life and pass it on to our children.

What do you consider most important when raising children?

Security, which is a key issue for children. When they know what to expect, where the boundaries are. Now that we are raising two children in their late adolescence alongside our now grown-up son, they know that there are situations that my husband and I inevitably don't approach in exactly the same way. They understand that both of our approaches can be equally good. I don't like to paint a rose-tinted picture of our family, our marriage either, because tensions and clashes happen in our family too. But we don't argue about parenting principles in front of the children. We are allies. It's like diplomacy: behind closed doors we discuss what we disagree on, but outwardly (in this case in front of the children) we are united.

Your family has suddenly found itself in a different world. Even now, we're talking on the terrace of the residence, and the venue gives a sense of rigidity and formality.  How has your life changed?

I'm grateful that this task has found me now. The children are grown up, they understand what's happening, they can cope with the new situation, and they are basically living their lives as before. Since I was elected, I have tried to ensure that my family suffers as little as possible from the new situation that comes with the post. We respect our children; we respect their lives. Our eldest son, for example, attends university without others knowing who his mother is. The younger ones are also very independent: we support their schooling with a public transport pass for each of them.

Your husband is a busy banking professional, who told Mandiner when you were elected that he will try to attend only those events where protocol requires his presence in any case.
As you can see, István is a man of his word. He has worked in the same job for more than twenty years. He has a serious job, he's busy, so I wouldn't expect him to be there for me at certain events just for me to show that he's my husband. There are times when protocol requires his presence, and he is there for me as a matter of course, but other than that he doesn't seek publicity, and I don't force it. The way he supports me is not for the outside world. 
I thank the Lord that I live in a loving family. Family to me is like a charger for a phone. Even if I go home tired, we talk in the evening, we spend time together, so I can start the next task the next day recharged. It's a special gift that I have a very close relationship with my parents and my brother, we are often together and I get a lot of strength from them.  And my children have a good sense of criticism of my work, and are perhaps my most honest critics.

Can you give an example?

We often talk about what and why I do as President of Hungary, especially when they see a critical assessment. On these occasions, they keep asking questions until they understand the reasons behind my decision. Sometimes our daughter even helps me with my choice of clothes. It feels good to see that they live as young people open to the world and also care about others. I am proud of them.

You said you continue to do a mother’s tasks even these days. Like going shopping?It happens, quite often.

Do people recognise you in the stores? Yes.

It's certainly not difficult, as there's probably a motorcade parked at the entrance. 

I try to do my shopping discreetly, but sometimes it's really hard to go unnoticed. Now I'm used to people meeting me, saying hello and then everyone goes shopping. Sometimes I'm approached, a few photos are taken. They wonder why I do the shopping. I ask: what do you think we're having for dinner? I am the President of Hungary, but I am also a mother, a wife and a housewife.

Shopping like this is bound to make security sweat.
They are used to tackling more serious tasks than this.

Was it difficult to get used to their constant presence? 

The President of Hungary is entitled to personal protection even on her private programmes.
I have a very good team around me. They try to respect my privacy to the highest possible degree.  

If we take an imaginary business card, what is the order on it? Mother, wife, president?
We can stick to this order.

The last time you baked for the children?
We had just spent a few days in Transylvania with family, and it happened to coincide with our daughter's birthday. According to our children, a birthday starts one minute after midnight, so that night, I made pancakes in the kitchen of the guesthouse with three pans.

You were on maternity leave with your children for six years. That's a lot...
For a child, the first few years are crucial. For me, there was no question then that I wanted to be with our children as much as I could. I felt that this was a place in the world where no one else could completely replace me. We had no help, both our parents live in the countryside.  I could afford to be there for the children as we could give up my income. I know that many mothers cannot stay at home because of the necessity to make ends meet. That is why I think it is right to take any steps that will give young people with children more financial flexibility. 
When it comes to encouraging young people to start a family, it must also be said frankly that being a mother is a wonderful task, but one that is often exhausting to the point of being unbearable. Moreover, there is no perfect time to have children. There will always be something that makes you feel that the moment is not ideal.

Did you come to your decision to have children with ease at the time?
I gave birth in my twenties, as a young graduate. I was full of drive, a young, energetic woman who wanted to make a name for herself, earn money and put to good use what I had studied for so long. But then we decided to go for it. I found it hard to believe that there would be a way back to work. All I knew was that regarding childbearing, time can have the upper hand. It's biology. 
It's like having two sets of rails. One is family life, the other is career. The former is a very reliable fast train that leaves the station at some point, and if you miss it, you can't get back on. On the other track, trains frequently depart, and you can catch either a passenger or a fast train later.

Have you asked yourself often if you are a good mother?
All the time. When I went back to work four hours a day between the first two children, I was constantly in doubt, tormented by remorse. I felt I was neither a good enough mother nor a good enough employee. Even when I was at home with the children, I often felt I could do better.  Then I realised that with a child comes a dose of scruples, and it follows you through life.

All three of your children go or have gone to a school run by the Reformed Church of Hungary. Why was this important to you?
I'm a Reformed Christian, my husband is Catholic, but the children chose to go to this particular grammar school themselves, we just encouraged them. We are grateful because in this secondary school of the Reformed Church of Hungary, they were reinforced in the values that we also stand for. The graduates of this school do not leave unprotected, because they become equipped with the inner composure that marks the Reformed attitude.

The question does not concern the family, but a framed photo has appeared on the wall of the presidential residence. It shows four members of the Beatles and their signatures. Why did you feel the need to put it on the wall?
It was a gift and I really like Beatles music.

We saw two dogs in the garden of the residence. Were they already here when you moved in?
Both are our dogs. We adopted Pogo four years ago and Zsömle last year from a shelter. They were born into difficult circumstances, but now they have a good home in this big garden.

The Hungarian population has been decreasing since 1981. What do you think could be the way out?
The situation is difficult. It is not just that year by year, fewer children are born than the number of people who pass away, but also that there are twenty per cent fewer women of childbearing age than there were two decades ago. 
Unless we find a way to have more children, we are giving up on our future, on the survival of the Hungarian nation. With the Holy Father, we also talked about families. He sees it as one of the worrying phenomena of the modern age that while in the past a family had five or six children, today at best, they have two. Pope Francis is seeing the same in his own large family. Today, no nation in Europe can sustain itself on its own. As leaders, we must ask the question: why are so few children being born? What are the financial or cultural reasons? In Hungary we protect life and the family. We are trying to help young people so that they do not have to give up having children because they want to work, and so that they do not have to give up work because they want to have a family.  The state can help to minimise the financial obstacles to starting a family and to ensure that those who have children are not worse off financially than those who did not want to start a family. This help is welcomed by the majority. Hungary has now become an example for many to follow.

Previously, the government spent six percent of GDP on family support. How has this figure evolved in recent years?
Despite the economic hardships caused by the war, Hungary's commitment to families has not changed. The Hungarian budget has been dedicating funds to this purpose to a breaking point. I would add that this is not an expense, but the best investment possible. Whether a Hungarian child is born within or beyond our borders, they are equally important to us.

Another statistic: the marriage rate has fallen by 29% in the last year. To what do you attribute this?
I have been following the evolution of the numbers for a long time. There has been a very positive shift in marriage rates compared to 2010, almost unprecedented in the western world. That year was the lowest point. Thirty-five thousand marriages. That compares with nearly 70,000 ten years later, and even last year it was 64,000, although there has been a downturn. If I add that in the seventies the number of marriages was over 100,000, we can see where we stand. Why is there a decline now? It is too early to give an explanation, but looking around the world and thinking about the new insecurities that are emerging, I think it is not so surprising that many people are finding it harder to make this commitment. It's no coincidence that the Budapest Demographic Summit is also about family as the key to security. Financial and emotional security helps in having children, and marriage can provide stability.

We won't go very far from family policy - listening to your speech on 20 August, I got the impression that you pursue family policy abroad, too, that you are nurturing Hungary's family ties. The doors of a family home are typically open, and in your inaugural speech you said, 'I trust that I can be of use to Hungary in opening doors and finding keys'. Looking back over the past year and a half, do you think you have been able to open doors that were previously closed to Hungary?
We're not even sure that the door was locked, we just didn't necessarily try to turn the doorknob. I feel like most doors are open to Hungary.

Can you translate this into concrete examples?
I could.

Then we'll ask you about a specific one. You have issued a statement on your meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the one point in it that has raised expectations high is that you will try to make progress on the rights of the Hungarians in Transcarpathia as soon as possible. Has this work started? In what form do you envisage progress?
I am not a naive person, just an optimist. The President of Ukraine has said that he is ready to give the members of the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia what the members of the Ukrainian minority in our country receive. This may not sound very good at first, but it is actually a good basis for negotiation. Hungary is known to be generous to its national minorities. Our Fundamental Law is clear: the national minorities living in Hungary are constituent components of the state. Every Hungarian citizen belonging to a national minority has the right to freely assume and preserve his or her identity. National minorities living in Hungary have the right to practise their mother tongue, to use their own language when pronouncing individual or public names, to cultivate their own culture and to receive education in their mother tongue. I will protect these minority rights personally, as President of Hungary, with all the means available to me.  
If the Hungarian community in Transcarpathia were to be guaranteed the same, it could be a great step forward, especially in comparison with developments in recent years. An important characteristic of a country aspiring to be a member of the EU is that it can be taken seriously. I assume that the President of Ukraine is a serious man, and if he said something, he meant it. I take this as a basic premise and I look forward to seeing it put into practice. Therefore, let us hope that what is now happening in Munkács is not what he intended and that we can soon resolve the problems. I certainly expect that from him.

Have you since used the direct presidential communication channel established at this meeting – perhaps in the case of the Hungarian school in Munkács?

An important multiannual priority is the Budapest Demographic Summit. You've invited Elon Musk - how do you see his chances of coming?
He has a reputation for spontaneity, and may even fly in in his spaceship. We look forward to seeing him.

But Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is most definitely coming. Many believe that, after her election, she abandoned the alliance with Hungary in European politics that she has often shown in the past. As a personal friend of Meloni, what message do you have for those who see it this way?
We are in daily contact with the Italian Prime Minister. I have held her in high esteem since our first meeting. Everything I have seen of her work and her personality so far has only reinforced my conviction that Italy has an excellent Prime Minister who, unlike many of her predecessors, has the chance to stay in office for a full term for the first time in a long time. This is a major achievement in itself for Italian prime ministers. Giorgia Meloni is trying to cope with the very difficult legacy she has inherited from her predecessors. She has no easy task, she does not have many supporters in Italy or in the world. We Hungarians should not strengthen the camp of critics, but rather the contrary: it is in our interest - and this is also a personal conviction of mine - to support her in the implementation of all that she has undertaken. Whether it is about creating economic stability in Italy, stopping illegal migration or strengthening traditional family values. The latter is why she is coming to Budapest for the Demographic Summit.

Is there a guest at the Demographic Summit who is less known in Hungarian public life, but whose presence is particularly dear to your heart?
This is the fifth time we have organised the Budapest Demographic Summit and the interest is growing. This year we are expecting sixty-five speakers from thirty countries on five continents. This is the largest international forum of pro-family forces. Heads of State and Government will be joined by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, Nick Vujicic, who lives without limbs and inspires many, and psychologist Jordan Peterson, who is once again worth listening to. Thursday and Friday will be full of so much excitement that I can only recommend you follow the summit. There will be plenty of intellectual and spiritual ammunition for those who join in. And on Saturday, we're looking forward to a big family day in the City Park and in five cities in the countryside.

Few Heads of State have as close a relationship with the Pope in Rome as you do, and it is not common for the fifteen-minute time-limit for private audiences to be massively exceeded - you have done this on both occasions. What is it that makes Pope Francis pay so much attention to Hungary?
The Holy Father holds us Hungarians in high esteem. He appreciates our commitment to Christianity. It is unprecedented for him to visit the same country twice in such a short period of time. At the Eucharistic Congress, Pope Francis had a brief glimpse into the life of Hungarians, something like a film preview. He also shared with me how impressed he was by the radiant, strong faith and the will to live that he experienced here. It's worth recording for ourselves: these are special moments in our lives when we are able to come together, to put aside any opposition. There was no booing. There were no critics of the papal visit. Those for whom the Holy Father's visit to Hungary meant a great deal spiritually were able to experience it freely and peacefully. Such was the attraction of his presence, both at the Eucharistic Congress and during his three-day apostolic visit, that it reached the hearts of those who were not practising believers.

Talking about a less uplifting family matter, the Pope has on several occasions strongly expressed his view that the National Assembly should ratify the Swedish NATO accession protocol as soon as possible. Why do you think this is the right thing to do?
Yes, from the very first moment I made my views known, publicly. The enlarged defence alliance of which we are a member would be strengthened by Sweden's accession. If that is the case, it is better to take the decision providing approval as soon as possible. However, this is not my responsibility, as it is the sovereign Hungarian Parliament that will decide on ratification. I trust in the wisdom of the MPs. And of course I understand that the decision-makers do not like the fact that prominent Swedish politicians speak disrespectfully about our country. As allies, we must give each other the respect we deserve, and we have not received it from them. Even so, I firmly believe that we must support Swedish membership of NATO. I almost said that we should not hold it back – although we know that Hungary is not the country holding it back.

Your role in ecclesiastical diplomacy has already been mentioned, but since your election you have also been very active in diplomatic work beyond the traditional bilateral formats: you have participated in the Arraiolos Group of Presidents of European Parliamentary Republics, have been the main speaker at the Swiss Economic Forum, have addressed the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and have held discussions on the margins of the Special Olympics. What is the benefit of this work for Hungary?
The primary goal of foreign policy is to promote Hungarian interests. A diplomatically active president can help in this. We are not a big country, or a world power. Nor will we ever be. It is in our common interest that our allies understand us and that we understand them.

Speaking of things that few people do in Hungarian politics apart from you, you are the first Hungarian politician to use BeReal. Why do you like BeReal?
This is one of the most popular apps for teenagers. Once a day, they share what's happening to them in real life. I'm honoured that young people let me into their lives for a glimpse, and in return I do the same. I am also surprised by how well I have been received as a BeReal-user.

We have many more questions. Why do we have to stop already?
I have to go to a parent-teacher conference.