István Ujhelyi interview: Getting back on the rails

The Coronavirus-ravaged transport and tourism sectors have withstood a year of unprecedented setbacks, but István Ujhelyi is confident that the future will bring positive and sustainable change. Lorna Hutchinson reports.
István Ujhelyi | Photo credit: MSZP Hungarian Socialist Party

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

16 Feb 2021

Just one year ago who would have imagined that cross-border travel, foreign holidays, even family days out, would come to such an abrupt halt and that entire populations would be all but placed under house arrest for months at a time? The outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic has not only wreaked havoc on society but has hobbled the sectors we relied on so heavily for leisure, relaxation and our very freedom of movement.

Since the beginning of the health crisis, István Ujhelyi - a vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee - has been a vocal advocate of these sectors, fighting for their survival and for recognition at the European level that support is crucial in this time of crisis.

The Hungarian S&D deputy explains, “The Pandemic caused serious problems for the entire transport sector. Several parts of the sector were very vulnerable after restrictions and border controls were introduced. Different transport sectors have reacted in varying ways to the crisis: while cargo transport returned to a certain degree of normality after a short period of time, passenger transport in aviation or cruise line operations ground to a complete halt.”

Turning to tourism, which directly and indirectly employs 27 million people and accounts for more than ten percent of EU GDP, Ujhelyi says the European Commission has recognised the importance of the sector, with European Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton speaking of the necessity of a European Marshall Plan for tourism and a Commission document underlining the need for an investment in the sector to the tune of €162bn.

“We can give real support to the tourism sector - not only now but in the future - if we have a budget for tourism, a crisis management mechanism and a longterm European strategy. We need to create a European Tourism Union and we need it right now”

Ujhelyi explains, “There are excellent programmes, among others SURE [the European instrument for temporary support to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency] and the possibility of the state aid mechanism, but these are not very useful for the tourism industry, where more than 90 percent of companies are SMEs. In the new Multiannual Financial Framework - where the European Parliament was the most progressive EU institution - asking for €300m as a tourism budget line - tourism has been included in the NextGenerationEU temporary recovery instrument, but without a detailed strategy and the abovementioned budget line was not supported by the Commission.”

He says that the majority of programmes are available through national governments and in the cases where tourism is not considered key, no support has materialised. “I find it hard to understand that if there is the political will and the brave, visionary approach concerning the creation of a European Health Union, why this cannot be the case for tourism. We have achieved results; there is plenty of European coordination on facilitating travel, acceptance of PCR [polymerase chain reaction] and rapid testing, but we can give real support to the tourism sector - not only now but in the future - if we have a budget for tourism, a crisis management mechanism and a long-term European strategy."

“The European Year of Rail 2021 is symbolic, because rail travel will play a huge role in achieving climate neutrality. Rail travel is also smart, safe and sustainable, due to its very low greenhouse gas emission”

"We need to create a European Tourism Union and we need it right now. Member States and the EU institutions must understand that gradually reopening the tourism sector is the only way to restart the industry. And if we cannot breathe life back into the day-to-day functioning of this sector, we need to give them money; it’s as simple as that.”

Asked if a Europe-wide vaccine passport could help in the recovery of the travel and tourism sectors, Ujhelyi says, “We can travel safely again if we are vaccinated and if we have official confirmation of this which is accepted all across Europe. The United Nations World Tourism Organization recently organised its eighth session of the Global Crisis Committee and the Greek Tourism Minister introduced a possible solution for this vaccine passport. I participated in this event as a Special Ambassador of Tourism. We are working on finding the best possible solution.”

The EU has designated 2021 as the year of rail and Ujhelyi is buoyed by this initiative, saying, “In the European Green Deal, the European Union aims to be climate neutral by 2050, and the European Climate Law, which was voted on by the European Parliament last October, will turn this commitment into a legal framework. The European Year of Rail 2021 is symbolic, because rail travel will play a huge role in achieving climate neutrality. Rail travel is also smart, safe and sustainable, due to its very low greenhouse gas emission. Direct rail routes and connections between major cities and capitals are key to achieve our goals, so I believe that we should focus on high-speed railways, building new routes and increasing the rail network in Europe. At the same time, we should reconsider the need for short-haul flights in Europe; this would go a long way in protecting our planet and our future.”

Turning to his native Hungary, Ujhelyi, a vocal critic of incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, says that while the EU has “a crucial role in pointing out fraud and government breaches,” real, lasting change can only come from within Hungary. “This situation can only be solved by voters and by the opposition winning the next parliamentary elections in 2022. With the unprecedented cooperation of opposition parties, I am convinced that we will.”

Asked whether the new Joe Biden administration in the United States will have any influence on far-right anti-democratic populist parties in Europe, such as Hungary’s ruling Fidesz and Poland’s PiS, Ujhelyi says that the US has been Hungary’s “strongest strategic ally” outside of the EU, adding, “We all know how devoted President Biden and his new administration is to democracy, justice and the rule of law worldwide, and therefore the type of political leaders mentioned in this question can easily find themselves in certain situations - for example, when Hungarian government officials were banned from the US in 2014. But again, the solution is in the hands of Hungarian voters and opposition politicians.”

Against the backdrop of the current furore over the EU’s perceived slow rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, Ujhelyi, a substitute member of Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee, says that the joint procurement of vaccination supplies - with the bloc acting as broker for all 27 Member States - is “unique and unconventional in the history of the EU.”

He adds, “These vaccine purchases made by the EU are in the interest of our European community and of course we have witnessed some difficulties, but together we can overcome these challenges. A common European approach to health is the most effective and this is why we need the wide implementation of the European Health Union.”

“Is it okay that the health, quality of life and very survival of certain European citizens depend on which Member State they happen to live in? Can a community built on solidarity simply look away? I don’t think that’s acceptable. The pandemic has taught us that we need a European Health Union”

Referring briefly to the recent row between the UK and the Commission over vaccine supply issues with Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, Ujhelyi says, “I think that we have a common ‘enemy’ which is the COVID-19 virus, so we need to focus on this issue, in order to get back our ‘old’ daily life.”

Finally, looking at Europe’s nascent recovery after a year in the eye of the Coronavirus storm, Ujhelyi says it’s now time to consider new ways of addressing health in Europe. “The European Community is based on solidarity and mutual benefits. In line with this, it is time to begin a new era and move beyond some of the dogmas that are said to be carved in stone. Climate emergencies, healthcare problems, and refugee issues are all challenges that can only be addressed by common and comprehensive solutions. The only way to achieve this is through deeper integration and by setting minimum common standards.”

He goes on, “There are major disparities in the funding, operation and standards of healthcare in the European Union’s Member States, which not only jeopardises patient safety but also limits the achievement of the EU’s medium and long-term objectives. There is no question that one of the most important tasks for the Union in the coming period is to invest in people and make the strengthening of welfare and social systems a priority.”

Ujhelyi says that while the management of healthcare is currently a Member State competence “and, at best, EU institutions and their leaders can only help national governments with recommendations and suggestions to improve the public health situation in their countries,” he questions whether this backseat role is enough. “Is it okay that a European citizen is three times more likely to succumb to a hospital infection in Hungary than a European citizen in Germany? Is it okay that the health, quality of life and very survival of certain European citizens depend on which Member State they happen to live in? Can a community built on solidarity simply look away? I don’t think that’s acceptable. The pandemic has taught us that we need a European Health Union.”

“It is time to begin a new era and move beyond some of the dogmas that are said to be carved in stone. Climate emergencies, healthcare problems, and refugee issues are all challenges that can only be addressed by common and comprehensive solutions”

Explaining that he has long demanded that the EU adopt quality standards for public healthcare systems in Europe, Ujhelyi adds, “I know that some Member States reject this idea, arguing that healthcare is their own competence and that it is every government’s responsibility to keep and operate it at the right level. Sure. But if there are such discrepancies and inequalities between our systems, then we are unable to defeat global threats. Just a tiny hole in our common boat is enough to let the water slowly seep in and sink it. Setting quality standards does not deprive national governments of their competence; on the contrary, it ensures the proper functioning of healthcare systems and thus patient safety for all Europeans.”

He adds, “Last year I developed a framework proposal on this, which is now close to full implementation. The Parliament’s S&D Group was the first to recognise the importance of this issue and adopted a brave and pioneering policy paper that set out the foundations of the European Health Union. I am really proud to have been a part of its elaboration and implementation. We still have a long way to go, but with the support of the Parliament and the Commission, I think that success is just around the corner.”

 

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