Viktor Orban’s Hungary and Europe’s New Walls
Matteo Tacconi 18 June 2015

This year alone, Hungary has so far received 50,000 requests for asylum, compared to 43,000 received in 2014. In a recent report, the ANSA news agency explained that this is the highest percentage of asylum requests pro capite in Europe. Seventy per cent of these requests were presented by Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi citizens. In January and February instead, the country experienced a rapid and sudden migratory wave from Kosovo, almost as if it had been planned. According to Frontex, in the first few months of the year, 23,000 people illegally crossed the border, travelling from Serbia to Hungary. This phenomenon has now diminished.

The land and the people

In recent weeks the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban greatly emphasised the subject of immigration, wishing to return to address the origins of this issue. Orban spoke out against the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers in his country and against the proposed idea of creating a European system of quotas (Hungary would be obliged to accept 700 asylum seekers). Once again, Orban spoke in dogmatic terms saying, “Multiculturalism means the coexistence of Islam, Asian religions and Christianity. We will do everything to spare Hungary from that,” underlining the sacred and inseparable bond between the land and the people. Orban also emphasised the negativity of economic immigration, motivated by a search for jobs.

The prime minister and the representatives of his party, Fidesz, in power since 2010, did not restrict themselves to speaking of the protection of Hungarianness and of closing the border with Serbia. Other initiatives are also planned. One of these has advertising characteristics. The website, published by the consultancy firm ITL Group, and edited by the journalist Claudia Leporatti, reports that posters have appeared in Hungarian cities with wording such as, “If you have come to Hungary you cannot take jobs from the Hungarians,”  “If you come to Hungary you must respect our culture,” and “If you come to Hungary you must respect our laws.”

At the same time, the government has started to send Hungarian families a questionnaire about immigration and security. Many have said that associating the two issues, without making a great distinction between mass migration and political asylum, can generate confusion and fuel hatred. There have been many protests about the last of the twelve questions posed, in which, according to the Heinrich Böll Foundation, named after the famous and socially committed German author, people are asked whether they agree with the government position, that resources potentially allocated to immigration (of which a part is, however, provided by the EU) could have a negative effect on state policies aimed at supporting Hungarian families.

It was the Böll Foundation that described Orban’s attitude to immigration as “hypocritical”,  implying that this apocalyptic approach to the phenomenon clashes with the real numbers indicating that Hungary is not a land of immigration, but one of transit. If anything the opposite is true, with a negative balance between those leaving and those arriving. Proof lies in the number of Hungarians in Germany, which rose from 65,000 in 2010 to 114,000 in 2013. Theirs is an economic migration, the very one Orban is attacking.

Budapest under special surveillance

Orban’s battle against immigrants has been intercepted in Brussels. At its plenary session on May 19th, the European Parliament approved a resolution stating that the questionnaire on immigration, albeit potentially useful, is misleading, prejudiced and unbalanced.

This resolution, however, does not only concern migrants and the questionnaire sent by mail to Hungarian families, it also addresses Orban’s recent statements about the death penalty. At the end of April, following the murder of a cigarette and newspaper vendor, he said that the Penal Code’s punishments for crimes of this kind were far too lenient and that it would not be a scandal  if a debate on the reintroduction of the death penalty were to take place in Hungary.  MEPs harshly opposed this, and their resolution which added this issue to the statements on immigration, asked the European Commission to start monitoring the situation concerning the rule of law in Hungary.

Once again Orban has vehemently returned to be the centre of attention and concern in Brussels. The same happened after he won the 2010 elections, followed by a series of greatly opposed legislative provisions concerning freedom of the press and of worship, the homeless, justice and other sensitive issues, part of which merged with the 2012 constitutional reform. The Budapest government’s “non-orthodox” economic policies also came under scrutiny, when it refused to renegotiate agreements entered into with the International Monetary Fund in 2008 (basically a bailout),working a great deal on interest rates and introducing iniquitous taxes on important foreign investors, especially in the banking, distribution and telecommunications sectors. At the time these measures were greatly criticised and are now being progressively reduced.

Illiberal or non-liberal?

Although there is no direct link, Orban’s positions on immigration and the death penalty are made worse by the manner in which Budapest is managing foreign affairs in what is a New Cold War between the West and Russia caused by the Ukrainian issue. The prime minister is playing a duplicitous game. One the one hand he voted in favour of imposing economic sanctions on Moscow, while on the other he literally said that by approving these sanctions, Europe was shooting itself in the foot and did not hesitate to receive Putin with great pomp and ceremony in February. Before that, during a visit to Romania, where he met representatives of the Hungarian minority, he announced that Hungary has the right to search for its own path for democracy, not necessarily a liberal one.

It is very probable that the irritation these words caused in Brussels, Washington and Berlin was the result of a bad transliteration of Orban’s words. The adjective illiberal, reported by the Anglo-Saxon press, eliminated all nuances. The concept of a non-liberal state expressed by Orban did not automatically mean a search for an illiberal path. Nor did his references to the Russian, Chinese and Turkish models, also expressed during his visit to Romania, mean that Hungary must adapt to systems outlined by Putin, Erdogan and the leadership in Beijing. Someone observed that Orban instead wished to state that it is not a given that a liberal democracy and economic growth are two sides of the same coin. One can achieve economic growth without a liberal democracy and without a liberal democracy being replaced by an illiberal form of government. That was the sense of the Hungarian prime minister’s speech.

A non-stopping electoral campaign

Orban is a divisive personality. One school of thought sees him as the nation’s saviour, the man who defends Hungary from cultural contamination and the predatory attitude of the IMF. Others see him as an authoritarian leader, if not a real dictator, possibly a Fascist, who is abolishing civil and political freedom, dragging Hungary out of the European sphere.

Perspectives such as these to not grasp Orbanism’s real essence, which mingles conservative political culture, nationalism and statism, applying them according to contingencies and mass compulsions. Orban does not want to leave Europe, but he knows that at the moment, criticism of Europe and aimed at Europe, brings home votes. He is aware that the Hungarian economy depends on that of the Eurozone and Germany (the country’s largest investor), but he also knows that a few rockets fired at the capitalistic model, a few slow dances with the Eurasian “democratures” and a few “punishments” inflicted on large foreign companies, can change peoples’ acrimony turning it into consensus. He is aware that Hungary is not a country for migrants, but he cynically exploits the fear all great migrations cause.

In recent years Orban has performed a balancing act. He has annoyed and calmed, forced and reassured, broken the rules and then tried to mend them. But his political project, neo-conservative and statist, has however progressed. Perhaps it does not have the power of a revolution, but it is not hot air. On the other hand the constitution alone is a legacy of the season marked by Orban’s supremacy.

Even his most recent statements fit into this groove. But there is something new. Consensus appears to be waning, both in society (according to polls) and in his party where there has been a significant rift. Orban is on a collision course with Lajos Simicska, an oligarch, media magnate, the party’s financial brains and until very recently his most trusted economic advisor. It was he who initiated the idea – now Orban’s obsession – implemented to a certain extent, according to which, Hungary must have large national companies and recover margins of manoeuvring in the economic field, while not delegating everything, or almost everything, to important foreign investors.

The clash between Orban and Simicska is personal, but linked to issues concerning money, contracts and privileges. In any case it has caused the vase to overflow, proving that in Fidesz too some are tired of the strongman. Orban instead intends to regain his driving force in his usual way, competing on the Right with the extremists belonging to Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary), appropriating for himself of their rallying cry and strong points, including those against immigrants. Considering the desert that has form on the Left, at the moment, Jobbik is the only party equipped with a degree of electoral importance. Orban is pursuing it even more than usual, this time balancing well above the wire as one can see from news reports in recent weeks.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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