Viktor Orbán: Europe’s Unlikely Hero
How Hungary’s Prime Minister has been handling immigration in his country, leading him to become one of the most important politicians in Europe today.
On January 11 this year, world leaders gathered in Paris to remember the victims of the terror attack on the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. The message of Western politicians didn’t go beyond the usual slogans but Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, managed to cause a huge controversy with his comments. According to the international press, he demonised immigrants by suggesting that there is a connection between terrorism and immigration.
On the margins of the rally, which was held in support of free speech, Orbán said, ‘Economic immigration is a bad thing in Europe. It should not be seen as having any benefits, because it only brings trouble and danger to the peoples of Europe. Immigration and cultural questions related to that must be discussed in a much more open, honest, and straightforward manner than has been occurring until now. I hope that a composed, calm analysis of recent events will guide European leaders and Brussels towards a tough policy restricting immigration. While I am Prime Minister, Hungary will definitely not become a destination for immigrants. We don’t want to see large groups of minorities with different cultural characteristics and backgrounds among us. We want to keep Hungary as Hungary.’ Orbán received a lot of criticism for these comments elsewhere, and the Hungarian public was surprised since immigration was not a common topic at that time. Neither the European nor the Hungarian people had any idea about what awaited them in the coming year.
On 11 January, when Orbán marched with the leaders of the world in Paris, 367 people crossed Hungary’s borders illegally. Why is the PM talking about immigration when it’s not even an actual problem in Hungary?, we asked. Commentators said that Orbán wanted to be ahead of everyone else, but the Left-liberal opposition was sure that he had miscalculated and had shamed Hungary by saying something politically incorrect. At that point, the word ‘migration’ was far less common in the press, as well as in forms of political and personal communication. We had no idea about the magnitude of the problem awaiting Europe. Strangely enough, however, back then we used the word ‘immigration’, which shows a greater understanding of the truth of the situation, namely that ‘migrants’ are not just passing through, but that they are immigrating here; they intend to stay here with us.
The thoughts Orbán shared in Paris are now being echoed around the world, and his approach to immigration hasn’t changed since. However, a few new aspects have appeared in his subsequent arguments. Orbán had a rough time in the latter part of 2014 and into early 2015; the popularity of his party, Fidesz, was dropping, culminating in the loss of their parliamentary supermajority in February after a defeat in a local by-election, and a further by-election defeat in April at the hands of the Right-wing party, Jobbik. The government also underwent a diplomatic row with the United States, whose chargé d’affaires, André Goodfriend, virtually became the central figure of the Left-liberal opposition which had previously lacked a centre and a figure who all of its factions could look towards. At the same time, Fidesz had made some extremely unpopular and miscalculated moves, such as the infamous ‘Internet tax’, which was shut down following mass demonstrations in Budapest at the end of 2014. As a consequence of all of this, his comments in Paris were heavily criticised; Hungarian commentators said that this was the voice of the real Orbán and was what happens when he doesn’t simply repeat what his spin doctors tell him to say. They called it a mistake. But now we understand that this genuine voice became the key of Orbán’s newfound success. The popular Hungarian political commentator Gábor Török concluded this autumn that Orbán has found himself again this year, saying that he has become much more convincing when he says something that he actually believes in. Orbán’s enthusiasm, will to fight, and determination have begun to raise Fidesz’s and the government’s popularity once again after the low point they had reached by the end of last year.
Things get serious
By the spring, immigration had become a central topic in Hungary, and the numbers slowly began to prove Orbán right. By the end of April, when the national consultation on immigration and terrorism was announced, the average rate of entry was 300-400 immigrants per day; in May 500; and by June it had already reached 1000-1500. The government then launched a controversial poster campaign to draw people’s attention to the national consultation. Posters warned immigrants to respect Hungarian law and culture, and informed them that they ‘can’t take away our jobs’. This campaign was universally labelled xenophobic by both the Hungarian and the Western press; some even called it ‘hate speech’.
In June the government decided to close the border between Hungary and Serbia and to build a fence along its length (more recently it has taken the same steps along the Croatian border). As a result Orbán once again became a target for criticism in the Left-liberal press, most of it consisting of classic hyperboles. This criticism was hysterical and mostly rhetorical, and was visibly undermined by the silence of the European Commission on the matter, since it was obvious that the matter of border control is a matter that falls within the purview of the national governments. An important argument began to appear in the communications from the Hungarian government: we are simply fulfilling our international obligations. This argument has been the central one ever since. For the Hungarian opposition and Orbán’s foreign critics this was probably the most irritating part, as no matter how intensely they criticised Orbán, international law was not on their side.
The leader Europeans want
Today we can conclude that the fences along the Serbian and Croatian borders are working. The immigrants have found other routes to Germany, and Hungary is not even being considered by them anymore. Therefore, despite all the criticism from the West, Orbán proved to be a national leader who managed to protect his country from this crisis, at least for now. Cleverly, neither he nor the other members of the government have described the fences as an ideal solution. The central point of their arguments is that the Greek border, from where most of the immigrants are arriving, must be protected, and that until this happens the Hungarian fence is merely the best option under the circumstances. Mainstream politicians all over Europe are saying now that Orbán shouldn’t be blamed for acting as he did, considering that Europe failed to provide a solution.
This year, Orbán has acquired relevance and popularity in Europe of a sort which no other Hungarian politician of recent decades has managed. The much-criticised national consultation – which was definitely more of a propaganda piece than an actual survey – became an important point of reference for Orbán to prove that his actions have the support of the people. He said on numerous occasions that European leaders are acting against the interests and the will of their own people, and people all over Europe agree with him. Apart from an ever-critical liberal minority, if we look at the comments sections of online articles concerning immigration – or as we now call it, migration – in the international press, we see that Orbán is the sort of leader the majority of people want for their own countries. Orbán appears as a democratic leader who is labelled a bad guy simply for defending his country and fulfilling his international obligations at the same time. He is virtually unassailable.
No one can foresee the future of the European Union and how it will manage this new wave of immigration, or whether it is possible to manage it at all under the current circumstances. The ‘Orbánian way’ might be a solution only for one country and not for Europe as a whole. But European politicians are starting to realise that they can’t forever continue to blame the EU for their inaction, considering that it is a threat to both national security and their own popularity. Such predictions would require much more space than this article allows, but there is one thing we can definitively state: the majority of Europeans now think that Orbán has been right all along.