EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

The European Migrant Crisis of 2015 was an event that deeply resonated within the European continent, with it being the one of the most important contributors to the rise of right-wing populism and nationalism in European countries, as more than 1.8 million people crossed the border of Europe, seeking a better future from their either war-torn, economically or environmentally disadvantaged or damaged states.

This migratory wave prompted a rise in nationalist discourse among more conservatively-oriented nation states, opposing the influx of foreign-born nationals, while other countries were willing to open their borders to prop up their economies due to a shortage of workers or other factors such as adherence to international human rights, rights to asylum and fulfillment of international obligations that countries has committed themselves to since the end of the World War II.

The Hungarian perspective

Among the states vehemently opposed to migration was and still is Hungary, whose long-ruling Prime Minister Viktor Orban, was one of the figureheads advocating against the opening of borders, since one of the larger migration routes, the Western Balkan route, went through the country.

Understanding why states such as Hungary would oppose migration is a rather tough nut to crack, as reasons such as the state conditions or budget could simply be lower and underfunded to handle and process such a huge influx of people in a remarkably short period of time from the outside, as opposed to larger and wealthier European states, for example. However, the responsibility to uphold international human rights should not be up for debate, especially not when it comes to monetary reasons. Human rights are inviolable and hard-won in the aftermath of the heinous Second World War, which is why people should be obliged to uphold them regardless of their financial viability.

In any case, the government promptly built a wired fence on the border with Serbia and partly Croatia (EU member, but not in the Schengen Area), trying to stem the migrant tide, manning the border with policemen not only from Hungary, but also from other V4 member states, in order to protect their borders, the Schengen Area and their citizens, at least according to Hungarian government statements. A question might arise, whether there are actual budgetary concerns, as Hungary was able to quickly find 106 million US dollars to build the 175km long fence. In a country that has usually had problems with finding monetary sources to continue their social welfare programs due to severe debt (cca 70% of the GDP) and a huge influx of EU funds (that are at risk currently), it is indeed interesting how fast and easy it was for the government to provide funding for the fence. Could these funds not have found better to use for improving healthcare, education or a similarly underfunded sector? Particularly given that the cost of accepting and integrating asylum seekers in member states with vastly higher levels of services provided than is currently the case in Hungary, such as Denmark, is remarkably lower than the cost of said fence. Apparently not, as Orban scored a lot of votes due to his approach towards migration. Politicization of the migration topic was very beneficial, as the government is still using it as an excuse for some of its illiberal policies.

In a similar vein, Hungary and other V4 members were also unwilling to accept the refugee quota system, which would have redistributed the asylum seekers within the European Union to each member state according to their size and economic capabilities based on solidarity.

The fact that Hungary is a border country of the Schengen Area needs to be taken into consideration, as it puts a tremendous amount of weight on Hungary’s shoulders, since it is one of the first EU countries the migrants might encounter on the West Balkan route (other than Greece), which makes Hungary not only an access point, but also a transit country towards the rest of Europe.

Nevertheless, Hungary’s handling of refugees was heavily criticized by the European Union and its member states, calling into question the Orban government’s respect for human rights and freedoms, and as such, democracy itself in Hungary.

The ongoing ‘migrant’ rhetoric

Four years have passed since the highest peak of the migrant crisis. However, as the influx of migrants has slowed down to a trickle, states no longer have a sensible reason to continue with the apocalyptic rhetoric surrounding migration.

Nonetheless, Hungary is still riding a wave of nationalism and anti-migration rhetoric, even though the government has now no particular reason to do so. Orban’s government has been trying to instill several policies to make life for young Hungarians easier, while urging them to procreate in a world, where young people are less inclined to do so due to several economic and existential factors, such as climate change, environmental awareness and more.

Likewise, the government’s anti-migrant rhetoric was strong enough to push one of the most prestigious universities in Hungary out, due to the founder (George Soros) being vilified by the government and Hungarian media for his liberal stances and alleged links to pro-migration NGOs and persons, even though there is no discernible link between them.

Worth mentioning is also a tax increase on foreign funded NGOs that support migration, whose activities are, according to the government yet wholly unsubstantiated, deemed a ‘national risk.’

A rhetoric of what exactly?

These are just a few examples of how the Hungarian government misuses the migrant question, continuously applying the anti-migrant rhetoric, while passing policies that have nothing to do with migrants at all. It is one thing to build a fence on the Schengen Area’s outer border, but essentially forcing out an independent and highly-lauded university through opaque administrative chicanery, taxing NGOs, or the vilification a person that has nothing to do with the migrant question in Hungary, is something entirely different.

In general, the migrant rhetoric in its contemporary meaning encompasses more than just the question of how to handle the crisis or integration itself. It is a component of a deeper discourse and narrative, which encompasses the topics of anti-migration, anti-intellectualism, anti-human rights and ethics regarding the handling of refugees, and even anti-Semitism. It is troubling just how easy it has proven to be to create a schism within the European Union, and just how easily it has been for populists to take control in particularly the V4 due to this apparent divisive discourse. How to handle such a topic is, of course, not only up to those that govern us, but also up to those, who voted for these people.

Democracy exists, so that the population can have a greater say in the politics and governance, with representative democracy giving us an option to vote for a smaller number of people, who should be adequately trained to discuss and make decisions regarding policies. Having the freedom to vote, however, also gives way to policies that might be voted in irrespectively of them being right, as politicization is a powerful tool in politics, swaying people, who might not care about a certain topic to vehemently oppose it due to the political rhetoric surrounding it. To quell a problem like this, it would be a good idea to promote democracy and to heal democratic culture in the V4, for example. Similarly, the general public needs more proper civic education, critical thinking and an understanding of the role of the media and the bias that some outlets might have.

To have freedom and democracy is a great thing, but this freedom also requires us to be responsible. We are the ones that wanted the power to vote and decide, so we should also think about the impact of those decisions.

Mark Szabo


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