The signs of the arrival of a new wave of migrants to Europe can already be seen, therefore the southern border of Hungary might come under strong pressure once again. The Orbán government tries to take advantage of this situation in its own interest of retaining power both in the domestic and European political arenas. Part one of an analysis of the left-leaning Political Capital.
The government trying to take advantage of the migrant situation is what the referendum on quotas is about. This keeps the issue on the agenda at home and aims at the destabilisation of the European Union internationally.
A politically strongly integrated European Union that is expected to distribute less money in the future, while at the same time raising its voice against systemic corruption and the erosion of rule of law, is not in the interest of the Orbán regime. Political Capital’s recently released study deals with the prelude of the situation, the experiences of Hungary with the migrant crisis in 2015, and the special position of Hungary with regards to migratory processes.
Taking the position the Orbán government did in the migrant crisis in 2015 was facilitated by the peculiarities of migratory processes. During the migrant crisis Hungary turned into a “country at the frontlines” without becoming a destination country, so the refugees did not actually want to settle in Hungary.
In the first months of 2015 the migratory pressure was in fact comparable to that on Greece and Italy, however all other indicators of migration stayed the same as those of other Eastern European states not affected by the crisis. This special situation led to several important consequences.
1. The refugee arrivals did not correspond to the migration patterns previously experienced by the Hungarian public. Presumably one can trace the political hysteria whipped up by the refugee crisis and its larger-than-expected impact and explanatory power to the xenophobic government campaigns appealing to public apprehensions that preceded it.
2. Within global migration patterns, various European countries are attached to distinct, historically evolved subsystems. Within these, in genuine “destination countries” there are migration networks that those successively arriving can join. In some places these networks are based on the country’s colonial past (e.g., France), in others on a well-established guest worker system (e.g., Germany) and in others they are based on seaborne refugee routes, which are better established than land routes. Hungary is unique in this respect, so the Orbán cabinet could come up with measures (e.g., border closings) that would have worked with less effectiveness in other places.
3. Due to Hungary’s unique position, the cabinet’s refugee and migration policy has become relevant in the international arena as well. The Hungarian government was right to point out that, for a long time, EU officials paid exclusive attention to Italy and Greece receiving refugees through maritime routes, and ignored that Hungary was also exposed to severe pressure from those using land routes. This has been acknowledged by the EU and core country leaders, and as a result the European Commission recommended in late September that Hungary also receive preferential treatment along with Greece and Italy, such that it would not be required to admit anyone and that other Member States would take in 54,000 refugees currently in Hungary. However, also due to its unique position, and despite its preferential status in the EU, the government rejected the EU’s mandatory refugee redistribution quota system. In a country where 98% of immigration procedures are dropped because the applicant leaves the country, easing other Member States’ burdens through the quota system offered Hungary few lasting benefits. This also explains why Hungary (which, along with the other Eastern European countries, was not severely affected by the refugee crisis) rejected the quota system.
Looking at the refugee crisis from Hungary, it can be seen to have two dimensions, one involving domestic politics and one involving international politics. This paper examines these two mutually connected levels in the context of political risks that pose a threat to European integration.
At the domestic political level, the Orbán government, which was on the defensive at the end of 2014 and in early 2015, has regained political initiative by essentially promising “zero admission” to asylum seekers and increased protection for both the Hungarian and EU external borders due to increased arrival rates.
Nagging corruption cases, governance failures and conflicts within the governing party have been relegated to the back burner of the Hungarian public discourse, and since last spring the political agenda has essentially been dominated by the refugee and migration issue. With respect to refugees and migration, those right-wing media that are owned by Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s erstwhile ally turned enemy, have now lined up behind the government despite their harsh criticism of the cabinet following the row between the two men. This position is also shared by Hungarian society generally, which – as in other Eastern European countries – is essentially hostile to both migrants and refugees.
Due to this widespread thinking, many opposition parties and media that criticise the Government are now cautious when it comes to openly criticising its refugee and migration policy; in fact, the government’s radical rhetoric leaves even the far-right Jobbik little room for manoeuvre.
The government is not facing strong criticism except from some opinion-makers, smaller parties and civil society organisations that are doing a great deal to help refugees. Moreover, there are no signs of any politically mature, alternative ideas on this issue able to attract any significant support.
This cannot just be explained by Hungarian society’s seemingly irreversible xenophobic attitude; instead, this is the result of a well-planned, manipulative propaganda campaign at times verging on inciting public hysteria, such as the Orbán cabinet’s springtime “national consultation”, i.e., its letters with anti-immigrant messages sent to each household, and its billboard campaign launched in the early summer.
Both measures increased xenophobia in a country with hardly any actual immigrant presence. Most people in Hungary have no experience living with foreigners, and fears fed by lack of information about them are easily reinforced.
This is more than a communications coup for the government. The political environment as a whole has shifted, benefitting the governing side; returning to the proven strategy he has applied since 2002, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has again managed to divide the political arena into “pro-national” and “anti-national” (or “aliens”, “traitors”).
In his view, all those attacking the government belong in the latter category. Moreover, the government has managed to flex its muscle at the domestic and international level alike: it has presented itself at both levels as “problem-solver” while simultaneously rejecting co-operation within the European Union.
The government managed to achieve this by first, aggravating the refugee reception problem, then found it important to sustain tension around the issue, and finally managed the refugee crisis at a slow pace. This is demonstrated by the fact that the government had information early in 2015 about increased refugee numbers, but concrete steps such as revamping asylum procedures or increasing immigration agency staff levels were not taken until summer. Constructing the border fence was seen by Orbán as a perfect solution both at a symbolic and a practical level, but that was started only when summer was almost over.
As of this writing, the public’s perception of the Orbán cabinet has improved in Hungary. According to surveys, support for Fidesz has increased substantially by 4-5 percent compared to early summer, and the prime minister’s popularity has increased even more. Concurrently, support for Jobbik and other opposition parties has stagnated.
It has to be stressed that Fidesz has acquired new sympathisers not at Jobbik’s expense, but among those who were previously unable to choose a party (i.e., presumably former Fidesz voters returning). However, one-fifth of Fidesz voters would cast their ballots for Jobbik as a second option.
In the future, the far-right Jobbik will have a better chance to attract sympathisers away from Fidesz than the other way around.
All these signal the political risk repeatedly emphasised by the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, namely that in Europe the far right is not the only source of danger. Governing parties adopting far-right policies are also liable to radicalise their own societies and reshape their respective political systems.
The Orbán government is a case in point; it pursues the same strategy at the European level and in its foreign policy as it does in Hungary. Just as domestically the government presents itself as the “protector of the Hungarian nation”, at the international level it is also usurping the role of “defender of European nations” against immigrants (for the most part, against Moslems) and against the bureaucracy in Brussels.
The latest statement by Antal Rogán, the Prime Minister’s recently-appointed cabinet minister and former Fidesz faction head, is a good example. As he puts it, “pro-migration liberals disagree with Hungary’s decision to protect the borders of Europe and Hungary but, in opposition to the majority of the political and intellectual elite in Europe, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán hears the voices and understands the thinking of European citizens on the issue of immigration”.
In other words, the Hungarian government calculates that in the wake of the refugee crisis, voices opposing immigration will become louder, and anti-immigration, far-right populist parties will gain ascendancy. It has to be said that most such parties are supported by Russia and bent on destabilising the European Union. The government also believes current developments may even improve Orbán’s international standing.
Current trends suggest that the government’s expectations are not without foundation. Following the recent economic crisis and the current refugee crisis, European integration is facing its biggest challenge to date. There is the impression that the European Union lacks the tools to resolve the refugee crisis, and the conflict within the European Union has reached an unprecedented level between those countries that accept and those that reject a European refugee and migration policy based on solidarity.
The Member States’ behaviour has caused this paralysis in many instances. Indecisive, nationalist governments are pointing the finger at the EU and failing to co-operate with one another while their national agencies push the refugees from one country to the next. In short, the EU cannot solve the refugee crisis unless the Member States grant it the power to do so, which means less power would remain in their own hands.
Those Member States that reject granting such power and reject political union are, paradoxically, those criticising the EU’s response to the crisis, i.e., they are holding the EU accountable for issues they would like to be handling themselves, issues for which they have consistently refused to grant the European community the necessary powers.
Situations like these can easily inflame culturally based conflicts. It is evident that past stereotypical thinking is not simply returning but is rising to the political level. Related to this phenomenon (and clearly not only to this) we have seen radical right-wing forces resurging over the past few years in many European countries (e.g., Greece, France, Sweden and Hungary), and these parties also build on prejudice.
In short, it is not simply that cultural aversion is on the rise against non-European (predominantly Moslem) immigrants, but also that cultural differences between current EU Member States are intensifying, a potentially explosive situation, especially for the post-socialist Visegrád countries.
To be continued.