4 September 2015

The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, was back in Brussels yesterday defending his country’s approach to the migrant crisis, which has fragmented any concept of European solidarity. European officials delight in casting the pugnacious leader as either a pantomime villain or a fool – he of the ‘illiberal views’. Some feel ashamed of him.

However, if you listened carefully to his press conferences and read his letter in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, it was obvious that Orbán carried a message to Europeans, both leaders and citizens alike. Whether they will heed it, let alone agree with it is another matter, although the circumstances he addressed head on are inescapable and will affect us all.

Firstly, he believes that the ‘refugee crisis’ currently paralyzing Europe is being mislabeled – he argues that Europe is confronting mass migration. The gulf between perspectives is vast and the implications equally staggering yet you will search high and low in the media or academia for detailed analysis upon which to make a judgment which is not tainted by political bias.

Clearly there is a link between the ongoing and endemic conflict within the Middle East and refugees. Western involvement in certain facets of this conflict is often seen as a contributing factor to this instability and by inference, implies that the West is part of the solution. Indeed, that Europe can practically ignore the plight of so many refugees in countries like Jordan or Turkey is also shaming. Yet it is also inescapable that poverty or the promise of a better economic future is also a driver in propelling economic migrants to Europe. One can easily imagine the consequences of future global warming or globalization for example, which similarly engenders the mass movement of communities from hopeless situations to what is perceived as a land of enormous wealth. Given the size of social spending in Western Europe, it is no surprise that many immigrants or refugees believe that such wealth is available to all.

History is replete with incidences of mass migration and everywhere they begin with small-scale probes and forays. Unlike many of such incidents of the past, there is no reason to believe that such movements will be accompanied by violence – rather desperation. However, they do occur. The point that Orbán makes is not an idle one: with an ageing and depopulating Europe, hooked on levels of personal wealth (and debt), can it really ignore the implications of being seen as a magnet for cheap labour to sustain an unsustainable lifestyle choice? In short, can we really argue that the current inflow is evidence of a short-term problem or a long-term trend?

Orbán’s second point in Brussels yesterday was arguably more certain, namely that Schengen is broken. The notion of a borderless Europe is certainly an attractive one but many informed commentators have known for some time that the freedom of movement allied to inconsistent control and enforcement was contributing to increasing levels of abuse. The recent terrorist attack on a French train merely underlined the problems associated with uncontrolled travel in Europe. Orbán was brutally honest about the failure of many European states to adhere to their Schengen obligations. Yet the irony will not be lost on Hungarians that in the last few days they had been castigated in equal measure for implementing border controls and for not ignoring the same border controls.  Kafka would be proud of that one!

Even if Schengen is reinforced, it will only be reinforced in the manner suggested yesterday by Orbán – by re-imposing control, strengthening defences and adhering to the rules through law enforcement. Those European leaders who ignore that will do so at their peril.

Thirdly, Orbán had the temerity to castigate EU leaders for ignoring the fundamentals of democratic accountability. It was inappropriate, he argued, to force Members to accept quotas of refugees when clearly they had no desire to do so. Perhaps he was indirectly referring to Germany’s unilateral decision to welcome 800,000 refugees and admonish states that either refused to host or wished to be selective regarding who they wished to host. Slovakia and Poland will only support Christian refugees for example.

That Germany made such a magnanimous decision is a credit to them. Of course it certainly helps if you can easily afford to do so. Hungary will not follow suit and indeed, reflected the sentiment in many other Central European states, in that they did not wish to host Muslim refugees, only Christian and not many at that.  Again, Orbán has been castigated for this but in citing Hungary’s historical legacy of occupation under Ottoman rule, he is entitled to an opinion, which is clearly a reflection of national sentiment. Eventually, the media will be impelled to report on continuing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, especially in Germany, as the electorate either drift towards political extremism or simply take measures into their own hands. The failure to recognize community concerns is a clear sign that political accountability is also broken.

I have not yet heard Orbán warn of a clash of civilizations but Europe is being forced to consider a clash of values according to him. Cultural integration of previous generations of migrants has not been successful – in part because Europeans do not share migrants’ values and similarly, migrants often do not share those of the average European. Indeed, many of those new refugees streaming to Europe will soon discover that liberal values borne of the enlightenment are more of a foreign country than the state in which they reside.

Orbán’s views, often described as populist, are not quite as unpopular as European officials wish to believe. Part of the reason why is that there is a very visible disconnect between what Brussels says and does and the opinions of the European electorate. The Hungarian Prime Minister’s views might be pungent for some but read the comments and blog posts in the quality media and you will be surprised how often they resonate with his views, if not the op-eds.  On the three points above, history will judge him.  For now we can only wait and see if he will be judged right or wrong.