4 June 2015

Hungarian Prime Minister, Orbán Viktor, resumed his usual role as the ‘Bete Noir’ of the EU’s liberal elite. Once again, he appeared to have little or no sympathy with EU policy proposals – in this case, for the handling of the current refugee crisis impacting on the Union’s southern Members, particularly Italy and Greece.

However, when stripped of the emotional and political hyperbole, what Orbán had to say was neither irrational nor simplistic. In short, his unwillingness to host large numbers of immigrants in Hungary and the reasons he cited for this – touching on what constitutes European culture and values – resonates throughout Europe at this particular time. His comments also reflected a recognition that the debate on the reallocation of refugees is masking a larger concern; the real question is how does Europe respond to what might be an early wave of mass migration from Africa and the Middle East?

Orbán’s crime, therefore, is to expose some very acute fears in Europe about managing an unwanted influx of migrants at a time of economic and political instability, regional security tensions and a rise in European perceptions that society is fragmenting.

With every passing day, European vessels are sighting and in some cases saving hundreds of lives as part of a not inconsiderable humanitarian effort.  The numbers of refugees seeking maritime passage to Europe from the shores of North Africa or further afield is steadily increasing.  What is also evident is that many of them are not fleeing the violence in Libya or Syria, as often suggested but are people paying organised crime groups to transit them from states such as Somalia or Eritrea or Mali or Niger.

Apart from a humanitarian and legal responsibility to help those in distress, particularly in the Mediterranean Sea, there is no clear idea in Europe as to what to do next. Indeed, there would appear to be no real desire in Brussels to actually contemplate what this crisis means in strategic terms and what responses might need to be taken – some possibly unpalatable to liberal democracies – in order to stabilise and resolve the problem.

Perhaps it is to Europe’s credit that it does not seek to actively prevent these unfortunate people reaching Europe’s shores if they have taken to the sea. That said, there seems to be less restraint in considering the active disabling of those ships identified as supporting the human trafficking networks.

Absent also, it would seem, is a way to engage the authorities in Libya or Syria in preventing the traffic – of course, given the conflict and instability in both these countries, should we expect otherwise? With the toppling of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, out went another inconvenient truth about EU migration policy – namely that we were supporting the regime in Tripoli to actively prevent such migrants reaching Europe, many of them in squalid holding or administration centres.

Orbán’s crime is less about bucking EU orthodoxy and more about exposing the paucity of practical policy solutions to hand.

The truth is that most EU states do not want to accept more immigration regardless the source of the immigrants. Equally, they also seem reluctant to develop a robust response aimed at preventing the influx – partly for economic reasons but also due to being tied to human rights legislation that enforces a humanitarian stance and an unwillingness to use excessive force against defenceless people. These circumstances cannot be easily changed.

Hungary can and should offer sanctuary for small numbers of refugees. It has an opportunity to integrate and demonstrate the essence of a Christian democratic state. This is less to do with quotas and more to do with compassion. Equally, however, Orbán should be prepared to steadfastly encourage Europe to consider what is actually at stake should this current crisis presage a much larger problem in the future. If the levels of immigration cannot be controlled and genuine compassion fatigue sets in, linked perhaps to problems of migrant resettlement or integration, then where does Europe stand? Maybe in this case, Hungary’s Prime Minister has something to say.