Rejection of the EU’s latest plan for a co-ordinated approach to people movement stems from Orbán’s redefinition of Hungary.
We [Hungarians] are not mixed-race: we are simply a mixture of peoples living in our own European homeland … we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race.
These were the words of the Hungarian far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, in July 2022, during his annual speech in Băile Tuşnad, Romania—the same place where, in 2014, he declared his ambition to transform Hungary into an ‘illiberal’ state. Brazen as they were, they echoed his government’s frequently-demonstrated xenophobia towards non-white arrivals at Hungary’s borders, which became more vocal after the Europe Union’s ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015.
This found its latest expression last month, when the European Commission’s proposed New Pact on Migration and Aslyum—‘new’ in the sense of a further attempt at a ‘burden-sharing’ scheme, on which the commission had previously failed to secure agreement among member states—was approved by the Council of the EU, paving the way for adoption by the European Parliament. Hungary and Poland rejected the pact, which seeks to relocate asylum-seekers and other migrants who have fetched up at Europe’s borders—principally Italy and Greece—among the EU-27 according to quotas.
The proposal met fierce criticism from both governments—reiterated at the European Council at the month end—with Poland seeking to establish a blocking coalition in the parliament to prevent the pact’s adoption. Orbán called the agreement ‘unacceptable’ and accused the EU of wanting to turn Hungary into a ‘migrant country’.
Treaty of Trianon
This intolerance is deeply embedded in an ethnonationalist understanding of the imagined community of the Hungarian ‘nation’ and the associated exclusion of the Other. The history of Hungary is recounted as one of suffering, occupation and grievance—a country dismembered by greater powers under the Treaty of Trianon after the end of World War I, leading to the loss of two-thirds of the former territory of the Kingdom of Hungary.
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Today, the government stokes this ‘chosen trauma’ of historical grievance over foreign domination for political gains. Hungary is once again portrayed as a nation under continuous occupation and suppression.
In this narrative, ‘Brussels’—as Fidesz, the ruling party, often refers to the EU—and the Hungarian-American financier George Soros function as useful bogeymen. The government portrays them as ‘elites’ seeking to dominate Hungary against its will. They claim that Europe is ‘invaded’ by immigrants due to one man, Soros, and that Hungarians are again under pressure from a ‘bigger force’. This anti-Semitic political messaging, grounded in historical wounds, retains an audience in the country.
The backdrop is a continuous public mourning of the loss of ‘Greater Hungary’, represented as a tragic injustice to the nation. The government aims to strengthen ties with ethnic Hungarian minorities outside of Hungary—by, for example, granting them Hungarian citizenship. This raises eyebrows among its neighbours but it demonstrates whom the Orbán government sees as worthy of integration into the national Self: ethnic Hungarians, at home and abroad. Others cannot be so absorbed.
Young people leaving
Invoking the historical trauma of domination to reject purported contemporary alien hordes may make for a successful political strategy. If anything, though, Hungary is an emigration country. Due to an ageing population, low birth rates and many young people leaving for the west, it faces enormous demographic challenges.
The government has tried to mitigate these by implementing ‘family-friendly policies’ which aim to make it more attractive to have many children: low-interest loans and potential loan forgiveness, interest-free ‘baby-expectancy loans’ for married couples, free in-vitro-fertilisation treatments (for heterosexual women under 40) and zero income taxes for women with three kids or more. Not just any children, of course: in Viktor Orbán’s own words, ‘We want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.’
Linked to these conservative family policies, the government emphasises Hungary’s Christian roots and trajectory. In 2011, after its return to power, Fidesz rewrote Hungary’s constitution, the Fundamental Law, which now explicitly refers to the Christian tradition of the country and acknowledges ‘the role of Christianity in preserving our nation’. A new amendment also acknowledges the state’s obligation to protect ‘Christian culture’. According to Gábor Halmai, comparative politics professor at the European University Institute, it ‘strengthens the role of religion to constitutionally legitimize the concept of ethnic nation’—a nation for Christian Hungarians, not interlopers.
Consistent with his newfound religiosity, during the far-right Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas last year Orbán also promised to fight for the ‘Judeo-Christian roots’ of ‘western civilisation’, in line with his representation of ‘Muslim migrants’ as a ‘threat’. In his 2018 speech at Băile Tuşnad, he accused the EU of failing to defend Europe against immigration, warning that ‘European civilisation’ was in danger.
With his aiming to unite ethnic Hungarians in the neighbourhood, increase birth rates among Hungarians and stop non-Christian immigration, Orbán demonstrates well the kind of nationalism he represents. Rooted in ethnic belonging, this considers ‘ethnicity and ethnic ties as core components of conceptions and experiences of the “nation”’—hence leaving no space for those who supposedly do not belong.
While these ethnonationalist policies have put Hungary at odds with some, they are the very ties that bind it to particular eastern EU member states—above all, an increasingly illiberal Poland under the right-wing PiS government. Although recently, Poland and Hungary have been at odds over their stances on Russia’s war in Ukraine, they see eye to eye on other issues. Poland likewise puts Christianity and family policies at the forefront of its politics, is an ethnically homogenous state and faces demographic challenges, yet is equally opposed to diverse in-migration.
With more and more electorally successful far-right, nationalist parties in Europe, others must provide a successful and appealing counterweight to these ethnonationalist narratives and anti-immigration voices—particularly in view of the European Parliament elections next year. Left-wing parties need to develop alternative social policies and shift the agenda to topics other than migration. Moreover, strategies are needed to mitigate the centre-right’s co-opting of the far-right agenda, as is becoming common across Europe.
Additionally, intercultural-exchange programmes can help overcome stigmas within societies and provide a counter-narrative about migration to that propagated by far-right actors. Finally, domestic and European institutions need to emphasise the protection of European values—such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights—and thereby help promote inclusive societies.
Gabriela Greilinger is an Austrian-Hungarian political scientist and co-founder of the youth platform Quo Vademus. She regularly writes about EU politics, international affairs, democracy and populism, with a regional focus on Europe and in particular central and eastern Europe.