Over the past thirty years Hungary has been sliding toward a demographic disaster. And the slide has only accelerated of late. In 2010 the population fell below 10 million. In the first five months of 2011 10% fewer babies were born and 2.7% more people died than during the same period a year earlier. The second Orbán government was keenly aware of the problem and tried, in its own way, to remedy the situation with all sorts of financial incentives, which didn’t work. In 2012 Fidesz MPs delivered optimistic speeches about the beginnings of a baby boom, only to have the Központi Statistisztikai Hivatal (Central Statistical Office) announce in May that 3.6% fewer babies had been born between January and May of 2012 than between January and May of 2011. Between 2010 and 2014 the country’s population decreased by 158,000. And that doesn’t count the 350,000-800,000, take your pick, mostly young people who are working abroad.
Despite the government’s program to entice young couples to get married early and produce at least two or three children, recent studies show that, in fact, both men and women are waiting longer before having their first child. And even if some miracle happened overnight and suddenly all the hospitals were filled with babies, it would be only a quarter of a century later that there would be any beneficial impact. A recent study by the Népességtudományi Intézet (Demographic Institute) predicts that, if current trends continue, by 2060 Hungary’s population will be under 8 million.
Of course, Hungary is not the only country in Europe with very a low birthrate, but according to Péter Mihályi, a professor of economics at Corvinus University, if we ignore the former Soviet republics, it is only Bulgaria that is in worse shape than Hungary in this respect. From government propaganda one gets the distinct impression that Viktor Orbán’s concerns stem from nationalistic considerations. A fear that can often be heard in right-wing circles is that Hungarian speakers will one day be virtually nonexistent and the language will disappear. Mihályi, by contrast, looks at the situation from the point of view of an economist and recommends systematic and well-directed immigration policies as a solution.
In 2001 Viktor Orbán himself realized that the steady decrease in the population and its concomitant aging could be effectively remedied only by inviting immigrants. In 2001 he delivered a speech before the Amerikai Kereskedelmi Kamara (AmCham) in which he outlined a plan according to which in the next five years Hungary could welcome several million immigrants. Otherwise, he said, the country could not maintain its rate of economic growth. He claimed at that point that “Hungary could easily provide livelihoods for 14 million people.” What kinds of people did Viktor Orbán have in mind? Since in connection with immigration he also talked about the forthcoming admission of Hungary to the European Union, he was perhaps thinking of western businessmen settling in Hungary in search of economic opportunities. He also pointed out that every year several thousand ethnic Hungarians from the neighboring countries settle in Hungary. He certainly didn’t have in mind Muslims from the Middle East or refugees from Africa.
Lately, one often hears about the hospitality offered to Croats and Serbs escaping the ravages of civil war in Yugoslavia. In 1991 about 50,000 people arrived from the northern Slavonian region of Crotia, adjacent to the Hungarian border. They were well looked after. A couple of years later, however, 16,000 Muslim Bosnian refugees reached Hungary, who apparently received a less hearty welcome. In a village along the Serbian border Péter Boross, who later became prime minister, announced in 1992, as minister of the interior, that “Hungary is full.” Why were the Bosniaks less welcome? The difference was the refugees’ religion and culture, as a 1994 study pointed out. The author lists all the difficulties Hungarian authorities encountered with the Muslim refugees. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that a year after the arrival of the Bosniaks, the Antall government amended the law on foreigners’ settling in Hungary to make it more stringent.
A few years later Viktor Orbán made it quite clear that, although in theory he is in favor of immigration, that immigration should not come from non-Christian countries. The occasion was the refugee problem of Muslim Albanians expelled from Kosovo. Western politicians came to the rescue by offering to fly a certain number of these refugees to their own countries. At this point Orbán declared that “there will be no numerus clausus in Hungary.” All refugees who ask for admission to the country will be welcome. How they would get to Hungary he neglected to say. That’s why a commentator called this “generous” offer “perhaps the most cynical statement of the prime minister’s ten-month tenure.”
So, it is not really true, as most commentators suggest, that in fifteen years Orbán completely changed his opinion on immigration. No, he hasn’t changed a bit: he does not want to have Muslim riffraff in his Christian country. He especially doesn’t want blacks from Africa in a pristine, white Hungary.
Apparently, despite all the propaganda to the contrary, the government is fully aware of the long-term effects of the current demographic trend. Attached to the 2016 budget is the latest government prediction that by 2034 the number of people living in Hungary will be less than 9 million. That is, if the balance between immigration and emigration is zero, something which, given the recent population movement, is unlikely.
This demographic trend will have serious consequences. First, there is the problem of a rapidly aging society. Fewer and fewer people must support a larger and larger number of pensioners. The number of children is rapidly decreasing. In 1990 there were 2.1 million children under the age of 14. By 2014 there are only 1.4 million. At the same time, the number of people over the age of 65 is growing. That will put an ever increasing pressure on the pension system, especially if the proposed referendum passes, which would allow men, just like women, to retire after 40 years of employment. Those who have only eight grades of education could theoretically retire with full benefits at the age of 54-56.
A decreasing and aging population also means a smaller domestic market, which puts a brake on economic growth. And, according to Mihályi, it limits job opportunities, especially for less educated people. Infrastructure, houses, apartments, tourist facilities, museums, football stadiums, restaurants and pubs will be underutilized. If the facilities and their offerings have fewer takers, prices must be raised. But there is a limit to raising prices. Enterprises can end up being unprofitable, and in this situation fewer people will start new businesses. These are some of the economic consequences of unfavorable demographics that people who keep talking about Hungary’s inability to take up immigrants don’t consider. They think the fewer the better. As Mihályi says, only children think that it is better to have fewer guests at a birthday party because then each of them will have a larger slice of the cake.
Given the huge differences in living standards between the east and west of the European Union, Orbán’s old dream of filling the country with West Europeans cannot materialize for a very long time, if ever. The prospect of ethnic Hungarians coming in great numbers is also unlikely. Romanian living standards are on the rise, and the Hungarians in Slovakia are quite satisfied. The Serbian situation is different. I just read that Serbian men and women in the city of Szabadka/Subotica, where the majority of the population is Hungarian-speaking, are madly learning Hungarian. They want to apply for Hungarian citizenship. Of course, not to settle there. One of the men who figures in the story is already in Berlin. So, Orbán cannot be that choosy.