Tag Archives: immigration policy

Leo Varadkar and Viktor Orbán had “a very direct exchange of views”

The Orbán government’s secretiveness is a well-known fact of life. While in other European countries trips of the prime minister are made public way ahead of time, in Hungary the announcement is usually made only when Viktor Orbán is already on the plane. The same seems to be true of foreign visitors who come to Budapest for an official visit. The Hungarian government usually announces the arrival of a foreign politician days after his own government discloses the impending trip. This was even the case with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s visit. The Polish government released the news on December 26, but the Hungarian government’s announcement came only two days later.

The visit of Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar was not announced until about 9:00 a.m. on January 4, the very same day he was supposed to meet Viktor Orbán. But this time, the Irish government wasn’t too eager to let the world know about the Taoiseach’s visit to Hungary. The media pointed to the unusually late announcement of the trip on January 3, which, as the Irish Examiner noted, “has raised questions.” Labor Party leader Brendan Howlin wanted to know why Varadkar didn’t inform the Dáil, the Irish Parliament, about his impending trip to Hungary and Bulgaria. As Howlin put it, given Viktor Orbán’s undemocratic policies, the visit “will be seen as an implicit endorsement by the Taoiseach and Ireland of the policies that Orbán’s government has pursued including his recent propaganda campaigns against Muslims, the EU, and also on George Soros that has verged on anti-semitism.” Howlin added that he hoped “the Taoiseach will have the courage to defend both the values Ireland and the EU have upheld when he meets with Orbán tomorrow and to criticize the divisive path that Hungary is pursuing within the EU.”

First, a few words about Leo Varadkar. He made international news in June 2017 when he was elected leader of Fine Gael, Ireland’s Christian Democratic Party. He was no ordinary candidate for the job of prime minister. First of all, at the time of his election, at age 38, he was the youngest prime minister in Europe. Second, he is one of the four openly gay heads of government on the Continent. And if that weren’t enough, he is of mixed Indian-Irish heritage. In brief, he is everything Orbán and his friends hate. And now here is a one-on-one talk for a whole hour during which Viktor Orbán will have to explain why he finds the “mixing” of different kinds of people and cultures dangerous for Hungary.

The official government site, which summarized Viktor Orbán’s short speech at the press conference, wasn’t exactly expansive on the issue of refugees, but even the little he said was further reduced to a couple of sentences on the government’s official website. “Regarding migration, [Orbán] said, he made it clear to his negotiating partner that ‘Hungary is not against anyone’ but insists on its own identity, culture, and the results it has achieved. Hungary stands on the foundations of legality.”

In fact, in his statement, which it seems he didn’t want to share with the world in English on the government website, Orbán said more than that. Here is the longer version:

We touched on the question of migration. I tried to make clear to the prime minister why migration is such an important question for Hungary. I tried to clarify the historical and cultural dimensions of the question; I wanted to make clear that Hungary is not against anyone but wants to adhere to its identity, culture, and the results it has achieved. One must look at the question of migration through these lenses.

Obviously, Varadkar wasn’t convinced. He announced at the press conference that
“Ireland doesn’t agree with Hungary on the issue of migration and supports the concept of a common burden-sharing within the European Union,” a statement which was greeted by 24.hu with enthusiasm: “An unheard-of thing happened in Budapest. Leo Varadkar announced that he doesn’t share Orbán’s migration policies.” This is what Hungary has come to.

We learn more about the meeting and its flavor from the Irish prime minister, who gave an interview to The Irish Times after the encounter. Apparently they had “a very direct exchange of views” about Hungary’s refusal to resettle refugees, about the tightening government control over civil society, and about the shuttering of Central European University, which is ‘a bastion of liberal values’ in the region.” He added that he can’t tell whether this very direct exchange had much of an impact because Orbán is someone who is “very firm in his views and world views.”

Viktor Orbán, unlike Leo Varadkar, is not in the best mood

All in all, the meeting couldn’t have been very pleasant, even if the two see eye to eye on several issues. First, Hungary, whose corporate tax of 9% is the lowest in Europe, supports Ireland against the so-called tax harmonization efforts of the European Union. Earlier Ireland had a close partner in its fight against such legislation, but The Irish Times sadly announced in October that after Brexit Ireland “will have to fight its own corner.” Hungary is, however, ready to stand by Ireland, alongside Liechtenstein, which also has a very low corporate tax rate (12.5%).

Another matter the two prime ministers agreed on was the benefit of the current agricultural policies (CAP) of the European Union. Ever since his election as French president, Emmanuel Macron has been talking a lot about both tax harmonization and reform and a reduction in agricultural subsidies. Not surprisingly, neither Ireland nor Hungary is keen on reforms. Ireland is the beneficiary of low taxes, and in Hungary Orbán and his oligarchs have been madly buying up farmland precisely because of the generous EU subsidies.

The third item was Irish concerns related to Brexit. Although Hungary’s support of Irish interests in this context remains quite vague, Orbán promised to stand by Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.

Viktor Orbán didn’t look too happy after the talks were over. He is a firm believer that no other country should “meddle” in Hungary’s affairs, just as he refuses to pass judgment on the dictatorships he courts and thinks so highly of. He is also convinced that he is right and all others are wrong when it comes to the migrant issue.

Those Eastern despots who have visited Budapest in the last few years haven’t argued with him about the correctness of his positions. Orbán cannot really hide his feelings, and it was pretty obvious that, despite all those kind words about the freedom-loving Irish people and their fantastic economic achievement, he was annoyed. Most Western European heads of government simply avoid Budapest. But then one comes calling, and he gives the Hungarian prime minister a lecture — on his own turf. Can you imagine how irritating Orbán must have found that?

January 7, 2018

The Orbán government’s anti-immigrant stance

Although many studies show that immigration has a positive effect on economic growth, the Orbán government is dead set against allowing foreigners to settle in Hungary. It is not just against the immigration of refugees from the Middle East and Africa but against any immigration coming from outside of the European Union, including some of the most developed nations in the world. Back in May the Ministry of Economy reduced its immigrant quota, which is now calculated on the basis of the perceived need for workers in the private sector in a given year. That figure divided by twelve will determine the monthly quota. Previously, the calculation was based on all employment opportunities, both private and public. If we consider that doctors, who are in short supply, are public sector employees, we can begin to see the concerted effort on the part of the government to reduce labor opportunities for anyone coming from outside the EU.

As for those refugees who have decided to stay in Hungary, the Orbán government isn’t making their integration easy. In fact, the little earlier governments provided, like free Hungarian lessons, has been discontinued. After these people get permission to stay, it is the few civic groups that try to help the newcomers. These groups’ survival depends entirely on EU grants. The leaders of these organizations complain bitterly that the government’s “integration strategy” can be summarized as “you solve it!” According to one of the organizers, what they are able to do can be compared to “throwing rose petals on war-torn cities.”

Three major civic groups are trying to take care of these newcomers, but they are unable to handle more than about 100 individuals at a time. They are being financed by the Norwegian Civic Fund and the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) of the European Union. One of the groups, Artemisszió, concentrates on bridging cultural differences. Jövőkerék’s focus is on employment. Menedék’s work mostly involves improving the newcomers’ language skills. Of course, taking care of the needs of 100 individuals is a drop in the bucket even in the small foreign community of Hungary.

Learning the language is of paramount importance, and since there are no more free government-sponsored Hungarian lessons, most organizations involved with immigrants began offering language courses of their own. Since professional language instructors don’t come cheap, volunteers must take their place. And there are problems even with school-age children since the Hungarian school system is not at all prepared to handle foreign students. Apparently the problem is not with the children but with some of the principals and teachers. If a teacher is open and accepting, the foreign student’s integration into her new community is a great deal easier. But considering the xenophobia prevalent in Hungarian society as a whole, there is a good possibility that the student will be taught by someone who wishes she had never set foot in Hungary and who is not about to encourage her to outshine any of her Hungarian classmates.

Interestingly enough, finding a job doesn’t seem to be as difficult as one would think. Some of the participants in these programs land a job even before the program ends. As one of the civic leaders pointed out, immigrants usually are more enterprising, confident, and daring. Ready to meet new challenges. The timid, the fearful would never dare to leave.

And indeed, I read an interesting article in Bloomberg with the title “What Hungary can teach Europe about absorbing immigrants.” Intriguing, isn’t it? According to the article, “in Hungary, foreign-born workers, far from living on the fringes of society, are more likely to be employed than native-born Hungarians. In 2013, the last for which statistics are available, 67.9 percent of the foreign-born aged 15 to 64 had jobs, vs. 58.2 percent of the native-born in that age range.” As the graph shows, Hungary’s performance is spectacular, especially compared to other European countries.

immigrant workersOf course, among the immigrant workers are many ethnic Hungarians from neighboring countries, mostly from Romania. But Hungary’s historical experience shows a fantastic ability to absorb and assimilate large groups of non-Magyar speakers with ease. I know, some of you will say “Yes, but they didn’t come from an entirely different culture.” But they did. I am specifically thinking of Orthodox Jews who arrived in large numbers from Polish Galician shtetls. They spoke Yiddish, and their culture bore no resemblance to the majority culture in Hungary. Yet most of them a generation later spoke the language and became ardent Hungarian patriots.

Although studies show that immigration is imperative for economic growth, the Orbán government seems to be adamant: Hungary is for Hungarians. Viktor Orbán is making a huge mistake. The economic consequences of this policy will be serious. Hungary’s economic growth will permanently lag that of other countries in the region.

I know that Angela Merkel is criticized at home and abroad for encouraging immigration into Germany. Those who oppose allowing large numbers of people coming from different cultures to settle in the country point to Germany’s past difficulties with Turkish immigrants. But Merkel stressed that Germany will handle these immigrants very differently from the way it dealt with the earlier guest workers. In the 1960s and 1970s the German government looked upon them as temporary laborers who some day will go back to their homeland. There was no attempt to integrate them into German society. Merkel vows that this time it will be different. Germany will do its part to make the immigrants an integral part of German society and, in turn, the new immigrants will be expected to conform to the norms of the majority society. Indeed, this is the right way. It will be good for Germany and good for the new immigrants. This is what Hungary should do. After long years of cultural isolation the country should open its doors to the new world that is inevitably coming.