Tag Archives: Péter Mihályi

Demographic realities and Viktor Orbán’s ideas on immigration

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.

Refugees from Bosnia. These are the kinds of immigrants Hungary doesn't want

Refugees from Bosnia. These are the kinds of immigrants Hungary doesn’t want

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.

The Hungarian government on immigration and emigration

Anyone who bothers to look for figures on immigration into European countries is not going to find much data on Hungary for the simple reason that the number of foreigners living in the country is minuscule. Of course, we all know about large immigrant populations in France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, but there is significant immigration even to countries like Finland or Slovenia. In Sweden, to give but a single example, 32,000 people applied for asylum in 2010.

Until very recently both Hungarian immigration and emigration were of low intensity. Foreign-born inhabitants constitute only 4% of the labor force and about 1% of the population as a whole. These foreign-born individuals are almost exclusively of Hungarian ethnicity. They immigrated from the neighboring countries in the last twenty years or so. Lately, however, the number of emigrants to Western Europe from Hungary has grown enormously. Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Sweden, and the Netherlands are the favorite destinations. At the same time, especially since Croatia became part of the European Union, the immigration routes from the Balkans and the Middle East have changed, and Hungary has become one of the favorite “transit countries” for immigrants wanting to reach countries where economic opportunities are greater. As Péter Mihályi, a well-known Hungarian economist, said the other day, only rich countries have “immigration problems.” Very few immigrants from outside the European Union ever receive permission to settle in Hungary, and the few lucky ones who do immediately pack up and move westward.

According to Hetekthe weekly of the Assembly of Faith (Hitgyülekezet), between 2000 and 2012 only 2,000 to 3,000 people arrived a year, legally or illegally, in Hungary, and as soon as they could, they moved on. But in the last two years these numbers have grown exponentially. Apparently there are days when along the border with Serbia the police arrest 800-1,000 illegals. As for those legally seeking to move to Hungary, in 2013 19,000 immigration applications were received; a year later that number was 43,000. Of these 43,000 potential immigrants only 500 received refugee status.

If it depended on Viktor Orbán, no so-called “economic immigrant” could ever receive permission to settle in Hungary. In fact, if it were up to him, he would stop immigration to Europe altogether. József Szájer, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament for the last ten years, summarized Fidesz’s position in a recent interview on ATV. The argument goes something like this. Western Europeans in the past fifty years or so became too pampered. They didn’t want to do all the dirty work and therefore either imported guest workers like the Germans or relied on immigration from their former colonies like France and the United Kingdom. And look at the result: terrorism in Europe. This must be stopped.

butterflies

Orbán and his colleagues in Fidesz grossly oversimplify the issue of immigration into the EU. Most economists are convinced that without the Turkish and later Yugoslav guest workers the German economic miracle couldn’t have happened. It is a generally accepted theory that without immigration there can be no economic growth in the western world. This is especially true of Europe where the low birthrate practically mandates a relatively generous immigration policy. Otherwise, soon enough there will be only two wage earners for every retiree. Most European leaders and academics, with the notable exception of Viktor Orbán, maintain that without young immigrants European demographic trends cannot be reversed.

Therefore, the European Union’s current position is that immigration from third-world countries, even if it causes social friction, has great benefits in the long run. According to Péter Mihályi, whom I quoted earlier, “Europe has no future without immigration.” So, if Fidesz were to succeed in stopping all immigration to the country, Hungary’s future would be sealed. The few immigrants accepted into Hungary leave while almost half a million people born in Hungary are currently working abroad, almost exclusively in Western Europe. It is a vicious circle. Hungary is not an attractive country for immigrants, but without immigrants an aging society that cannot reproduce itself is doomed. The problem is only made worse by the large emigration to the West.

A few years back Viktor Orbán himself seemed to have realized this dilemma and went so far as to suggest that ethnic Hungarians should be encouraged to leave Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, and Ukraine and move over to Hungary en masse. Since then, he gave up the idea. It is hard to tell why. Most likely for nationalistic reasons.

There is one more aspect of Viktor Orbán’s ideas on immigration which he himself did not elaborate on but which József Szájer talked about more explicitly. Orbán mentioned briefly that there are unemployed Gypsies who need jobs. As long as they don’t have employment, Europe should not import people from abroad. Some commentators interpreted this fleeting mention of the Roma as suggesting a possible export of Gypsies from Hungary and other Eastern European countries to the West. Judging from what Szájer said, this is exactly what Orbán has in mind. Szájer pointed out that there are 10 million Gypsies in Europe who could do some of the menial jobs that Western Europeans no longer want to do. If the Roma population of Hungary could be exported to Western Europe, the major socioeconomic problem the Orbán government can’t solve, the integration of the Roma, would disappear. Poof! When the reporter noted that the Roma lack skills necessary for some of the available jobs, Szájer made light of the problem by saying that “they will take care of that.” I guess the “they” are the governments of the countries where these migrants would move.

Finally, I would like to call attention to an interview with Viktor Orbán on Magyar Rádió today in which he explained that those Hungarians who could not find jobs in Hungary and moved to the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, and other countries in Western Europe are “not economic immigrants.” They are proud Europeans who have free movement within the boundaries of the European Union. There is no such thing as immigration or emigration within the borders of the European Union. Oh, the duplicity of the man! He has been fiercely defending the sovereignty of nation states for years, but now he is a champion of a single Europe. Of course, strictly speaking he is right: a citizen of an EU country has the right to settle in any of the twenty-eight member states. But when David Cameron complains about too many immigrants, he also has in mind immigrants from the East European countries, including the great number of Hungarians in Great Britain.

The Orbán formula seems to be: we will send our economic migrants to Western Europe while we will not allow anyone into our country because we want to keep Hungary Hungarian.  As for the Hungarian Roma, Western Europe can take care of them. A perfect solution all around.