Tag Archives: United Kingdom

Government media on foreign affairs: The British election

For today I chose a topic that may help readers become more familiar with the Hungarian government media’s coverage of foreign news: British Prime Minister Theresa May’s ill-fated snap election that brought political uncertainty to the United Kingdom and that greatly weakened the May-led Conservative Party.

As is often the case, the inspiration for this post came from a friend from Hungary who called my attention to an article in Origo that kept insisting, even after the election results showed that the Conservatives hadn’t achieved a majority, that the Tory victory was spectacular.

The Hungarian government has a clear preference for the Tories. Orbán had excellent relations with David Cameron, and Cameron’s departure after the Brexit vote was a heavy blow to the Hungarian prime minister. He lost a powerful friend in the European Council. Moreover, the Labour Party led by the “Marxist” Corbyn is an anathema as far as the far-right Fidesz is concerned.

Flórián Hecker, a regular op-ed writer of Origo, wrote a wildly optimistic forecast of the election results on June 8 when British newspapers were already full of devastating descriptions of the very poor Tory campaign and the likelihood that there would be an unexpected turnabout in public sentiment. Hecker predicted that “Conservatives are in the home stretch and Labour in the lee,” although he admitted (in a seeming lapse of logic) that the “Jeremy Corbyn-led party had somewhat forged ahead.” In Hecker’s view, the really important issues of the British election were terrorism and migration. The two terrorist attacks and May’s radical reaction were helping the Conservatives. The majority of the Brits are still pro-Brexit and May’s hard Brexit stance also helps May’s chances, while Corbyn’s desire for the U.K. to have access to the EU market is not a popular position in Britain.

After the election Origo announced the results with surprising enthusiasm. “It was the Conservative Party that finished first in the British parliamentary election. The exit polls indicated their victory with 314 seats, which they surpassed by a little.” Yes, this is an exact translation. The article dismissed Labour’s gains by saying: “266 seats were predicted for the Labour party [but] they received a bit fewer.” Moreover, nowhere in the article do we learn outright that the Conservative Party hadn’t won enough seats to form a majority government. The closest the article comes to the hard truth that Theresa May’s gamble failed is the muddled statement that “the Conservatives may be in the majority with the Democratic Unionists.”

A day later, on June 9, another article appeared in Origo, heralding that “the Conservative party has won the snap election with a convincing ascendancy.” This time the “impressive” win was interpreted as a supportive vote on Brexit. Origo consulted a foreign policy expert from Századvég, who said that the number one topic in Great Britain is still the country’s relationship with the European Union. Terrorism and national security, he said, despite the recent terrorist attacks, played a relatively insignificant role in the election results.

Today Magyar Idők ran an editorial by Zoltán Kottász, an old supporter of the British Conservatives, who a couple of months ago predicted a conservative turn from France through Germany all the way to Eastern Europe. This time he admitted that Theresa May made a lot of mistakes, but “the fact is that she won” and her situation is not significantly worse today than it was before the election. As the headline of the op-ed piece read in English: “Business as usual.”

It was difficult to maintain this phony enthusiasm for a great Conservative victory for long. Mariann Őry of Magyar Hírlap admitted today that May had made a bad mistake by calling for a snap election. She cataloged a host of mistakes that May made during the campaign and announced that many Conservatives want her to resign. Her conclusion is that May wanted to be a new Margaret Thatcher, “but according to all signs she is unequivocally not.”

Also today Origo decided to ask an associate professor of Corvinus University for his assessment of the election results. He said that “the results of the snap election have made Britain’s domestic politics unpredictable.” This was translated in the headline to the short article as “Political chaos may await the Brits.” The professor believes that Theresa May will resign shortly after the opening rounds of the negotiation talks. Accompanying the short article was the following photo.

Source Citizenside / Photo: David Whinham

Magyar Idők also eventually decided to recount the real story of the snap election. Instead of relying on MTI reports, Tamara Judi, a regular at the paper, wrote a lengthy article in which, quoting The Telegraph, she reported that the “remain camp took the election as a second referendum and supported those who offered the mildest exit conditions.” This must be difficult for the Orbán government to swallow since it has been a strong supporter of Theresa May’s position on many issues–save, of course, for the status of the half a million Hungarians who live and work in the United Kingdom.

Within two days the key government papers, Origo and Magyar Idők, wrote conflicting (I suppose one could kindly describe them as “evolving”) stories about the British election. Imagine that these papers were your only source of information about the election. Is it any wonder that there is such confusion in Hungarian right-wing heads?

June 10, 2017

Shrinking population, shrinking labor force, sluggish economy

Given the Hungarian government’s fierce opposition to accepting any refugees, I decided to take a look at the latest Hungarian population statistics.

Since Viktor Orbán became prime minister in 2010, the population of Hungary has shrunk from 10,014,324 to 9,830,485 (as of 2016). It has lost 183,939 persons, roughly the population of the second largest Hungarian city, Debrecen. If we break these figures down by age group, the situation is even more dire. Today there are fewer children between the ages of 1 and 14 (-62,408) and fewer adults between the ages of 15 and 64 (-264,527) than in 2010. What is more alarming is that the number of those over the age of 65 has grown substantially. To be precise, by 164,517, which is about the population of Szeged, Hungary’s third largest city.

Ever since the second half of the 1980s, the natural decrease of the population was around -3.5 per 1,000 annually. Last year was one of the worst, at -4.1. The Demographic Research Institute of the Central Statistical Office predicts that if the trend of the last 30 years continues, Hungary’s population will be under 8 million by 2060.

Current population statistics most likely overestimate the number of inhabitants residing in the country since many of those who moved abroad in the last few years never bothered to announce their departure to the authorities. Their number might be as high as 600,000, according to figures provided by Eurostat and assorted national statistical offices. Under these circumstances, a labor shortage in practically every sector of the economy is unavoidable.

Last summer I wrote two posts about the severe labor shortage in Hungary caused by the low birthrate and the massive exodus of Hungarians. I expressed my belief that without an infusion of foreign labor the situation cannot be remedied. A few days later the National Association of Employers and Manufacturers (MGYOSZ) suggested that Hungary would immediately need about 250,000 foreign workers, who should be enticed to come to Hungary from abroad. Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, agreed with MGYOSZ’s estimate of the situation, but in no time Fidesz published a statement saying that the Hungarian government provides work opportunities for Hungarians, not for immigrants. Both MGYOSZ and Varga got the message, but it turned out that the government “secretly” began the importation of foreign workers from so-called third countries, i.e., countries lying outside the European Union.

Hungary can hope for immigration only from countries with lower living standards than its own. Thus the government gave Samsung Magyarország, located in Jászfényszaru, a town of 5,000 in the northern portion of the Great Plain region of Central Hungary, permission to recruit workers from war-torn Ukraine. Of course, for Ukrainian speakers Poland or the Czech Republic might be more attractive given the easier linguistic communication there, so Samsung had to make its job offer especially enticing. By November of last year Samsung employed about 150 Ukrainians, and apparently their numbers are growing. In addition to their monthly pay of about 125,000 forints, they receive housing, some food, and travel expenses to return home once a month. About 100 of them live in nearby Jászberény in apartment houses; others are still in temporary housing on a camp site. The 125,000 forint salary isn’t much, but in comparison to what they would make in Ukraine it is considered to be quite good. Index interviewed a couple who are all set and ready to settle in Hungary. In a few years they will be able to save enough money to buy a house in one of the nearby villages. Another man with a Hungarian wife is learning Hungarian in order to become a Hungarian citizen.

The Ukrainians working on the Samsung assembly line were given on-the-job training. The same is most likely true of the six Indian guest workers who milk cows on a dairy farm in Sarud, close to Eger. Locals were either not interested in the job or, once hired, didn’t work out. The owner of the dairy farm heard about Indian workers at another farm who were highly praised. So he decided to follow suit. The first six have arrived. They are so hard working and reliable that the Hungarian dairy farmer has nothing but praise for them.

Sándor Csányi, head of Hungary’s largest bank, established a slaughterhouse in Mohács. He had a terrible time finding butchers because experienced Hungarian butchers had left for Germany a long time ago. Supermarkets also have a very hard time finding workers, and their management teams have been thinking of ways to fill these positions–one strategy is to retrain public workers. The few migrants who received permission to stay in Hungary quickly gain employment–mind you, mostly by foreign-owned firms.

The government is now trying to remedy the serious labor shortage by allowing retirees to accept tax-free part-time jobs. It was only a few years ago that the Orbán government insisted on a mandatory retirement age of 65. Now the government is trying to entice retirees to return to work.

Hungary, of course, is not alone in facing this problem. Germany’s labor shortage won’t easily be remedied with often unskilled migrants who don’t speak the language. But immigrants learn fast. With a well thought out plan, within a few years Germany might solve its labor shortfall. Great Britain, on the other hand, will be in trouble if Theresa May’s government succeeds in putting an end to or severely restricting immigration to the British Isles. For example, Brits show little interest in working in hotels and restaurants. In one chain, Pret a Manger, 65% of the employers are from countries outside the European Union. The hospitality industry would probably collapse without a steady flow of immigrants. Only recently Global Future, an employer-backed think tank, reported that the British economy needs an inward migration flow of 200,000 people a year “to avoid the catastrophic economic consequences” of Brexit. They warned that if the UK refuses to be flexible about labor inflow, the country could face decades of slow growth similar to that experienced by Japan. Just today The Guardian published an article that recounts the possible plight of Hall Hunter Partnership, a business that grows 10% of the UK’s strawberries, 19% of its raspberries, and 42% of its blueberries on thousands of acres. The company needs 3,000 pickers, who come from Bulgaria, Romania, and other East European countries. The opponents of EU membership talked about sovereignty and control, railed against the free movement of labor, but “what they didn’t mention is the way the British food supply chain has, over the past 30 years, become increasingly reliant on workers from elsewhere, both permanent residents and seasonal labor.” Around 20% of all employees in British agriculture come from abroad, mostly from Romania and Bulgaria, while 63% of the employees of members of the British Meat Processors Association come from outside the UK.

Indeed, the example of Japan might be a good illustration of what could happen to Great Britain if it closes its doors to immigrants vital to maintaining its economy. Japan’s birth rate has been dropping since the 1970s. “One percent shrinkage in population will slow Japan’s economic growth by about half a percentage point each year. So 0.5 percent of GDP is about 2.5 trillion yen ($2.95 billion) every year that’s potentially lost economic revenue,” according to an economic expert on Japan. He thinks that Japanese society will finally have to decide that they must embrace the idea of immigration. This is not going to be easy in insular, quasi-racist Japan.

The same holds true in Hungary, given Viktor Orbán’s insistence on “cultural purity.” It is impossible to maintain a robust economy with a shrinking workforce and an aging population. Something must be done.

May 21, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of the Brexit referendum

In the wake of the stunning Brexit referendum outcome, pro-government papers wisely waited for word from the boss before they dared express any opinion on the subject. They didn’t have to wait long. At 8:00 a.m. Viktor Orbán began his regular fortnightly Friday morning interview on the state radio station.

The first topic was of course the British referendum, something the Hungarian prime minister was not at all eager to talk about. The little he said had more to do with his own referendum, to be held sometime in the fall, on the European Union’s right to set “compulsory quotas” of asylum seekers in Hungary. One could ask what these two referendums have to do with one other.  Of course, nothing. What is important for him is his own referendum, and he exploits the opportunity presented by the Brexit referendum.

Brexit1

Source: spectator.co.uk

According to his own version of the story, the whole unfortunate referendum on Brexit was largely the result of the refugee crisis that hit Europe in the last year and a half. He claims that the British people revolted against Brussels because the European Union couldn’t handle the migration crisis. They punished Brussels for its incompetence. Orbán as usual is twisting the truth to fit his own agenda. What the majority of British voters were worried about, in addition to being subordinated to an outside power, was not so much the refugees and migrants who have reached the Continent but those “economic migrants” from East Central Europe who have settled in the British Isles in the last few years.  The 350,000 Poles and the 150,000 Hungarians, for example. At least these are the official figures, though most likely the real numbers are higher.

He was particularly unwilling to talk about the future except to state that “Hungary is in the European Union because we believe in a strong Europe,” a totally meaningless statement, only to return to his main message –the immigration issue. “But Europe can be strong only if it finds answers to such important questions as immigration. Many people, in the case of Great Britain the majority, consider the decisions [on the refugee issue] to be creating not a stronger but a weaker Europe.” So this, in his opinion, is what led to the “leave” vote.

Orbán indicated that he had been in touch with the prime ministers of the Visegrád countries. Robert Fico’s interpretation of the referendum result is almost identical to that of Orbán: “Great numbers of EU citizens reject the migrant policy,” which should obviously be changed. Jarosław Kaczyński went further. He would like to see an entirely new EU constitution which would include “reforms,” after which the EU “could make an offer” to Great Britain. What would these “reforms” include? Among other things, a new definition of the relationship between the EU and the member states, naturally in favor of the nation states. I’m certain that for the Euroskeptic Visegrád countries Kaczyński’s scheme would be a bonanza. Loosen European integration and keep a strong ally, the also Euroskeptic Great Britain, in the fold. This is a totally unacceptable response to the Brexit vote.

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó regurgitated Viktor Orbán’s wise words about a strong Europe, adding that “the time of honest politics has arrived in Europe” because the EU has for some time been following hypocritical and politically correct policies that have led to wrong answers to the migrant crisis. Lajos Kósa, representing Fidesz as a party, claimed that the majority of the Brits voted to exit from the Union because Brussels couldn’t defend them from the migrants. “It is an impossible situation that the socialist-liberal elite is pro-immigration while the decisive majority of European citizens is not.” Kósa added that “we can agree with the man who came up with the bon mot that Europe for the sake of a few million migrants lost 64 million citizens and the second strongest economy.”

Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság usually uses her contacts with Fidesz politicians to get a sense of their attitudes on particular issues. According to her, the consensus in the party is that with Brexit Orbán lost an important ally. But in the future Orbán’s voice will become more audible in the EU. Her informants also believe that with the departure of anti-Russian Great Britain Orbán will have an easier time convincing the EU to put an end to the anti-Russian sanctions. The couple of Fidesz EP representatives she interviewed emphasized the importance of the unity of the Visegrád 4 countries, which should be used as a counterweight to French-German dominance. One of the EP representatives, György Schöpflin, is convinced that the European left wants to punish the exiting Brits. He had to admit, however, that it is not only the left that wants immediate negotiations but also the Christian-conservative parties in the European People’s Party (EPP). If that is the case, the Fidesz members of EPP have little choice but to go with the flow.

The leaders of the opposition parties naturally see the situation differently. Csaba Molnár, DK EP member, accused the British conservatives of a 20-year-long anti-EU campaign, which resulted in the disastrous outcome of the referendum. Viktor Orbán has been doing the same thing for years, and if he doesn’t stop eventually Hungary too will leave the EU. He therefore implored Orbán to call off the referendum.  Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt also asked Orbán “to stop his mendacious anti-EU campaign and his anti-European provocations.”

István Szent-Iványi, the foreign policy expert of the Magyar Liberális Párt, looks upon the outcome of the referendum as the result of “the British government party’s two-faced, ambiguous policies regarding the European Union.” The same attitude is present in Hungary and, given the lesson of the British decision, he called on the Hungarian government to make its relationship to Europe unambiguous, to stop its campaign against Brussels, and to cancel the referendum on compulsory quotas. At present, neither Hungary nor Europe needs this referendum, which is no longer about refugees but about Hungary’s relations with Europe.

Tibor Szanyi, an MSZP EP member, called David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum irresponsible and selfish since he placed his own political survival ahead of the future of his country. But perhaps Cameron’s political sins will have a beneficial effect on Orbán. One possible outcome of the British decision might be that European politicians will have had enough of the selfish, nationalist members’ behavior and  will continue European integration without them. At the moment, Hungary still has a chance to be part of this work, but only if Orbán drastically changes course. He added that Brexit will have the most negative effect on the Central and East European countries because the leading demand of those who campaigned for Great Britain’s exit was that citizens of the European Union should not take work away from British citizens.

Given the official Fidesz interpretation of the British referendum, the great majority of the Hungarian people, as is often the case, will be misinformed and misled. I suspect that Orbán will go on campaigning against the EU and will hold the referendum. Otherwise, it is hard to predict how serious a handicap the absence of British support for the Visegrád 4 will be in the coming months. I suspect that from here on Orbán will have a more difficult time in Brussels.

June 24, 2016

Viktor Orbán, the politician of European stature, fails as a negotiator

After mulling over the available reports on David Cameron’s short stopover in Budapest, I have come to the conclusion that Viktor Orbán, who is believed to be a maverick politician of mythical powers, failed miserably in his negotiations with the British prime minister. He promised to support three of the four demands Cameron formulated back in November 2015 vis-à-vis the European Union. And Cameron moved not an inch on the most difficult issue of restricting access to welfare payments for migrant workers, mostly from Eastern Europe. If Jarosław Kaczyński hoped to find a good spokesman for the cause of the Visegrád4, he was sadly mistaken. While both men emphasized the need for a strong European Union, in fact both of them have been doing their best to weaken it.

Here are the demands of the British government.

The first demand seeks a special status for Great Britain and others to be free of any obligation to accept the euro as a common currency. In addition, Britain demands that countries outside of the Eurozone should have veto power in the affairs of the Eurozone countries.

The second demand is more reasonable: less bureaucracy and fewer rules and regulations.

The third demand, in my opinion, would be the death knell of the European Union if accepted. It is bad enough that Great Britain doesn’t want to be tied by the EU constitution, which calls on member states to support an ever-closer integration of the Union. It also wants a new provision to be inserted that would allow parliaments of the member states to invalidate any EU law that doesn’t meet the approval of a certain percentage of MPs. For the time being, the details of this demand are not known. The guiding principle would be “a national solution if possible” and a European solution only when necessary.

The fourth demand is the only one that Viktor Orbán found objectionable. Cameron wants to restrict access to benefits for EU migrants both in and out of work. The British government wants to stop those who go to Great Britain from claiming certain benefits until they have been a resident for four years. Moreover, it seems that until now a migrant father or mother could get child support even if the children remained behind. That no longer would be possible. In addition, spouses who are not EU citizens couldn’t enter the country. Despite all the smiles at the press conference, it looks as if Orbán didn’t manage to convince Cameron that the hard-working Hungarians are not economic migrants in Britain.

At a time when united action should be the primary concern of the European Union, attacks on it are coming from three directions. The first is not the doing of the member states: the largely unexpected influx of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, some by way of camps in Turkey. But the other two attacks come from the inside–from Great Britain and the Orbán-led Visegrád countries. While Viktor Orbán criticizes the European Union for its inability to show a common resolve, he has been doing nothing else for the last year but weakening the little central authority the EU has. At the same time both he and Cameron claim that they want a strong Europe.

The official government communiqué stressed Hungary’s willingness “to fully support” Cameron’s first three demands. The two men have “complete intellectual and strategic agreement” on these points. Orbán greeted “the rethinking of the role of the national parliaments” and welcomed the idea of “equality with the members of the Eurozone.”

David Cameron and Viktor Orbán at the press conference in Budapest

David Cameron and Viktor Orbán at the press conference in Budapest

When it came to the fourth demand he protested meekly. He mostly objected to the word “migrant,” emphasizing the importance of choosing our words. Indeed, he is the one who is a master of linguistic manipulation. His political advisers came up with the word “migráns,” a foreign word not normally used in Hungarian and now applied exclusively to the Middle Eastern refugees. The word by now has acquired a negative connotation in Hungary due to the hard-hitting government propaganda against the migrants. And here is the British prime minister who talks about Hungarians as migrants. Naturally, as far as Orbán is concerned, they are not migrants because they are EU citizens who have the right to settle and work in another member state. But the word “migrant” in English normally means a person who leaves one country to settle either permanently or temporarily in another.

Orbán didn’t really criticize the British plan to restrict benefits for EU migrants. Rather, he appealed to Cameron by emphasizing the hard-working Hungarians who greatly contribute to the British economy and who take very little in social services. He talked about 50,000 Hungarian citizens in Britain, although that sounds like a very low number to me. At the same time he indicated that the real victims of such a move would be the Poles since about 800,000 of them live and work in Great Britain at the moment. I wonder whether this means that Orbán will leave the hard work of fighting the British plan to the Szydło government. In any case, he indicated that negotiations will continue between Great Britain and the Visegrád4 countries.

The parties of the democratic opposition all criticized Orbán for not defending the interests of Hungarians living in Great Britain. Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt accused Orbán of having a double standard when he portrays the migrants from the Middle East as criminals while he demands special treatment for Hungarian migrants living in Great Britain. According to Együtt (Together), Orbán abandoned his own voters. Attila Mesterházy, who spoke for MSZP, accused Orbán of assisting the British prime minister, who is trying to solve his own domestic problems. In his opinion, Cameron makes no distinction between EU citizens, immigrants, and refugees, and therefore all attempts to force him to think otherwise are useless. MSZP expected a stronger stand in defense of Hungarians in the United Kingdom. LMP demanded policies from the government that would bring those Hungarians who live abroad back home. Of course, DK followed suit, but Péter Niedermüller went even further. He accused Orbán of supporting Cameron’s demands although they may lead to the weakening of Hungary’s position within the European Union. Another DK politician, Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, even made an appeal to David Cameron on Facebook:

David Cameron is a true democrat and a wise politician. He believes in liberal democracy and free market economy and refuses an ever more integrated EU. Mr. Cameron looks for allies on these grounds. And his greatest challenge is that most of his anti-EU allies are xenophobes and extreme populists. Will statesman Cameron be ready to tame or handle the Orbáns and Kaczyńskis of our continent? These are politicians who believe in a state-controlled economy, anti-capitalism and who keep making gestures to right-wing extremists in order to build up their exclusive power. Can a British conservative agenda be legitimate, credible and efficient if it seeks support from representatives of obsolete, pre-WWII ideologies? Can a distinguished leader of one of the oldest democracies in the world afford to embrace politicians and parties that aim at destroying Churchill’s dreams?

Kaczyński, Orbán and the likes have millions of supporters as this type of politics always have and will. But, fortunately, friends of a transparent and liberal democracy are still in the majority in Europe. The notions of human dignity, civil liberties and non-corrupt state of affairs are the real grounds for cooperation; considerations of the future of the European Union only come second. I believe we can work out our differences on the EU because democrats are always ready and able to find compromises even after heated discussions. But compromise can and must not be made with those, e.g. Messrs. Orbán and Kaczyński, whose entire goal is to undermine our basic Western values. That is a warning Mr. Cameron may want to keep in mind when talking to Viktor Orbán today.

I fear David Cameron has no intention of heeding Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy’s advice.

European Union in crisis: David Cameron and Viktor Orbán

In the last few days we discussed at some length U.S.-Hungarian relations, which are not in the best of shape. We also briefly talked about the harebrained ideas of a Hungarian Catholic bishop on the death of Christian Europe. During these few days some newsworthy events took place in the European Union, the most important being British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “ultimatum” to the European Union. Analysts suspect that Cameron doesn’t really want to get to the point of holding a referendum on Great Britain’s membership in the EU but wants concessions that he can present to domestic critics of the EU. Given the fragile state of the EU, brought about first by the Greek financial collapse and now the refugee crisis, Cameron’s belligerence couldn’t have come at a worst time.

Cameron’s demands include a safeguard to prevent countries that use the euro from discriminating economically against Britain; an end to Britain’s legal commitment to pursue an “ever closer union”; and the right to restrict welfare entitlements, including benefits for low-income workers, for four years for migrants arriving from other European countries. Of these demands the last is the most troubling since it “would be a departure from current European rules stipulating that citizens of all countries in the bloc should be treated equally.” Politico.eu, on the basis of a conversation with a “diplomat familiar with the talks,” claims that the “EU leaders will offer to create a transition clause that restricts the ability of citizens of possible future EU members such as Serbia and Albania to work elsewhere in the EU.” At present there are restrictions for seven years after a country joins the bloc but, according to politico.hu‘s source, “this could be increased to as much as 20 years.”

Such a deal sounds unfair to me, although it might appease the three Visegrád countries–the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia–whose leaders have already protested loudly. After all, London is full of “economic migrants,” the overwhelming majority of whom come from poor East European countries. Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s incoming foreign minister, finds the British move “humiliating.” Peter Javorcik, Slovakia’s ambassador to the European Union, declared that “we cannot create two categories of EU citizens.” According to Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, to put limits on the freedom of movement within the EU poses “a serious problem for the Czech Republic.”  I trust everybody noticed that Hungary said not a word on the issue.

While these leaders were objecting, the energetic Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, in an interview with Die Welt had a few harsh words of his own about the East European newcomers to the EU. He spoke about the walls that “are not protection but traps.” Renzi didn’t mince words on the behavior of the East European countries. According to him, “the Western European [politicians] paid a political price for the enlargement,” but now they are faced with uncooperative and belligerent Easterners. When the reporter brought up the intransigence of Viktor Orbán, Renzi pointed out that the dividing line on this issue is not left versus right but East versus West. There is socialist rule in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and yet they side with the right-wing Viktor Orbán and many Poles. He elaborated: “It is a geographic, not a political division between those who know Europe as a great ideal and those who primarily see it as an economic benefit.” The problem must be solved together and it will take years: “Only Marine Le Pen or other right-wing demagogues” believe that the problem can be solved in a week. I have no doubt that Renzi includes Viktor Orbán among these right-wing demagogues.

wektwoche

During the same period Orbán gave an interview to the Swiss Die Weltwoche in which he more or less reiterated the outlandish ideas he outlined in his recent speech about the organized nature of the refugee crisis. But this time, I think wisely, he neglected to mention the name of George Soros. He did, however, repeat his belief in a left-wing conspiracy to dilute Christian Europe. This time he also shared his conviction that the socialists of Western Europe welcome the newcomers because they will add to the shrinking voter base of leftist parties.

It seems that Orbán doesn’t have the patience to think through his pronouncements. Years and years will go by before these newcomers receive citizenship. When a large wave of immigrants arrives at the same time, the newcomers’ inclination is to vote for the party that was in power when they were admitted. This was definitely true of the 56ers in the United States and Canada. At least in the first ten or fifteen years after their arrival. Why would the Syrians, who at the moment are so grateful to Angela Merkel, vote for the socialists?

In this interview, which unfortunately is not available online and which I could read only in a Hungarian-language summary, I found two statements that shed light on Viktor Orbán’s state of mind. The first is that he pretty much acknowledges here, if only indirectly, that he has been isolated in the last few years because he “doesn’t fit in,” because he doesn’t “represent the euro-liberal mainstream.” Last night on PBS’s NewsHour I saw Viktor Orbán walking alone, one hand in his jacket pocket, at the Malta Summit, where sixty leaders gathered yesterday. The second telling sentence came at the end of the interview. He explains that the “European, civic, Christian Democratic camp is in such shambles that [he] must take upon himself the task that others cannot accomplish.” Nowhere before have I read such a bald confession of Orbán’s soaring ambition to lead Europe to accept his solution to the refugee crisis.

Some citizens are more equal than others

I simply can’t understand the Hungarian opposition’s lack of initiative and its sluggish reactions to unacceptable actions that are being taken day in and day out by Fidesz and the Fidesz-ruled parliament. Often, opposition politicians wake up only when a government official reveals by a slip of the tongue the real intention of a piece of legislation. A good example of this kind of opposition lethargy is its recent discovery that the government is up to no good with its laws governing the voting rights of new Hungarian citizens who were born and lived all their lives in one of the neighboring countries. No opposition politicians raised the possibility of electoral fraud until the head of the National Election Commission made the mistake of revealing some of the details of the voting procedures contemplated by the government. Then suddenly the politicians of the democratic opposition woke up. But, for Pete’s sake, the particulars of the electoral law have been known for months. Where were these people when the proposal was duly voted into law sometime in December?

I wrote about some possible problems with the absentee ballots on July 29 after Ilona Pálffy, the government official in question, made the mistake of outlining the procedure in terms that made it clear that the safety of the ballots cannot be guaranteed. It will be extremely easy to manipulate the ballots of dual citizens. It took another two weeks for the opposition to discover that there are serious problems with the voting rights of Hungarian citizens living abroad.

Currently perhaps as many as half a million Hungarian citizens work abroad. This number is a guesstimate, but the true number is surely more than 300,000, the number of dual citizens in the neighboring countries. And while these dual citizens can vote via absentee ballot, Hungarians working abroad must vote in person either in Hungary or at a Hungarian embassy or consulate. Let’s take, for example, Great Britain since it has a large Hungarian presence. In the United Kingdom both the Hungarian embassy and the consulate are in London. There are no consulates anywhere else.  So if a Hungarian lives in Glasgow and would like to vote he would have to travel to London, more than a six-hour trip by rail. And we’d better not mention Northern Ireland.

The situation is slightly better in Germany but not much. There a Hungarian citizen can vote either in Berlin or in Munich. In the United States there are three places you can vote: Washington, New York, and Los Angeles.  If you happen to live in Kansas City you can look forward to a 2,000 km trip to New York City. You are even worse off in Canada where there are a lot of Hungarians. There you can vote only in Ottawa; the distance between Vancouver and Ottawa is 3,538 km. For sake of comparison the Hungarian government maintains four consulates in Romania: in Bucharest, Cluj/Kolozsvár, Miercurea-Ciuc/Csíkszereda, and Constanta. Of course, this comparison doesn’t really speak to the issue since Hungarian dual citizens in Romania don’t have to show up in person at one of these consulates.

Fidesz obviously doesn’t want Hungarian citizens living in the West to vote in the forthcoming elections. I don’t think they’re focused on votes coming from Canada and the U.S. What worries them is those recent emigrants to Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, etc. who left the Orbán government behind. Their connection to Hungary, family and friends is much more intense and direct than that of earlier emigrants to North America. Moreover, most of them left Hungary recently because of economic hardship, and most of them seem to be satisfied with their new circumstances. They find life in Great Britain and Germany much more pleasant and career opportunities more merit-based. There is a good likelihood that a great majority of these people would not vote for Fidesz.

And there’s another reason to discourage these potentially anti-Fidesz Hungarians in the West from voting. A Romanian-Hungarian dual citizen can vote only for party lists while Hungarians living in the West but with a valid address in Hungary can theoretically vote for both individual candidates who represent a district and for party lists.

All citizens are equal / www.presseurope.eu

All citizens are equal / www.presseurope.eu

This blatant discrimination against Hungarian emigrants in the West was introduced as an amendment to the electoral law. It was an afterthought. I suspect that Fidesz figured out that the number of Hungarians seeking employment abroad was growing by leaps and bounds and that if these people can vote as easily as the by-and-large pro-Fidesz crowd in Romania and Serbia their actions might counterbalance the gains coming from the Romanian-Hungarian vote. In that case, the whole exercise of giving the vote to Hungarians in the neighboring countries would have been for naught.

The opposition was asleep at the switch when the Fidesz amendment was approved. It was only today that Gergely Karácsony on behalf of Együtt 2014-PM announced that he is planning to submit an amendment to the electoral law that would put an end to this discrimination against Hungarians temporarily living in countries of the European Union.

The answer from the other side came in no time. Gergely Gulyás, who is deeply involved with constitutional and electoral issues, said that he considers Karácsony’s proposed amendment a desperate move on the part of the opposition forces. The opposition already knows that they will lose the election so they are now trying to convince the world that their loss is the sole result of electoral fraud. He claimed that the Hungarian electoral law ensures equal opportunity to all Hungarian citizens. Well, you can judge for yourself whether a Hungarian citizen living in Great Britain has the same opportunity to cast his vote as his counterpart in Romania.

I highly doubt that Fidesz will be willing to change the existing law that clearly favors them. At least this is how I interpreted Gulyás’s words.

Mass exodus from villages in Baranya County, Hungary

Hungary is witnessing a steady flow of emigrants. Admittedly, one could counter that it is incorrect to call those who seek work abroad emigrants because “to emigrate” means “to leave one country or region to settle in another.” One could argue that these people don’t plan to live abroad for good. However, there is a very good likelihood that people who spend a number of years in another country, establish a career for themselves, make new non-Hungarian friends, perhaps even marry local men or women will not return to their country of birth. A good example of that kind of emigration was the mass exodus of Hungarian citizens, especially from the Slovak-inhabited counties of northeastern Hungary, who left for the United States in the 1880s and 1890s in order to make enough money to return home and live in relative comfort. Most of them never saw Hungary again.

We know that at least 330,000 Hungarians now work abroad. I suspect that most of these people are from larger cities and from regions adjacent to the Austrian border. But today I read a fascinating report about the poverty-stricken south of the County of Baranya which has been witnessing “emigration fever.” The population of this region is in an utterly hopeless situation. There are places where over 50% of the population are unemployed without the slightest hope of finding work. In the entire county there was only one large factory, the Finnish Elcoteq, but in 2011 the firm filed for bankruptcy and between 5,000 and 7,000 people lost their jobs. Until 2011 the lucky ones in these godforsaken villages could find work in Pécs, commuting between work and home. That opportunity is gone.

The Pécs stringer for Népszabadság visited four tiny villages, two close to Szigetvár on the west and two near Sellye, the largest town in the so-called Ormánság. I might add here that the Roma population of south Baranya is pretty high. It always was, but by now there are villages where all of the inhabitants are Roma. This is especially true of the Ormánság. Both Szigetvár and Sellye are marked on the map below.

The reporter’s journey began in Kétújfalu (pop. 667), 13 km from Szigetvár. There even the Fidesz-KDNP mayor’s son moved to Germany where he began as a dock worker but by now has a job as a computer technician. He made 110,000 forints a month as a fire fighter in Hungary; he now makes about three and a half times that amount–1,300 euros a month. The thirty-year-old English teacher in the village school packed up a couple of years ago. She became a housekeeper in the UK. A fifty-year-old locksmith has been working in Germany for the last ten years. Last summer his wife followed him. She was a cook in the school, now she works as a cleaning lady. She gives the impression of being a “secure and self-confident person,” at least this is how the mayor, who is a German-Russian-gym teacher, describes her.

The situation is very much the same in Teklafalu (pop. 343) close by. The first emigrant was a butcher who went to Germany fifteen years ago. His son decided to become a butcher as well in order to work with his father. As soon as he learned the trade he followed his father to Passau where he got a job at the firm his father is working for. The family has two daughters who are still not on their own, but once they finish school the wife is going to follow husband and son. She is ready to work in a factory. After all, in the old regime she worked in a canning factory in Szigetvár.

After the son of our butcher left, interest in emigration grew in Teklafalu. Two women in their fifties left for Germany. The son of one them headed to Italy. A young fellow just left for the Netherlands, but he is not the first one in that country from the village. A young woman left years ago and recently her father followed her; he got a job as a security guard. “He had enough of the poverty,” as his neighbor said.

County of Baranya

County of Baranya

From the Szigetvár region the reporter moved south, close to Sellye, to a village called Bogdása (pop. 295). The place has a Catholic and a Hungarian Reformed church but neither priest nor minister. They come from Sellye for services. The same exodus can be observed here. First, one fellow left for France and soon enough two more followed him. Neither man was unemployed at home; they had jobs but never made more than 120,000-150,000 a month. Now they make about five times that amount as plasterers. One of them is in Rennes and the other in Grenoble. Their sister is planning to go to Austria and would be happy to work either in a restaurant or in a hotel. Another couple moved to England where they work in a Sony plant. As their neighbors say, “they don’t even visit anymore.” Three men from the village work in a slaughterhouse in Germany while three others, also in Germany, got jobs as long distance truck drivers.

The most interesting story is from Drávafok (pop 508). Tímea  Buzás is thirty and Roma. She has been working in the United Kingdom ever since 2006 when she graduated as a midwife. At that time she applied for a job in Drávafok but lost out to someone else. She suspects that her Gypsy origin had something to do with it. So she decided to leave for Great Britain. Because she didn’t know English she first worked in a factory. Two years later when her English improved she got a job looking after elderly people. A year later she got a regular job as a nurse. Today she is head nurse in Crawley and makes 2,500 pounds a month.

In the last six years she paid off her parents’ mortgage on their house (4 million), spent 2 million fixing up their house in Drávafok, bought an apartment in Pécs for 8.5 million, and spent another 2 million fixing it up. She also generously helps others, preparing them for the journey and conditions in the UK. She apparently managed to get jobs for 72 of her acquaintances. Once they are there she helps them open bank accounts, fill out job applications, and find apartments. Out of the 500 inhabitants of Drávafok there are at least 15 people just in England.

These people, six months after arriving in the UK, are able to send home 200,000-250,000 forints a month. Not surprisingly there is great interest in moving to Great Britain in Drávafok. Tímea, who is currently spending her summer vacation at home, was approached by seven of her neighbors in just the past few days. The only impediment is that future emigrants must have some initial capital with which to start their new lives. According to Tímea one needs at least 300,000 forints. Since most of the inhabitants of Drávafok can get only 45,000 forint public works jobs it is almost impossible to scrape together such a sun. Otherwise, I suspect, there would be no way of stopping them.

Until now the Roma of Baranya County didn’t rush to leave the country seeking jobs abroad. That has changed. As one mayor in the region said, the best educated and the most ambitious are the ones who are leaving, which is a real pity.

Yes, this situation greatly resembles what was going on in the northeastern counties of Greater Hungary in the late nineteenth century. The news spread by word of mouth. One villager went to the United States to work in a factory or mine and sent home glowing reports about his good fortune. And more and more packed up until half of the villages had no adult men. This is what seems to be going on today, at least in Baranya. But now the women are also leaving.