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Guest Notes

Hungarian notes

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

Merkel’s nemesis

Before German Chancellor Angela Merkel picked a fight with her Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orbán in 2015 by opening the floodgates to a torrent of Third World migrants who had reached Hungary, she should have remembered the old line that a Hungarian is someone who enters a revolving door behind you and emerges in front of you. Orbán has had a spring in his step now that yet another European country, Italy, has a government echoing his call for secure borders and an end to Europe’s illegal immigration chaos. Meanwhile, the vultures circle Merkel.

The EU political establishment treated Orbán as an aberration when he begged to differ on the wisdom of Merkel inviting the Third World to move to Europe in 2015. Patronising voices in Brussels said that because of Cold War isolation for all those years, the poor unsophisticated East Europeans didn’t yet understand that, now in the EU, multiculturalism and diversity were enriching opportunities they would inevitably have to embrace if they wanted to be accepted as proper grown-up Europeans.

The Euro-elite has never been more distant from ordinary voters than on the immigration mess of recent years, and it’s been Orbán not Merkel who’s been vindicated when it comes to voters’ views. The Brussels bien pensants crowed that the anti-immigration tide had receded when the National Front in France and Geert Wilders in Holland failed to win elections in those countries in 2017 – even though such wins were never likely. But in every recent election across continental Europe including in those ones, support for parties advocating stronger border protection has increased dramatically, changing governments especially across central Europe including Austria, and now in Italy and probably in Slovenia as well. Brussels nervously watches Sweden ahead of its September elections, where the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats hover at unprecedented high levels of support. And now Merkel has to deal with an interior minister and coalition partner in Horst Seehofer who it seems has greater confidence in Orbán and in Italian interior minister and Lega leader Salvini than in his own Chancellor. Meanwhile of course Orbán himself has just won a fourth term in office with a thumping two-thirds majority.

The EU establishment and lazy foreign journalists who don’t know Hungary see Orbán as autocratic, xenophobic and anti-semitic. All of these charges are groundless. Orbán favours ‘Christian’ not liberal democracy, but Hungary remains every bit the thriving multi-party democracy he dreamed of when he was a dissident in communist times. There is huge diversity of opinion, especially online, and political demonstrations against the government are a regular feature of life. Unlike in Putin’s Russia, dissenting journalists don’t end up dead.


The xenophobia charge is based on the claim that he’s anti-immigration. But he’s not – he’s anti uncontrolled immigration. He holds the politically incorrect view that there’s a connection in Western Europe between large inflows of migrants from very different cultures and terrorism – a model he’s understandably not keen to import into his own country. Many voters across Western Europe would support that view. He also believes that Merkel should take much of the blame for the Brexit referendum outcome because she created a backdrop of migration chaos across the Channel in the leadup to the June 2016 vote.

As to the anti-semitism charges, as British writer and son of Hungarian parents Tibor Fischer has pointed out, Orbán’s government has passed a Holocaust denial law, has made Holocaust education compulsory and financed an Oscar-winning film about Auschwitz. The Orbán government is a staunch opponent of George Soros not because he’s Jewish but because he’s a powerful advocate of open borders. The Italian government believes he’s behind some of the NGO ‘rescue ships’ which have ferried huge numbers of people smugglers’ clients from Africa to Italy.

Hungarians have backed Orbán not just because they agree with his position on borders but because the economy is performing impressively under his stewardship.  Annualised growth in this year’s first quarter was 4.7 per cent  – compared to the eurozone’s 2.5 per cent. The combination of low taxes, a skilled workforce and still lower wages compared to further west continues to attract strong investment and jobs growth. Hungary’s unemployment is 3.8 per cent, dramatically down from 11.8 per cent eight years ago when Orbán returned to office.

As Europeans slowly learn the hard way that voters will punish governments who capitulate to immigration policies run by people smugglers, Australia’s strong border protection policies are increasingly admired. And the lines from some European leaders are starting to sound as if they were scripted by John Howard. Polish PM Mazowiecki said recently ‘it’s we who decide who will come to Poland and who will not’. And now Austrian Chancellor Kurz says ‘We have to be the ones to decide who comes to Europe, not the people smugglers’.

But our government seems reluctant to speak openly about how much we share our outlook on secure borders with these countries – Julie Bishop’s tweets when she visited Budapest didn’t mention the issue at all. One reason probably is that our politically correct Department of Foreign Affairs doesn’t approve of Orbán.

Australia has a problem with the pattern of its diplomatic representation in this part of Europe. We have fifteen embassies in West European EU member-states and a grand total of one (Warsaw) in the former Soviet satellites. This skews our dealings with Europe and the views we hear.


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