In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to former Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Balázs.
A landlocked country, Hungary is the 11th most popular tourist destination in Europe, according to the UN World Tourism Organization. Aside from being a well-liked tourism hub, Hungary is one of the main arrival points of migrants and refugees fleeing conflicts.
Although Hungary functions as a transit, source and destination country of global migration, the government has made it clear to asylum-seekers: they are not welcome. The migration policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s far-right government have been so hard-hitting that they are widely criticized even by Hungary’s close allies in the European Union.
Orbán’s Fidesz party currently maintains a two-thirds majority in parliament and has spared no effort to thwart immigration to Hungary, including by passing the anti-immigration “Stop Soros” laws, which criminalize assistance to illegal immigrants. Orbán himself once referred to Muslim refugees as “Muslim invaders” in an interview with the German daily Bild, saying that multiculturalism is “only an illusion.” He also said migration threatens the “sovereignty and cultural identity” of Hungary.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Péter Balázs, the former foreign minister of Hungary, about the country’s immigration stance and its foreign policy.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: Despite being a multiethnic and diverse society, Hungary has become spectacularly anti-immigration. This is reflected in the government policies toward migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees, as well as the public attitude toward migration. What do you think are the main reasons?
Péter Balázs: Hungary is a clearly mono-ethnic society, the overwhelming majority is ethnic Hungarian and speaks one single language. Thirteen ethnic minorities are registered in the country, the biggest of them is the German minority representing 1.3% of the total population; others including Slovaks and Serbians are even smaller. Since the end of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1920, Hungarians have been living in this mono-ethnic surrounding. Consequently, other ethnicities are foreigners, tourists and visitors, but not neighbors living in the same street or house. Concerning foreigners, there is a tradition of hospitality, but fears from the unknown may occur as well. The populist-nationalist drive of Viktor Orbán is capitalizing on the latter.
Making use of the suddenly increased flow of migrants from remote overseas countries, such as Syria and Afghanistan in 2015, the Orbán government has based its rhetoric since then on anti-immigration slogans. This fits ideally into the conflict-searching strategy of Mr. Orbán: He needs “enemies” to be defeated by him so as he can appear as the “savior of Hungary.” Such enemies have so far been the IMF, the UN, the EU, the migrants, globalization and George Soros, the philanthropic American of Hungarian origin.
Ziabari: Will Prime Minister Orbán risk his country’s standing among EU nations and embrace sanctions and isolation by refusing to soften his migration policies? Do you think Hungary’s relations with European institutions will deteriorate over his stance on migration?
Balázs: Since coming back to power in 2010, the Orbán government has continuously challenged the norms and values of the EU by provoking a very serious — and so far unprecedented — procedure under Article 7 of the EU treaty about the risk of a serious breach of EU norms, which is now underway. In such cases, EU institutions, including the European Parliament, the European Court of Justice and the European Commission, are proceeding, but the political decisions are taken by the member states, individually or jointly in the council. Sanctions and isolation concerning Hungary depend on the political intentions of other EU member states, mainly the “opinion leaders” like Germany, France and some others.
Ziabari: Orbán won the April parliamentary election and remained prime minister. Warnings continue to come from across Europe about the rise of right-wing nationalism and populism in Hungary. Where does his success originate from?
Balázs: The answer is in the question: His right-wing nationalism and populism won the hearts of a sufficient number of voters. However, the tricky election system, reshaped by Mr. Orbán, assures a disproportional majority to the winner, so with 49% of the votes, he got two-thirds of the seats in the Hungarian parliament.
Ziabari: Let’s move on to Hungary’s foreign relations. Forging close and amicable relationships with European nations, whether inside or outside the European Union, has been a foreign policy priority of Hungary for a long time. However, the issue of ethnic Hungarian minority rights in countries such as Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine has sporadically caused tensions between these nations. What’s your take on that?
Balázs: Indeed, in four neighboring states live masses of ethnic Hungarians: Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine. A constitutional obligation of the government in Budapest is to follow closely the situation of ethnic Hungarians in other states and help them to defend their rights. The protection of the right to education, the use of their native language, etc., need good cooperation with the governments of those countries and good mutual understanding with their majority populations.
However, the Orbán government puts the emphasis on one single issue. That is granting Hungarian citizenship to minority Hungarians in other states, which also gives them the right to vote at elections in Hungary and favor, according to the hopes of Mr. Orbán, his Fidesz party. This strategy has recently provoked serious tensions with Ukraine, which forbids any second citizenship for Ukrainians, including ethnic minorities living in the country.
Ziabari: In a recent interview, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said his government wants a Christian Hungary and a Christian Europe. Does this statement mean that the Hungarian government is happy with alienating other religions or has a problem with its religious minorities?
Balázs: In fact, Hungary is a Christian country. At the last census, more than 80% declared to be a Christian, majority Catholic, minority Protestant, 15% non-religious and near to 4% did not want to answer the question. Religious minorities are marginal. The biggest is Judaism which is 1%, and others are minimal — namely Buddhism or Islam below 0.1%. This is the religious background in the country, which should be completely separated from political action. “Christian Hungary” or “Christian Europe” are false messages covering anti-Islam or latent anti-Semitic machinations.
Ziabari: The United States is the second largest investor in Hungary. Both countries are part of global coalition against the Islamic State (IS). Do you think Hungary-US relations have changed or improved significantly under President Donald Trump?
Balázs: Hungary and the US are close allies in NATO, which is the depositary of the security of Hungary. Orbán welcomed the election of President Trump and had high hopes that finally he would be received in the White House, but this has not happened so far. The US administration made critical remarks concerning the deteriorating situation of the rule of law and freedom of press and of education in Hungary, as well as too close and frequent relations with Russia.
Ziabari: Why did Hungary lament Britain’s decision to leave the European Union? How will Brexit affect Hungary’s relations with the UK?
Balázs: Hungary is worried about the potential consequences of Brexit, mainly in view of the high number of Hungarians working in the UK.
Ziabari: It seems that developing close relations with ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) countries is a priority of Prime Minister Orbán’s government. Is the expansion of relations with Asian countries, especially within ASEM, an effort to find an alternative to relations with the EU countries, which Hungary finds itself at odds with over migration and human rights?
Balázs: Asian countries are important but remote partners of Hungary due to it being a medium-sized, landlocked country in the heart of the European mainland. Because of this geopolitical situation, there is no real alternative to trade with the EU representing about 75% of all exports and imports. In fact, 90% of all trade of Hungary is being done in a circle of about 1,000 km that is in Western and Eastern Europe.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.