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The EU’s two dimensional approach to Hungary isn’t working

William Walter
December 1, 2023

If Brussels is to succeed in bringing Hungary in from the cold, it must understand the mindset and motivations of its people and the reality on the ground, writes William Walter.

Having recently returned from a visit to Hungary, it’s clear that if Brussels is to successfully reengage with the Orbán-led government then it must move away from its two-dimensional perspective of a populist ‘illiberal democracy’ to one that understands the country’s history and the motivations of its people.

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and his ruling Fidesz Party have been in power for over a decade. In that time, he’s earned a reputation among Western commentators as a populist political schemer hell-bent on stirring his base by fanning the flames of Hungarian nationalism with anti-immigrant rhetoric.

This reputation has been compounded by the war in Ukraine. Rising energy insecurity has seen Orbán foster ties with President Putin by undermining energy sanctions and enhanced defence cooperation aimed at punishing Putin.

Much of this is true, but Viktor Orbán is also a pragmatist. Take immigration, for example. A lot is made of Orbán’s hard line on immigration, including his wranglings with the EU over the financing of fences to protect Europe’s borders. But, for all the rhetoric, Orbán also understands that Hungary needs immigration if its economy is to grow. In 2019 alone Hungary handed out 55,000 residency permits for migrant workers. The rate has increased every year since. And nor is this a new development. In 2002, Orbán himself declared that Hungary needed a one million strong migrant workforce for its economic development. Hungary, like much of the developed world, is experiencing an ageing population coupled with a declining birth rate. The Prime Minister’s Political Director, Balázs Orbán, tells me that: “… increasing the birth rate is a key priority”. He’s confident that their efforts will be successful. To date, however, the birth rate remains stubbornly below the two children per couple threshold required for a sustainable population. 

Orbán is playing a slight of hand not dissimilar to that of the government here in the United Kingdom. Grand gestures, including elaborate border fences -- or in Britain’s case flights to Rwanda -- that play well on the nightly news all the while trying to ensure controlled migration to meet the country’s economic needs.

On energy security, the situation is more complex. The carving up of the Kingdom of Hungary after the First World War was punitive even by the standards of the Treaty of Versailles. The Treaty of Trianon saw Hungary cede over two-thirds of its territory, including its access to the sea. Landlocked, and trapped within the sheltered plains of the Carpathian Basin, Hungary is more limited than most in terms of the sources of energy available to it. Unable to import LNG by sea, Hungary is heavily dependent on Russian gas and more exposed than most should Putin turn off the taps. In my meeting with the country’s State Secretary for Energy, Attila Steiner, he tells me: “we are taking steps to diversify our energy mix, including investing in nuclear and solar energy, but this diversification will take time”.

The energy picture partly explains Hungary dragging its feet in terms of its support for Ukraine and its opposition to Russia’s actions, but there’s more at play here too. As well as ceding much of the country’s territory, the Treaty of Trianon saw thousands of ethnic Hungarians subsumed into neighbouring countries, including Ukraine. Despite this partition, Hungarians still feel a strong affinity to their diaspora communities. Levente Magyar, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, explains that: “…efforts by the [Ukrainian] government to suppress the Hungarian community’s heritage, for example by banning the teaching of lessons in school in their native language, angered many Hungarians”.

The energy picture partly explains Hungary dragging its feet in terms of its support for Ukraine and its opposition to Russia’s actions, but there’s more at play here too. Quote

The Treaty of Trianon and its legacy burns deeply into the national Hungarian psyche. To the allied powers, the Treaty was seen as justification for the central powers’ aggression. But, rightly or wrongly, Hungarians do not see it this way. Many see themselves more as victims of circumstance, dragged into a war they had little interest in fighting. The country’s participation in the Second World War is seen in much the same way. Initially, the country tried to remain neutral, but, again, saw itself enter the war partly due to the country’s geo-political circumstance. A visit to Budapest’s ‘House of Terror’ museum dedicated to the country’s Nazi and Soviet occupations drives this message home.

The Yalta Conference saw Hungary fall under the yoke of the Soviet Union and communism. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is, rightly, a source of enormous national pride to many Hungarians. The uprising, though ultimately unsuccessful, saw their Soviet overlords impose ‘Goulash communism’ – a lighter form of communism that afforded Hungarians greater economic freedom and prosperity than many other members of the USSR.

Speaking to Anna Lakó, International Coordinator at the Center for Fundamental Rights think tank, I’m struck by how Hungarians are deeply proud of their country and heritage. Many look back on its recent history and are haunted at how they perceive their country has been impacted by the wider geo-political tensions at play in Europe. Ultimately, I’m left with a feeling that the country’s recent history makes many more suspicious of the European Union than most, particularly surrounding key issues such as immigration that are paramount to many Hungarians. Brussels must not misunderstand this in the same way that it misunderstood the feelings of the British people in the lead up to the Brexit referendum. The more dogmatic Brussels’ approach to Hungary, the further it will push the Hungarian people away.

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William Walter is the Chairman of Comment Central.

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