Hungary Games: How right-wing parties are playing with EU and migration crisis

By Aistė Pagirėnaitė & Aleksandra Elfacheva

As soon as we got off from a rattling bus, we were welcomed with suspicious looks from some youngsters sitting on the bench next to the bus station. “Excuse me, do you know where is the Mayor‘s office?” We tried to find out where to go, but our question was answered with shaking heads. As we realized that probably no-one around speaks English and we have to find out our way ourselves, we had a short glimpse of the town. On a moody winter day it looked spooky: empty streets, countryside’s silence and a lonely bicycle left in front of the only café around.

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Deserted street of Ásotthalom, a small Hungarian town close to Hungary-Serbia border


That was our first impression of Ásotthalom, a small city next to the border between Hungary and Serbia with 4.000 inhabitants. Now a calm town, just a few months ago it looked very different, according to its mayor László Toroczkai.

“More than 100.000 illegal immigrants went across Ásotthalom this year. Some of them were real refugees – we saw families, but others were groups of adult men who broke into houses and stole cars and bicycles. <…> I am sure, if illegal migration had continued, there would have been more and more violence here.”

Toroczkai became the mayor of Ásotthalom in 2013 with 71,5% of the votes. Before leading this small town, Toroczkai was a far-right activist, a founder of the 64 Counties Youth Movement, which advocates for the unification of all ethnic Hungarians that live outside of Hungary. He gathered international media attention this year, when his two anti-immigrant videos were released in the Internet. The message of the first video, which reminds more of an action movie trailer, is very clear: “If you are an illegal migrant and you want to get to Germany, <…> Hungary is a bad choice. Ásotthalom is the worst,” says the mayor at the end of the video.

“Criminals were working in our streets. I could see them from my office windows. Migrants were giving money to human traffickers, to mafia, and mafia took them to Austria,” the mayor recalls the situation in August.

In September Hungary built a border barrier with Serbia, and later, in October, a border with Croatia, which stopped migrants from going through the country to Western Europe.

“The border fence was my idea, first time I introduced it to the international media in Hungary. We do not have a natural border. So a lot of terrorists and criminals who are mixed with refugees could come,” says Toroczkai.

Now migrant flow is no longer a problem for Ásotthalom, although several hundred migrants have tried to cut the razor fence and get through it since it was built. But most of them were captured by the police and put on trial in Szeged, a city close to Serbian border. Even though Hungary did not put them directly to jail, some of the migrants still ended up there since Serbian authorities did not want to take them back.

A good distraction

This small town’s image and its far right-wing mayor is just a part of a bigger puzzle which Hungarian right-wing parties are assembling by using the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks. Speaking just over a week after the terrorists went on the rampage in Paris killing 130 people in a wave of shootings and suicide bombings, the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán claimed that uncontrolled migration into Europe presented a security threat “because we don’t know who they are.” In an interview with Politico, Orbán said: “The factual point is that all the terrorists are basically migrants. The question is when they migrated to the European Union.”

Victor Orbán, who became the Prime Minister again in 2010 (he also had this position from 1998 till 2002), has been a very important political figure in Hungary for years. Orbán is the president of the national conservative ruling party Fidesz, which used to have a two-thirds supermajority of the seats in the Parliament of Hungary in both the 2010 and the 2014. But after a 2015 by-election, the party lost its two-thirds supermajority while still retaining a simple majority.

Victor Orbán started to lose his popularity because of the corruption scandals, which even led the US to ban six senior Hungarian officials from entering the country, and the proposition of tax on internet data traffic, which caused mass protests in the country. Therefore, the Hungarian Prime Minister needed something to divert public attention from corruption and economic problems which have led to a huge wave of emigration, and the migrant crisis turned out to be a perfect distraction.

“These are very simple populist techniques of Victor Orbán. He always needs an enemy. This is a classical method: you have an enemy, you are in danger, but there is a savior who comes to help you. And you can write a fantastic drama based on this triangle, Shakespeare used it. But you can also write cheap books based on this. And Orbán is using this strategy,” says Péter Balázs, used-to-be Minister of Foreign Affairs in Hungary and former European Commissioner.

This summer Orbán’s government placed huge billboards with anti-immigrant slogans: “If you come to Hungary, don’t take the jobs of Hungarians!” But all the posters were written in Hungarian, migrants could not understand them. So basically, these posters were meant for Hungarians – to create an impression of the government acting, says Balázs.

“Fidesz is a populist party and they have one single objective – to keep the power. Instead of educating the people, guiding them, taking up some conflicts, saying that you cannot be a xenophobic person – you have to understand the situation of refugees, Fidesz is serving the worst instincts of the people,” concludes Balázs.

Going far-right direction

In order to keep the power Fidesz needed some new rhetoric and going far-right was a good option from Orbán’s point of view.

“Victor Orbán has proposed more radical elements in his rhetoric. <…> He has had a choice either to reposition his party more to the middle and to the left, attracting former socialist voters, but he has already done it [when social-liberal coalition collapsed in 2008]. So now he has no more place for maneuver, which makes him move more to the right side,” says Botond Feledy, foreign policy expert.

And Fidesz has easily found its inspiration source – Jobbik. This is a euro-skeptic Hungarian political power which presents itself as an opposition to old-fashioned parties, although experts say that its rhetoric is far away from modern one and reminds of the Second World War fascist movements’ ideas. During Hungarian parliamentary elections in 2014, Jobbik polled more than 1 million votes, securing 20.54% of the total, which made it third largest party in the National Assembly. Often called as a xenophobic and radical party in western media, Jobbik has been getting more and more popular in Hungary.

Political scientist Péter Krekó sees several reasons of Jobbik’s growing popularity. According to Jobbik’s interpretation, Romani people are not civilized and commit crimes more often than the rest of the population. This myth of a “gypsy crime” sticks up to the public quite well since Hungary is facing crisis with Romani people integration. Another reason for party’s popularity is their image of a moderate party, which is quite easy to create because Jobbik has not been in the government yet, that’s why they are in a good position to sell anti-corruption ideas to the voters.

“Not all of the Jobbik voters are racist and chauvinistic. There is also a wide range of them who are dissatisfied with traditional political parties and want some change,” explains Krekó.

Jobbik took a very clear anti-immigrant position during the refugee crisis, introducing a border fence as a solution to stop the migrants flow.

“It is quite clear that there is a direct link between immigration and terrorism and security risks. And there are long-term consequences: social, ethnic, financial and economic tensions,” says Márton Gyöngyösi, Jobbik’s foreign policy spokesman.

Although it may seem that such a position is supposed to attract more of right-wing voters for Jobbik – that was not what happened.

“In the last few months we can rather see a decline of Jobbik’s popularity. It is a consequence of a very harsh law-and-order and xenophobic campaign that the government is running against refugees. Practically, they take the wind out of sails from Jobbik. Jobbik cannot compete with Orbán because he is so harsh on this topic,” says Krekó.

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“Jobbik could not increase its populatity since the start of the refugee crisis. Why? Because Orbán kidnapped the whole anti-immigrant topic. So Orbán and Fidesz have incresed, covering part of Jobbik’s electorate,” says Péter Balázs, former EU Commissioner and used-to-be Minister of Foreign Affairs in Hungary


Victor Orbán used rhetoric of Muslim majority in the country, threat of lost identity and culture, although the majority of migrants did not even plan to stay in Hungary – they used it just as a path to Western Europe.

So why did this kind of an anti-refugee and anti-immigrant attitude work so well with Hungarian voters?

“The footage of migrants living in Budapest train station was largely put on media. That was the moment when anti-immigrant attitude was created, and the fence was the reaction. Seeing hundreds of migrants walking on the busiest highway to Vienna made it easy for politicians to legitimize their decisions,” explains Feledy. “But concrete proposals are missing. There is a proposal of the fence. What is a counter measure? And the problem of socialist parties saying something against the fence is that all of their measures need international support. As long as there is no international support and there will not be, it is a closed circle.”

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“Greece did absolutely nothing, they were going to the shores of Africa and bringing migrants on ships to the shores of Europe. It was completely crazy. Italians fished migrants out of the Mediterranean sea, put them in Sicily and then sent them on trains to the direction of Switzerland, Austria and Germany. This is actual a criminal offense,” says Márton Gyöngyösi, Jobbik’s foreign policy spokesman


The changing image

At the beginning construction of the border fence in Hungary was highly criticized by the western liberal leaders. Since then, Hungary’s example as an effective one, and Victor Orbán’s image as a good leader were gradually growing between right-wing forces in Europe, and has highly grown up after Paris attacks. In November Macedonian soldiers were building Hungarian-style fence at the Greek-Macedonian border, Slovenia began building a razor-wire fence along its frontier with Croatia, and just a few days ago Austria began installing a fence at a border crossing with Slovenia.

“Orbán’s image in Europe is changing. Leaders of Europe no longer debate if Orbán is a dictator, or an autocratic leader, or not. All discussions are diverted from him to migrants, and if he has made a good decision by building the fence. It is already a victory for him. His second victory is that some countries are having the same questions about migrant crisis and the same answers,” says Feledy.

Although South-East European countries openly show their support for Hungary’s anti-immigration policy, Brussels is trying to push Hungary to be more supportive of mainstream EU decisions. Yesterday the European Commission launched an “infringement case” (a European Court of Justice procedure to determine whether a member state has fulfilled its obligations under the Union law) against Hungary over its asylum legislation, which Budapest dismissed as an act of revenge against mandatory migrant quotas.

Not only mandatory quotas, but also the Dublin Regulation is one of the EU measures that Hungary is not supporting. According to the Regulation, the member state responsible for an asylum claim is usually the one through which the asylum seeker first entered the EU. In this case Germany, for example, could send some of the migrants back to Hungary.

But the Hungarian government openly says it would not accept this kind of act.

“As we say, Dublin is dead. It was dragged down by the inconsistency of the other European states, like Germany and other western countries. Hungary believes it cannot work like that: for some time consider that Dublin is suspended or not working, and then suddenly everyone calls for Dublin agreement. <…> We are not going to take responsibility for other states shortcomings,” says Zoltán Kovács, government’s spokesman.

A risky game

Victor Orbán’s government is playing a risky game with the EU while putting its internal politics on Brussels level and not supporting mainstream EU decisions, but at the same time not openly saying that they are against the EU concept. As Kovács puts it:

“The fact that we question some of the EU measures does not mean that we are against the EU or in any way want to worsen our relationships.”

Although it seems to be like that, and experts say that temperature is heating up between the EU and Hungary.

“Orbán is using the EU as a boxing sack full of money. His experience is that the more he hits it, the more money falls out of it. He continues his Brussels bashing freedom right politics, but still he receives all the funds he needs. There is no other advantage of the EU membership for Orbán than the money. He does not like the values of the EU –  he made it quite clear,” says Krekó.

How far may the Hungarian government go with this pushing-to-the-barriers strategy is hard to guess, since the Commission is already trying to take some counter action. Apart from an infringement procedure,the Commission registered a European Citizens’ Initiative calling for a procedure against Hungary over alleged breaches of the EU fundamental values. “Since it came to power in 2010, Viktor Orbán’s government has multiplied measures that are antidemocratic, xenophobic and contrary to founding principles of the rule of law,” the initiative states. The promoters of the initiative need to gather at least a million signatures in at least 7 EU countries in 12 months before the content of the petition can be examined by the Commission.

“The Commission was mistaken about accepting this initiative as receivable. <…> I feel it is a mobilized attack from European left-wing powers. Frankly, I do not think that it will succeed –  legally it has a very weak ground,” says György Schöpflin, Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for Fidesz.

Although the Commission is trying to push Hungary, it might not be enough to really change the government’s position.

“I do not think that the Commission is able to go further. For anything further, substantial and unanimous support from the Member States is needed. And it is not forthcoming. Member States are very careful in taking action against each other: they are much more cautious, much more conservative and much less transparent,” says Tamás Meszerics, MEP from The Greens-European Free Alliance.

Threat to Schengen

Experts say that the worst scenario for Hungary is ending up being isolated. And this is a threat not only for Hungary, but also for other South-East European countries which are dealing with the migration crisis in a similar way.

“I think it would be much wiser for South-East European countries to be more supporting towards mainstream EU solutions. Otherwise these states may face isolation, which means that the Schengen borders may be closed for them, and they may be left out of making important decisions at the European level,” says Krekó.

But isolation and the end of the Schengen Area do not seem to look as a threat to the right-wing parties in Hungary.

“The Schengen is dead. I do not believe in the Schengen anymore. <…> After chaos created in the EU, I think nobody trusts anyone. Even Denmark had stopped trains to Germany for weeks. This basically marks a death for the Schengen Area,” says Gyöngyösi, a Member of the Hungarian Parliament from Jobbik.

If the Schengen falls apart, the whole legitimacy of the EU will be questioned, says Botond Feledy.

“If it happens, a possibility I see is a smaller Schengen zone. <…> States like Holland, Germany, France can form a separate zone, and I am quite sure that Visegrád group [alliance of four Central European states – Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia] would form a certain block among themselves,” he explains.

And it looks that a closer relationship among Visegrád countries is one of the main goals of Fidesz right now. Four states are protecting Hungary’s borders together, and they agreed to create a “Friends of Schengen” group in the EU, which should work together in protecting the outer Schengen border.

“I do not think that we can end up being isolated. The Visegrád countries totally understand our point of view considering mandatory quotas and the protection of the Schengen borders,” says Zsolt Csenger-Zalán, Member of Hungarian Parliament from Fidesz.

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