Over the past month, Hungary has regularly been in the spotlight of the European media and on the agenda of high-profile talks, in-between Greece and the issue of treaty change. A new wave of criticism from Brussels and Strasbourg has come this week as the Hungarian parliament is passing amendments to asylum and immigration legislation.
The EU is fundamentally divided and paralysed on the issue: no later than the end of June, the last attempt at a European Council meeting to reach a consensus on immigration quotas and other solutions failed. In these circumstances, Hungary where a third of all asylum seekers in the EU have been registered this year has to act on its own, aiming to curb a huge influx.
Building a wall
If there were no Greece, Hungary would grab everyone’s attention at European gatherings. Since early June, the country has been introducing dubious solutions in order to put massive immigration under control. Initially, they were rather local and unknown to the wider international audience, especially, as some analysts suggest, the initiatives from the very beginning were targeting domestic consumers: the ruling Fidesz party wants to regain popularity and therefore uses the ideas of the right-wing Jobbik party.
The government spent 300m forints (almost €1m) on the “When you come to Hungary” campaign that saw billboards, calling on immigrants to respect local laws and culture and not to take jobs from the local population.
However, the major events unfolded between 17 and 24 June. First, the government announced it would build a 175-kilometer-long and 4-meter-high wall on the border with Serbia. A week later the news appeared saying Hungary were about to leave the Dublin Resolution immediately. The next day the statement was corrected to say that the country would respect European treaties but refuse to accept asylum seekers back from other countries due to “technical reasons” .
The government and Fidesz have constructed several lines of argument. First, while quoting national and European statistics, ministers say that the influx of immigrants have exceeded all available national resources. The police caught 61,457 illegal immigrants this year as of 23 June. Fidesz’s first deputy chairman Lajos Kosa noted in an interview that the number of asylum seekers rose from 2,500 to 50,000 people . Hungary argues that the wall will reduce the number of illegal border crossings and vows immigrants to be returned to Greece, instead.
Second, ministers draw historical parallels. They point out walls in other countries, including Spain, Bulgaria, Greece, and the US.
Third, politicians and authorities blame lack of resources to register, accommodate and integrate such a huge number of immigrants. Only in June, while debating the state budget, the question of funding for the immigration service was raised four times.
It is the word “Megtelt” (“full”) which is frequently mentioned along with a “boat” and a “country” when politicians talk about immigration. Web users take up these expressions to create humorous banners.
Now the government and Fidesz have support of Jobbik, the third biggest faction in parliament, and the Hungarian Liberal Party. They have also found sympathisers in other countries, including the Northern League in Italy and the Freedom Party and Team Stronach in Austria. Ruling parties across Europe, though not so directly, have also voiced their sympathies and called for more decisive measures.
Breaking a wall
Not everyone in Hungary and beyond has been convinced by the arguments the Hungarian government laid out. Historical parallels were part of the reaction. “A new Iron Curtain,” wrote opposition daily Origo . Serbia also protested.
The reaction came through political, diplomatic and social channels. The Hungarian press still guesses who called Prime Minister Viktor Orban between 23 and 24 June to make the statement on Dublin III corrected. German chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commision President Jean-Claude Juncker are seen as the most authoritative to have done this.
In some countries (like Austria and Slovenia), ministries or governments issued official statements, condemning unilateral steps on international agreements.
In Hungary, parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition stood against the plans. Together 2014 and Democratic Coalition said that the measures would expand distance between the country and its European partners. Tibor Sanyi MEP, from the Hungarian Socialist Party, even suggested that this was done in the interest of Russian President Vladimir Putin .
The most interesting reaction, however, ensued among Hungarian activists. In early June, they were angered by ‘intrusive’ and ‘discriminatory’ anti-immigration advertising. They even painted out parts or the entire surface of billboards. A number of these incidents was so high that authorities had to react. Deputy Home Minister Karoly Kontrat, while speaking in parliament about immigration, paid specific attention to vandalism and promised prosecution to those involved.
Numerous posters, circulating on the web, were the most vivid form of reaction. Moreover, the idea grew beyond the immigration issue and became a tool of political struggle and a clue for the hospitality sector. Opposition used these posters to attack the government while the hospitality sector used them as a humorous guide to local habits.
First, there were alternative versions of the “When you come to Hungary” campaign, including “don’t leave your drinks unattended” or “don’t forget that there is no one else rooted here but Orban and his government”. Then, activists and opposition mocked the idea of a wall. They usually played with the Hungarian proverb about ‘sausage wall’ (as an example of wealth).
In November 2014, the 1989 film by Danish director Anders Østergaard was released in 15 European countries simultaneously. It tells the story of how the Iron Curtain began to crumble in Hungary. But behind the obvious narrative of people’s lives and political decisions weighed against the epic events, there is a swift-passing mention of a difficult immigration situation. Then, Hungary was unable to handle an influx of tens of thousands of Romanians and East Germans who left their countries. So opening border in 1989 was the solution not to abstract global questions but to specific social ones.
Twenty five years later, Hungary again faces a comparable scale of immigration. Though, the situation is opposite. In 1989, people rushed to the Hungarian border of the Warsaw pact to get out. In 2015, they rush to the Hungarian border to get to the European Union. In 1989, Hungary had to keep people inside. In 2015, Hungary is seen by many as a fortress that keeps people outside.
Geopolitical contradictions, historical parallels, domestic political struggle and popular creative efforts have all intertwined in today’s Hungary. But now the country has a new role that dictates new tasks. There is no cold-war balance of power anymore and so it cannot be changed with open borders. Unlike in 1989, tens or hundreds of thousands of immigrants will not change the quality of life outside the EU for the better and will not bring stability and unity within. In some sense, Hungary and the EU are today in the position of the late Warsaw pact and have to think not about spreading their values beyond but about preserving their way of life within the borders.