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26 June 2015

Hungary's Double Migration Crisis Is Also Europe's Problem


Most of the international media coverage of the European Union’s migration crisis concentrates on the flow of African and Middle Eastern people across the Mediterranean to southern Italy or Greece. Dramatic sea-rescues and the tragedy of frequent drowning grab headlines and sympathetic coverage. But through the Balkans another wave of migration into the EU has been gathering pace in 2015. Hungary is the EU’s front-line state whose southern border with Serbia is the point of access to the EU’s Schengen zone for tens of thousands of migrants. The 54,000 or so who have been accepted in Hungary are at least as many per capita as Italy has received so far this year.
 
Unlike the trans-Mediterranean migrant wave from outside Europe, in 2015 Hungary has faced a double wave of migrants from countries far outside Europe but also from close by in the Balkans. The Balkans acts not just as a transit route for extra-European migrants hoping to reach affluent north-west Europe, but Kosovo in particular has become a source of such migrants.
 
Fifteen years after “liberation” from Serbian rule and despite billions in EU aid and the presence of thousands of EU advisers, experts, judges, police-trainers and NGOs of every stripe, Kosovo’s economy is incapable of providing employment and hope to its youth. Kosovo remains an economic basket case with people its only significant export.
 
This year’s sudden surge of Kosovan migrants marching through Serbia into Hungary en route, they hoped, to Austria and Germany is an alarming precedent for the likely long-term outflow of migrants from recent Western humanitarian interventions. Kosovo is a model and warning of what is bubbling up around the EU from Libya via Mali, South Sudan to Syria.
 
Kosovo’s plight is a half-way house between these conflict-ridden societies and the post-Communist societies of Central Europe and the Balkans. The new freedoms to travel at the end of Communism permitted the resumption of the historical pattern of east-to-west migration which was such a feature of European life before the Iron Curtain. But the massive exodus of people from the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria since the fall of the Iron Curtain is also a symptom of the failure of dogmatic market reforms – so-called “shock therapy” – to create enough domestic economic growth to absorb millions of people into jobs in the post-1990 market economies. Ending Communist stagnation was not enough and so emigration westwards resumed once the EU removed remaining barriers.
 
Mass emigration was not seen until very recently in Hungary and the Czech Republic whose pre-Communist economies, indeed their pre-1914 level development gave them a legacy of development not entirely squandered by Communism before 1990. In the past, Hungary’s episodes of mass migration were the result of political crisis – 1849 or 1956 – rather than as a response to economic pressures. Until recently, Hungarians were much less likely to leave their homeland in search of work than Poles or their neighbours to the south-east. Only a cynic could welcome the recent outflow of young Hungarians as a sign that they are catching up with the East European-level of unemployment experienced by so many of their counterparts in Poland or Romania for years already.
 
Unlike the Czech Republic which is at the heart of Europe without a non-EU neighbour, Hungary is on the geopolitical boundary where the two great migration waves of our time meet. Unlike Italy and Greece, Hungary receives little sympathy either from the global media or EU institutions as it faces the dilemmas and costs of dealing with an unprecedented wave of people crossing its borders, usually saying they are seeking asylum, but also generally wanting to use Hungarian territory as a temporary stopover en route to richer, west European members of the EU like Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands or Britain.
 
Despite pro-migration claims that new migrants will compensate Hungary or other eastern EU states for the loss of their own people to the West, in reality Hungary is being asked to pay the costs of large numbers of temporary residents who hope to use the country as a launching pad for a better life in richer countries. A relatively small number of non-European arrivals, like Chinese traders, shopkeepers and chefs, show much inclination to stay and contribute over the long-term. The net cost of its own young citizens’ emigration and thousands of foreign temporary asylum-seekers is negative for Hungary.
 
Although no rational observer of migration would deny that in many societies it has had benefits for the host population as well as the immigrants themselves, there is no case for a net benefit to countries like Hungary of the current double bind of an outflow of citizens with an inflow of people – mainly young men – who would rather go elsewhere and arrive bringing limited skills and commitment.
 
Even if the outflow from Kosovo has diminished in recent weeks, the inflow to Hungary via ex-Yugoslavia remains at a high level. Migrants who present themselves to the sympathetic international media as “refugees” from war in Syria or Iraq or tyranny in Iran or Eritrea are never asked why they insist on passing through safe countries bent on heading further west. But this is a key question for determining whether someone will bring benefit to anew place of residence and a commitment to a host society. Hungary becomes merely a stopover, a watering hole, on the way to western Germany, Holland, Sweden or Britain. But the EU’s own asylum law makes Hungary the place where they have a legal right to claim asylum as the first EU state which they have entered. This gives Hungary an obligation to look after asylum-seekers even though many of them try to go to Germany and Austria who have been sending unwanted new arrivals back to Hungary.
 
Burden-sharing” is the buzz-word in Brussels. The Italian government’s calls for a “Europeanisation” of the response to its migration crisis gets a sympathetic hearing in the international media, if not from the British or Baltic governments for instance. But Hungary’s response to its difficult position as the other major entry point into EU territory receives negative coverage.
 
The “Bad Boy” image of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has flouted EU conventions and challenged long-held Euro-taboos over the last decade, especially in the last year over relations with Russia from the geopolitics of the Ukrainian crisis to seeking energy links with Moscow, means that the government in Budapest is invariably presented in a negative light. Jean-Claude Juncker’s remark in May to his EU colleagues “Here comes the dictator” may have been intended as humorous but it was often reported as fact.
 
Certainly, that remark got much more attention than was paid to Juncker’s fellow Luxembourgers’ decision by a large majority on 7 June 2015, to deny legal foreign residents the right to vote. The exclusion of foreign resident taxpayers who are presumably net-contributors to Luxembourg society despite their country’s Establishment’s unified call for them to do so aroused little interest in the rest of the EU. (Imagine the unified EU response if “reactionary” Hungarians had voted for the same exclusionary policy!) But the referendum showed that even in the EU’s richest and apparently most European-minded society there are limits to the renunciation of sovereignty acceptable to the population. Luxembourgers recognise that a nation is more than an economic community. Membership in it takes a commitment of more than cash. It also takes a willingness to accept and adapt to the norms of the existing society.
 
The pass given to “xenophobia” in some EU societies by the international media which has such a sharp eye on Hungary is typical of what Australian media-watchers call the “beat up”. The “beat up” consists of a simultaneous media onslaught by superficially separate but in practice incestuously interlinked journalists. They form a “hack pack” repeating the same critique in the same words, with their uniformity creating an echo chamber drowning out dissenting opinions or denying their validity on the grounds that “everyone else agrees”.
 
It is an irony of the post-Cold War world that the Western media has seen a decline in pluralism in the coverage of international affairs.[1]Thirty years ago, a British newspaper reader would have received very different “news” from the Soviet bloc depending on whether TheGuardian or TheDaily Telegraph was the source. Nowadays, consensus among the bulk of the small number of foreign correspondents who hunt the “story” in a pack has killed diversity. Mass migration in general and Hungary’s role in the crisis in particular are typical examples of this phenomenon which can be seen by any student of the coverage of Hungary by Euronews, The Economist, CNN, BBC and so on. Their journalists tend to repeat the same “facts” derived from interviews with the same “experts” or opinion polls whose sources are accepted uncritically.[2]
 
This kind of “Group think” in Western journalism, especially the commanding heights of the English-language media, ought to have gone out of fashion after its repetition of the justifications for ill-conceived interventions in Iraq or Libya, for instance. So strong is the consensus among the media professionals who assume that they simultaneously embody objectivity and diversity that doubt about the “official” version rarely penetrates into print or on-air. Even when disaster is evident, the “hack pack” denies its share of responsibility and so prepares the next consensus-based debacle. As Nietzsche noted: memory says I did that, but self-esteem says I could not have done that, and self-esteem always defeats memory – at least among the preening members of the Western media.
 
Of course, the EU establishment reinforces many of these prejudices with its own brand of Europe-wide values from which to dissent is to condemn oneself to ostracism. Although the EU and pan-European media proclaim their love of diversity – symbolised by an instinctive preference for the migrant over the resident[3]in practice their model of diversity is totalitarian. It requires everyone to conform to a single version of diversity, mouthing the same opinions and respecting the same taboos, and turning the same blind eye to the same inconsistencies. For instance, whereas Polish and Baltic nationalisms are celebrated as natural responses to decades of Soviet domination, Hungarian nationalism is invariably presented as sinister, with neo-Nazi tones.
 
The existence of a xenophobic movement like Jobbik facilitates this negative picture of Hungary, but it ignores in the Baltics, for instance, the government-sponsored and EU-funded monuments to Waffen SS collaborators at Silimae in Estonia or the memorials in Latvia. Oddly the controversy in Hungary about how to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust drew more critical coverage in the pan-European media than Baltic commemorations of collaboration with the Nazis.
 
With regard to the new EU states’ approach to border control in the run-up to 2004, unlike Poland and Lithuania, Hungary did not cement its status as future border of the European Union by building a new and high-tech iron curtain separating itself from its neighbours who had not achieved entry into the EU. No doubt, sealing the Trianon borders with states with significant Magyar minorities like Serbia, Ukraine or Romania was not a goal shared by either Fidesz or its political rivals. As one of the few new members to take Brussels’ slogan “Europe Without Borders” seriously, Hungary was exposed without an effectively controlled frontier to the sudden upsurge of migration over the last year. The decision in mid-June to close the open border with Serbia and erect a fence is a necessary but sad step, closing the last door of yesterday’s Open Europe.
 
While the EU as a whole debates taking military measures and intelligence covert action against the trafficking gangs organising the trans-Mediterranean people smuggling operations, Hungary’s decision to erect a border fence on its frontier with Serbia is caricatured as a “new Iron Curtain”. This iconic negative stereotype overlooks the reality that before 1989 the Iron Curtain was there to keep people imprisoned inside Communist states, not to keep them out. Hungary is not planning a “shoot-to-kill” policy, but will the European navies be able to interdict the people smugglers in the Mediterranean without a threat of deadly force?[4]
 
The expensive efforts made by the Fidesz government to integrate Hungary’s long-neglected Roma minority are rarely acknowledged. West European media and NGOs emphasizes the ongoing victimhood of the Roma in Central Europe, but, by ignoring their comparatively poorer fate in Slovakia or Romania, the impression is left that the media is more anxious to bash the “illiberal” Orbán than to understand the problems of integrating the Roma.[5]It is true that post-Communism has not been kind to the Roma in Hungary nor elsewhere in Central Europe or the EU’s two Balkan members. It is not that “real existing socialism” was particularly kind to them. They were more of less forcibly housed and set to work. But the collapse of state socialism after 1989 usually meant that their kind of low-paid, unskilled jobs were the first to lose state subsidy. Property restitution to pre-Communist owners was often rough justice for Roma because they were ejected from the previously confiscated property into which the Communist authorities had placed them. Since 1990, Hungary, along with other New European states has struggled to deal with the problem of homeless and jobless Roma.
 
What NGOs and Eurocrats who simultaneously demand better opportunities for Roma with an open-door to immigration ignore is that it is precisely the low-skilled who lose most from mass immigration of people who, for instance, lack the language skills to get jobs higher up the economic ladder. Britain is often presented as benefiting in an undiluted way from the arrival of well over 1 million Poles since 2004 at the same time as Third World cheap labour was also entering the country as asylum-seekers. But as Oxford’s Paul Collier and the liberal analyst David Goodhart have pointed out, mass immigration has benefited the better-off as services become cheaper, but even if it has boosted overall economic output, the cost of mass immigration is a reduction in the average standard of living and more competition for low-paid work.[6]
 
More poorly-paid people means a poorer society. Before 1914, domestic servants were the largest sector of employment in British society after coal miners. Mining virtually disappeared in the 1990s, but live-in servants and even cleaning ladies had become scarce decades earlier. Importing millions of cheap labourers has not reopened the mines but it has revived the servant class. But didn’t service disappear in capitalist Britain in the twentieth century because economic growth created opportunities for people to escape it and get better jobs? Is it an undiluted cause for celebration, least of all by socially-concerned liberals, that nowadays the bourgeoisie can afford the servants whom their parents had to replace with labour-saving devices?
 
The upper class – perhaps better defined as an Over Class – benefits from an Under Class of ever cheaper labour as mass migration reduces the price of servants, gardeners, car cleaners, even prostitutes.[7]This process alienates the middle section of the population whose standing of living is under pressure from the “race to the bottom” in terms of wages for so many people whose housing costs soar as more people compete for a roof over their heads.
 
The usually complacent political establishment of a rich West European economy like Britain’s has had to respond to public concerns about the impact of mass migration on health and education services but above all on the wages and housing of the poor locals. If that is the case in Britain, surely a relatively poor Central European society like Hungary is more likely to be destabilised by a mass influx than Britain with its historical links to its ex-colonies outside Europe? Should Hungary or Slovakia, the Baltics, etc., really try to solve their demographic problems by importing this British model which is now questioned by some of its former proponents?
 
Belatedly, Britain’s David Cameron has admitted that the brain drain from New Europe to the EU’s heartland is not good for the societies which are supplying so many trained personnel to make up for Britain’s lamentable failure to train nurses or plumbers of its own, or to pay those it has adequately. Ironically, unskilled Britain is de-skilling New Europeans as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond admits, by employing them at lower grades than their education or training back home would warrant because of the language barrier.
 
Meanwhile the emergence of rival poster campaigns in Hungary, one sponsored by the government urging non-citizens on its territory to respect local laws and the other by the UNHCR promoting positive images of migrants is portrayed as evil government propaganda countered by the “international community”. In fact, in Britain the London Underground sports similar posters telling the stories of apparently real recent immigrants contributing to British society as nurses, firemen and so on. These cartoon-like portrayals certainly show part of what Britain or Hungary supposedly gain out of mass migration, but ignore what the source countries lose as their trained health and other professionals leave as well as strains on housing, health services and schools in the new host countries of large numbers of arrivals.
 
Hungary’s double crisis of emigration and migration is an acute case, but this means that it deserves more sympathetic understanding from European media and bureaucrats. What is happening to Hungary is a symptom of profound structural problems facing us all in the EU. But facing similar problems does not mean that there is a single solution which will suit all EU members. Part of Hungary’s difficulty is the obligation to apply rules devised to fit the whole EU which are not appropriate to its frontline status in the migration crisis. Victor Orbán’s government had the courage to depart from the EU consensus when it came to dealing with the financial crisis after 2009, especially the mortgage and credit issue. Whether Fidesz can find the right solution for Hungary’s migration crisis remains to be seen, but Brussels has made enough mistakes of its own to suggest that it would be foolish to blindly accept its claims to know the answer.


[1]The Oxford college head and former editor of The Observer, Will Hutton, has observed, “Europe acts to ensure that television and radio conform to public interest criteria”, which seem to make conformism and pluralism improbably synonymous. See Ed West, The Diversity Illusion (Gibson Square: London, 2013), 62.

[2]Since opinion polls have proven so unreliable in predicting the outcome of recent general elections in Israel, Britain and most recently Denmark, no one should accept their findings unquestioningly.

[3]It is of course laudable when an individual sacrifices his own interests to benefit others, but when a bureaucracy decrees that others should sacrifice their well-being to satisfy its values at no cost to itself then the morality of the transaction is dubious to put it mildly.

[4]Strikingly, the London Guardian chose to emphasise its decision to describe the elected Hungarian government as an “illiberal regime”. See Patrick Kingsley, “Migrants on Hungary’s border fence: ‘This wall, we will not accept it’” in Guardian (22 June 2015): http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/22/migrants-hungary-border-fence-wall-serbia

[5]Having made several studies of Roma life in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia since 1990, I have got used to the nods of approval when listing examples of “white” prejudice or harassment of Roma, but then the bewildered and outraged response of the right-thinking West European liberal to any mention of intra-Roma problems, like sexual harassment by men of women or the widespread removal of teenage girls from school so they can be married off.

[6]See Paul Collier, Exodus (Penguin: London) and David Goodhart, The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration (Atlantic Books: London, 2013).

[7]Flesh becomes a commodity like any other. I recall a British media grandee telling me what he had to pay £250 for under Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s he could now buy for £80!


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