Orbán’s Rhetoric: An Exchange

The following letter from Réka Szemerkényi, the Hungarian Ambassador to the United States, responds to Jan-Werner Müller’s “Hungary: ‘Sorry About Our Prime Minister,'” published October 14, 2015.

To the Editors:

Jan-Werner Müller paints a rather distorted picture of Hungary. While everyone is free in their particular selection of quotes and personal interpretations, factual correctness is not a matter of choice. The article unfortunately grossly misrepresents Hungary’s positions throughout the migration crisis. This is why it is my responsibility to call your and your readers’ attention to some basic facts.

Viktor Orbán Vienna.jpg
Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Vienna, September 25, 2015

The facts are that Hungary is the first border country of the EU facing the huge challenges of the massive migration pressure to have made a serious effort to strictly observe the European agreements, and to live up to the common European interests, while at the same time developing a comprehensive proposal to find international solutions. These are no small achievements.

The article correctly points out that Hungarian society responded with compassion, while at the same Hungary has from the beginning of this crisis advocated for answers addressing the root causes to the crisis, aiding and stabilizing the source countries and eliminating conditions that lead to the mass exodus.

Prime Minister Orbán’s rhetoric on immigration might not be popular with some commentators, but he bluntly states a simple truth: there is no democratic mandate to open our countries to such an extraordinary large influx of immigrants. Europe’s track record on integrating large immigrant populations has been mixed at best. Keeping in mind that the capacity of our democracies to integrate these people without harming social cohesion has its limits is a morally tenable—and correct—position. This political reality is becoming more and more clear to many others in Europe. The fact that, as Mr. Müller notes, Hungary’s position is increasingly being seen in Europe as in defense of Europe and European values themselves speaks to the validity of the fundamentals of Hungary’s position, even if this disturbs the author.

Mr. Müller’s efforts to paint Fidesz as a group of ideological hardliners feels like he using Hungary as a proxy to fight domestic ideological battles. The fact is the governing Fidesz party is center right, encompassing views from liberal-conservatives to traditionalists. Selective quotes will not hide the fact that the Hungarian government’s commitment to traditional European values are well within the mainstream of European politics.

Contrary to the alarmist fantasies presented by Mr. Müller Hungary is a medium size, ordinary European democracy facing extraordinary challenges. As the billboards Mr. Müller’s article (“Sorry About Our Prime Minister”) alludes to have shown, Hungary has a vibrant and pluralistic public space for political debate.

Dr. Réka Szemerkényi
Ambassador of Hungary to the United States

Jan-Werner Müller replies:

Ambassador Szemerkényi claims that my piece contains factual errors, but then fails to identify any. Instead, she attributes an argument to me that I did not make: I did not say that many Europeans think that Viktor Orbán is defending “European values,” only that they see him as acting decisively. Fortunately, most Europeans remain unlikely to associate their values with a man who initiates xenophobic poster campaigns, toys with the idea of re-introducing the death penalty, harasses NGOs, and attacks “activists” helping refugees—including, most recently, the investor and philanthropist George Soros, whom the Hungarian prime minister accused of seeking to undermine nation-states and the “traditional European lifestyle.”

It is such policies and statements from the very top that justify treating the Orbán government as de facto belonging to the far right; that his Fidesz party also contains moderate members, as stressed by Ambassador Szemerkényi, does not change this. Like many Hungarian state officials, she insinuates that criticism of the government she serves is motivated by party politics; the fact is that many highly respected non-partisan organizations, from the European Commission to the OSCE and the Council of Europe’s Commission for Democracy through Law (“Venice Commission”), have raised the alarm about Hungary’s move away from liberal democracy (without going so far as Senator John McCain—hardly a man of the left—who called Orbán a “neo-fascist dictator”).

Finally, as my piece explained, Orbán’s support has grown (although those opting for “don’t know/won’t vote” in polls far outnumber citizens intending to vote for Fidesz). But it is much more debatable to assert a “democratic mandate” against immigration under circumstances where the government has waged a relentless campaign to portray all refugees as economic parasites spreading terror and disease and as by definition incapable of sharing our “values,” while at the same time never properly disclosing the results of the manipulative consultation on “Immigration and Terrorism”; and where the country’s “press status” receives a shockingly low score of “partly free” from Freedom House. In any case, “immigration” is a misleading description of the issue. As recently shown by Amnesty International, Hungary is failing to fulfill its basic obligations to asylum seekers under international law.