In the annals of European history, 2015 will go down as the inception of a new era. It marked the end of an age when we could take Europe’s secure and sheltered status for granted, assured in the knowledge that it was all up to Europe and no one else. More than a year and a half has passed since I first warned of the danger posed by a potential new wave of mass migration. Today, that mass migration is an accomplished fact, one that no sane person would dispute.
Why were we, Hungarians — or, rather, East Central Europeans — the first to recognize this threat? Several possibly concurrent explanations are conceivable. Perhaps it had to do with the tempestuous times we lived through, the shock waves of historic turmoil, the toil and struggle that followed the democratic turn of history in 1990. Our Western partners experienced the last 50 to 60 years very differently. There, it was all about success, prosperity, a predictable future, well-trodden paths to a better life. To us, all that seems like a fantasy world where ideology mingles with illusion and reality, the boundaries become blurred between nation and nation, culture and culture, man and woman, the sacred and the profane, freedom and responsibility, noble intentions and actual action.
That compels us to recognize that the second and third decades of the 21st century will be defined by the mass migration of peoples. Until recently we thought such things could happen only in times gone by and were relegated to history books. We would not face the impending danger of an unprecedented mass of people — greater than the total population of some European countries — setting out for our continent in the coming years. Now that danger is upon us.
Parallel societies have been rearing their heads in several European countries — displacing the world we know as ours, the one we hope to pass to our children and grandchildren. Not all of those who come here intend to accept our ways of life. Some see their own customs and worldview as more valuable, stronger, and more viable. But these are of little use to us as we struggle to replenish the work force that is now abandoning the manufacturing plants of Western Europe — for generations, the unemployment rate among residents not born in Europe has many times higher than that among natives. In most cases, the nations of Europe have failed to integrate even the masses that have gradually poured in from Asia and Africa over the course of several decades. How can we now expect countries to integrate migrants quickly, with large numbers arriving all at once?
Ordinary Europeans know this well enough. In the past year, the Hungarian government commissioned a public-opinion poll encompassing 28 member states of the European Union. It revealed that more than 60 percent of Europeans have no doubt whatsoever that a direct correlation exists between the escalation of terrorism, higher crime rates, and migration. By the same token, 63 percent believe that migration transforms the culture of the host country. Illegal migration presents a threat, facilitates terrorism, and boosts crime. It repaints Europe’s cultural face, brushing over national cultures on a massive scale.
But a glance at the documents issued by the European Union on the subject establishes that while it urges measures to deal with illegal migration, it has no idea what it wants to achieve.
Is the goal, as I would like to believe, to put a stop to illegal migration by halting uncontrolled entry? Or is it, as the European Commission would have it, merely to slow the migration process? For myself, I want to stop it altogether because it’s a bad thing. If all the EU wants is to slow migration, they cannot possibly regard it as a bad thing in itself. The Commission seems to support the notion that migration is harmful only in its present form and may even have some benefits.
More than 60 percent of Europeans have no doubt whatsoever that a direct correlation exists between the escalation of terrorism, higher crime rates, and migration.
And in fact, EU documents have time and again suggested that accepting high migration levels could solve Europe’s demographic problems. Currently Hungary is evaluating a package of measures comprising seven elements published by the Commission in May and July 2016. These proposals failed to make the vital distinction between genuine asylum seekers and migrants with economic motivations. Hungary respects its commitments to provide shelter for genuine asylum seekers but insists that member states are free to decide whether they want to address their demographic or labor-market shortages with migration.
How, therefore, does Hungary propose to deal with this crisis? What principles should guide us?
The Call — and the Right — to Protect Our Culture
There is no escape from protecting our external borders. This is a binding obligation for every country in the Schengen Area — a territory established in 1985 (though it became functional only in 1995) in which internal border checks have been largely abolished. If a country is incapable of fulfilling this obligation, it must relinquish it to the others. If it refuses to do so — which it may as a matter of sovereign right — then it must accept having its membership in Schengen suspended.
Next, we must take action to ensure that all illegal migrants are promptly returned to their home country or, if that is unsafe, to one of the safe-transit countries. No development or visa policy benefit should be extended to a country that fails to comply with rules for the protection of Hungary’s citizens. In other words, Europe’s development and visa policies toward countries outside it should not be unconditional but attached to positive conditions.
Yet we cannot begin to protect our citizens unless we know precisely who wants to enter the country and why. We are entitled to choose the people with whom we want to live and say no to those with whom we do not want to live. This discretionary principle is not in conflict with the universal principle of protecting refugees. We accept that principle, but we must make it clear, first, that we do not want terrorists among us and, second, that we have a right to handle any demographic crisis as we see fit. And, finally, legal immigration is subject to certain shared rules, but the issue ultimately is one of national competence and discretion, because the situation of each member state is unique. Here in Hungary, for instance, we struggle to integrate hundreds of thousands of Roma citizens into the labor market. No fewer than 13 recognized minorities send delegate spokespersons to Hungary’s National Assembly. The Catholic cathedral in Budapest is just a stone’s throw away from the impressive building of the city’s main synagogue. Several generations have been raised in this cultural milieu, but they were free to fashion their own vision of society, rather than obeying instructions handed down from a remote, faceless institution.
For us, the challenge of mass migration equals a call to protect our culture, because we are a small country, by American standards, and because this is what our traditions require us to do. Hungary’s cultural homogeneity — and I deliberately say cultural rather than ethnic homogeneity — the sense that our culture is essentially cut from the same cloth, with the diversity of patterns subsumed in a greater unity, will serve us well in the future.
Hungary may not be counted among the larger EU member states, but owing to its geographical situation, it has more than once acted as a conduit of historic change. In 1989, Germany and Hungary made European history together when we opened our Western borders to East Germans seeking asylum from Communism via Austria. In 2015, Germany and Hungary again entered the limelight of a European debate. Each day that summer saw the arrival at the Hungarian–Serbian border of more than 10,000 migrants. They flouted European regulations, which required them to claim asylum in the member state in which they first arrived, but they had already entered and then passed through another member state of the Schengen Area. Responsibility for ensuring controlled crossing rests with those states on an EU external border, so we had no choice but to erect a physical barrier.
Why Reinforced Borders Are Necessary and Humane
Early in the fall of 2015, we built a fence on the external green border of the Schengen Area. We did this to protect one of the greatest achievements of Europe: the freedom of movement of the common internal market. Protecting a border is not a nice thing. It is not a matter of aesthetics; it cannot be done with flowers and teddy bears. For Germany and other centrally located countries, the external border lies at a remove of several hundred kilometers. These centrally situated countries placed their trust in member states on the periphery, relying on them to carry out the task at hand. By doing so, we safeguarded the lifestyle, economic model, and safety so dearly cherished by Europeans.
Protecting a border is not a nice thing. It is not a matter of aesthetics; it cannot be done with flowers and teddy bears.
Let me add something that may surprise you: Hungary’s was the fifth fence of its kind to be built in the territory of the European Union.
Today we have arrived at a consensus on the protection of external borders, and we’ve greatly narrowed the gaps in our views on related issues. One of them is the need for measures to counteract the root causes of migration. We have agreed that it’s best for people needing our help to receive it as close to their homeland as possible. Cooperation with countries of origin and transit has improved greatly. To the best of our abilities, we have increased humanitarian and financial aid. Nobody has reason to feel let down by Hungary.
Unfortunately, a mass migration is never peaceful. When large masses of people set out in search of a new home, conflicts inevitably ensue, because others have already settled the place they want to settle. Those earlier settlers will want to defend their home, their culture, and their way of life. It is not impossible to put the brakes on mass migration. Europe is a 500-million-strong community in possession of a strong-enough economy and sufficiently advanced technology to defend itself. Yes, we make a distinction between individual migrants and the phenomenon of migration. The individual migrant — barring terrorists — tends to be a victim more than anything else. He is an individual victimized by misfortune, increasing hardship in his home country, bad local governance, our own policies that entice migration, and immigrant smugglers. On the other hand, migration in its entirety is killing us. And migration manifests itself in a multitude of individual migrants.
This is why we have a duty — sympathize as we may with individuals whom we see as victims — to stop them at our reinforced borders and to make it clear that those crossing illegally will be jailed in Hungary or legally deported from the country. All things considered, defending our borders by building a fence to keep out people is a necessity. There is no more-humane alternative when it comes to protecting ourselves. We must act humanely, within the law, while honoring transparency, but with firm resolve.
After all, the migrants are hardly the ones to blame for this. All they are doing is acting in what they think is their own best interest. The problem is that we Europeans will not do what would best serve our own interests. The institutions in Brussels have put their faith mainly in a single instrument with which to solve the migration crisis: a mandatory quota system for resettling migrants among member states. Hungary has strongly opposed this scheme.
Our approach is grounded in the realities of migration: First, until we gain control of our borders, any scheme of distributing migrants will only send a dangerous message of encouragement and invitation to those outside hoping to enter. And Europe still lacks consistent and coherent legislation to regulate mass migration. Second, mandatory settlement by quotas will remain impossible as long as the human smugglers or the migrants are free to pick their ultimate destination country. Third, this message will trigger a wave of millions of economic migrants. But better standards of living cannot be regarded as a fundamental right, no matter how ardently we may wish to provide those standards to everyone.
What is happening in Brussels today is sheer absurdity — there is no better word for it. It is as if the captain of a ship heading for a collision busied himself by designating nonsmoking lifeboats instead of steering clear of the obstacle, or as if we were debating how much water we should let pour into each cabin instead of mending the breach.
Unelected Brussels Bureaucrats vs. The People
That Brussels is incapable of organizing the ranks of defense for Europe is bad news; that it has no intention of doing so is worse still. In Budapest, Warsaw, Prague, and Bratislava, we find it difficult to comprehend how we have ended up in a position where we are supposed to allow anyone from another continent and culture to enter without any measure of control. How was it possible for the natural, indeed elemental, instinct to defend ourselves, our families, our homes, and our lands to atrophy in our civilization? Yet, apparently, it has done so.
And we discovered this fact in 2015 when everything changed overnight. We awoke one morning to voices clamoring for Willkommenskultur, to demands that we must change all the previous rules and agreements to make good on the promise of refuge. The leaders of Europe keep telling us that we must help. From the highest echelons of power, we are being entreated to open our homes in the name of solidarity.
If we hesitate to do so, we cannot be accused of callousness. We have learned the principal law of assistance: If we help them where we are, they will flock here; if we help them where they are, they will stay at home, in their native land.
Instead of recognizing this truth, Brussels encouraged people living in some of the most impoverished and troubled parts of the planet to come to Europe, trading the life they knew for something better. How could this have happened? I am convinced that in Brussels and a few other European capitals, the political and intellectual elites are pitted against most of the people, who still nourish patriotic and commonsense sympathies. Indeed, as far as I can see, the leading politicians are well aware that this division exists. If that is so, it means that the real problem is not on the outside but inside Europe. The main threat to the future of Europe is not those who want to come here to live but our own political, economic, and intellectual elites bent on transforming Europe against the clear will of the European people.
The main threat to the future of Europe is not those who want to come here to live but our own political, economic, and intellectual elites bent on transforming Europe against the clear will of the European people.
Indeed, it is plain to see that on this issue, the European Union is divided into two camps: unionists and sovereignists. The unionists call for a United States of Europe and mandatory quotas, while the sovereignists desire a Europe of free and sovereign nations and will not hear of quotas of any kind. That is how the mandatory migrant quota has come to encapsulate and symbolize our era. It is an important issue in and of itself, but it also possesses symbolic significance as the distilled essence of everything we find undesirable and disruptive among the nations of Europe. We cannot allow Brussels to put itself above the law. We cannot allow it to shift the consequences of its own policy onto those who have abided (as we have) by each and every treaty and piece of legislation.
Yet it is becoming obvious that Hungary is being penalized. Our critics inside and outside European institutions seek to construe our actions as foreign to European politics — including our constitutional affirmation of Christian roots, our demographic policy, and our efforts to unify our nation scattered across borders. At the same time, nobody can rule out the possibility that in the years to come, the mainstream will follow precisely the course that Hungary has set forth.
What we see in Europe today certainly does not exclude that possibility. The Berlin massacre at the Christmas market; the terrorist attacks in France; the hundreds of migrants starting to march from Belgrade toward Hungary; Brexit: All these suggest a very complex future. Add to this the election of Donald Trump as America’s president. The surface manifestations are illegal migration, terrorism, and uncertainty. But where do they all come from?
Until recently, young people in Germany, France, Britain, and Belgium were told that if they finished school, respected the law, honored their parents, and worked hard, they would achieve more and have a better life than their parents had. This was the prospect that sustained the allure of the great European dream that the European Union is an attempt to realize. In Hungary, this prospect was nonexistent between 1945 and 1990, at most a distant dream; but it was regarded as a given, even a commonplace, in the European Union and the United States.
Today, if you promise the same things to a European youth, your message will fall on deaf ears at best. More likely, it will be ridiculed.
The leaders of our societies are also suffering from this loss of morale. Indeed, the symptoms I have described go hand in hand with an unspoken but manifest crisis of the European elite. In Western Europe, the center Right (the Christian Democrats) and the center Left have taken turns at the helm of Europe for the past 50 to 60 years. But increasingly, they have offered the same programs and thus a diminishing arena of political choice. The leaders of Europe always seem to emerge from the same elite, the same general frame of mind, the same schools, and the same institutions that rear generation after generation of politicians to this day. They take turns implementing the same policies. Now that their assurance has been called into question by the economic meltdown, however, an economic crisis has quickly turned into the crisis of the elite.
More important, this crisis of the elite — sprouted from the economic crisis — has now become a crisis of democracy itself. Large masses of people today want something radically different from what traditional elites want. This is the deep cause of the restlessness, anxiety, and tension erupting on the surface time and again in the wake of a terrorist attack or some other act of violence, or when we confront a seemingly unstoppable tidal wave of migration. We grow ever more apprehensive, because we feel that what happens today in Nice, Munich, or Berlin can happen in virtually any other corner of Europe tomorrow.
The uncertainty and fear that characterize the European psyche today kill the soul. Fear forces everyone — countries, people, families, the actors in the economy — to curl up like a hedgehog in a defensive position. He who lives in fear will not undertake great things but retreat into defense. Faced with crises, he will decide that nothing much can be done about them or, worse, that they are not real crises. This attitude will not help Europe reclaim its leading role. Great feats require a generous soul, an open mind, and a big heart, the readiness to absorb all knowledge and remain open to new ideas, as well as cooperation and trust. If you have those things, you will be able to accomplish great things, as we attempted recently when we spiritually unified the Hungarian nation across the borders or when we restored to health the Hungarian economy in record time to make up for the inertia of the last 50 years.
President Trump has not yet had the chance to show his true mettle. We wish him well. Although new to the international political arena, he recently made three proposals to curb terrorism that addressed it realistically and in a problem-solving way. He said, first of all, that America needs to create the best secret service in the world as a precondition for everything else. I agree. In Europe, too, our national-level secret services must be capable of world-class performance in their field, and the cooperation among them must facilitate that. This is paramount for our security.
His second imperative was to abandon the policy of exporting democracy as if it were soap or a cell phone, usable in all markets with no side effects. Again, I agree. Consider: Why are all these migrants from Africa crossing the Mediterranean even as we speak? They are arriving here because Europeans (and later the Western world under the umbrella of the U.N.) managed to shatter the Libyan regime. It was an anti-democratic regime, to be sure, but an extremely stable one that maintained border protections. We helped destroy it, but we did little to establish a new government capable of stabilizing the country. It was the same story with Syria and the same again with Iraq. If we carry on with similar attempts to export democracy, we will end up destabilizing regions where we should be fortifying what little stability there is; and thus we’ll bring on a never-ending influx of migrants.
Trump’s third point follows on from that: the necessity of reinforcing borders. What we see today is that the greatest pressure on the European continent will come from Africa. Today it is Syria and Libya, but we need to brace ourselves for the migrant pressure that will soon come from below Libya. Let me quote a few figures that give us an idea of the magnitude of the population growth in the next 20 years or so. The population of Egypt will have increased from 90 million to 138 million by 2050; Nigeria’s, from 186 million to 390 million; Uganda’s, from 38 million to 93 million; Ethiopia’s, from 102 million to 228 million. Extrapolating from present trends to make predictions is always problematic, but we have nothing better than our current knowledge to rely on in preparing for the future.
Trump’s proposals at least acknowledge such threats and propose solutions to them. Europe by contrast has avoided dealing realistically with threats; instead, it crafts policies that concentrate on formulating “European solutions” that solve nothing.
We must now reconsider all political actions and proposals that seek to transfer powers from nation-states to Brussels.
In light of Europe’s non-solutions, curbing national sovereignty would be a very grave danger. There are threats against which Brussels is powerless, against which we can defend ourselves only as individual, sovereign nations. We weaken ourselves when we hand those problems over to the EU. So we must now reconsider all political actions and proposals that seek to transfer powers from nation-states to Brussels.
For decades, the mainstream answer to European problems was “more Europe.” We have to recognize, however, that there are areas where we need more Europe and areas where we need less Europe. We need more Europe when common action at a European level — such as on security and defense — can help member states attain their national objectives. And there can be areas where we need less Europe, less red tape, and fewer regulatory burdens, to allow the member states to flourish through competition.
Europeans, both as people and as peoples, can do many things that “Europe” cannot. A European Union that recognizes this truth and allows a variety of national solutions will find that its problems shrink mysteriously while its back is turned.
A longer version of this article appears at the Hungarian Review online.
— Viktor Orban is the prime minister of Hungary.