American conservatives have fallen in love with Hungary. Pope Francis is less impressed.
Pope Francis will become the third prominent person to pay a visit to Budapest as the summer tourism season fades into fall. His brief stopover on Sept. 12 follows recent tours by conservative pundits Tucker Carlson and Rod Dreher that drew a lot of attention to the goings-on in Hungary—as intended.
But in his meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Francis is not as likely to celebrate the Hungary-first tendencies of Mr. Orban and his ruling Fidesz Party. The views of the pope and the prime minister on the treatment of migrants and refugees are diametrically opposed, but on Sept. 8 Pope Francis tried to diminish expectations of a showdown with Mr. Orban, saying he preferred “not to go around with a script” and that when he is in front of someone, “I look him in the eyes and let things come out.”
A fourth term in office for Mr. Orban had until recently seemed inevitable—he has led Hungary since 2010—but his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and a series of corruption scandals has diminished his appeal among Hungarian voters. Now six opposition parties are cobbling together a coalition to eventually rally around one candidate in an effort to dislodge him from office in national elections in 2022.
In his meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Pope Francis is not as likely to celebrate the Hungary-first tendencies of Mr. Orban and his ruling Fidesz Party.
Pope Francis is scheduled to stop over in Budapest to celebrate the closing Mass for the 2021 Eucharistic Congress and to meet with Mr. Orban and President Janos Ader. Mr. Orban may be hoping for a boost on Sunday after his photo-op with the pope, but the Vatican will likely be keen to play the courtesy call as straight as possible.
A meeting in Budapest
Pope Francis has famously been a promoter of a compassionate policy toward refugees and migrants who have been making their way to Europe to escape Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa conflict zones and pockets of deep poverty. Mr. Orban has been just as famously a fence-builder who walled off his section of Central Europe in 2015. He positions Hungary as a bulwark against migrant waves, arguing that Christian Europe is otherwise threatened to be dissolved in a Muslim flood.
In his visit to Budapest in August, where he broadcast live for a week, Mr. Carlson found mutual sources of anxiety to worry over with Mr. Orban—Europe’s low birth rate, migrants and refugees, globalists and the menace of woke extremism—and he claimed that people are more free to speak their minds in Budapest than in Washington or New York, where political correctness maintains a reign of professional terror. “If you care about Western civilization and democracy and families and the ferocious assault on all three of those things by the leaders of our global institutions, you should know what is happening [in Hungary] right now,” Mr. Carlson told his Fox News viewers.
Commenting on his response to the migrant crisis in 2015, which elicited appeals for mercy from Pope Francis, Mr. Orban told Mr. Carlson that other European leaders “decided to open a new chapter of their history,” a “post-Christian and post-national” regime based on the coexistence of diverse communities.
“There is no way to know whether the outcome of this will be good or bad, but I think it is very risky,” Mr. Orban said. “Each nation has the right to take this risk or reject it. We Hungarians decided not to take that risk.”
Positions like that have helped Mr. Orban become the darling of conservative figures in the United States. In an email to America, Gladden Pappin, an associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas and currently a visiting fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest, neatly summarized Hungary’s growing appeal to American and Western European conservatives. “Hungary has pursued a distinctive path over the last 10 years, emphasizing national sovereignty and cultural integrity,” he wrote.
Pope Francis has famously been a promoter of a compassionate policy toward refugees and migrants. Mr. Orban has been just as famously a fence-builder.
“Hungary has forged an identity as a pro-family country which defends what its prime minister calls a ‘Christian way of life.’” In addition to its insistence on “territorial integrity,” Mr. Pappin appreciates the state’s “active role in fostering marriages and child-rearing, while defending families against corrosive cultural trends coming from abroad.”
Is Hungary an ‘integral’ state?
Mr. Orban has unabashedly described Hungary not as a multicultural but as a Christian state, pitting it as an outpost of Europe standing against a literal or natality-driven Muslim horde. He has argued that Hungary is within its rights to protect its native culture and language from what he considers the diluting effects of in-migrations of foreign faiths and cultures. Various interventions by the Orban government have nudged Hungary’s depressed fertility rate from 1.23 in 2011 to 1.5 in 2020—better, but still well below the 2.1 level required for a population to remain constant without the dread immigration Mr. Orban hopes to avoid.
As the electoral success of Fidesz continued over the last decade, Mr. Orban has been accused of issuing dubious decrees that silence critics and corralling Hungary’s free press into little more than a Fidesz propaganda outlet. But in opening his interview with Mr. Orban, Mr. Carlson said Hungary in many ways maintains a freedom of expression lost in the United States, where critics of the prevailing “cultural orthodoxy” are shut down by “cancel culture.”
Indeed, during his chat with Mr. Carlson, Mr. Orban was happy to portray himself as the “black sheep” of Europe, hounded by a liberal old guard unwilling to admit that his brand of nationalist politics could still succeed in Europe. Western liberals “cannot accept that inside Western civilization there is a conservative national alternative which is more successful at the level of everyday life than the liberal world,” he told Mr. Carlson. “That is the reason they criticize us; they are fighting for themselves, not against us.
“We are an example of a country which is based on traditional values, on national identity, based on traditional Christianity that could be successful or sometimes even more successful than a leftist liberal government.”
The nation’s latest populist campaign, targeting the “display and promotion of homosexuality” and “deviating” from one’s gender at birth, has also been received with conservative applause. Could Orban’s Hungary be a small-scale model of the Christian integralism—a national project of integrated church and state—longed for by a prominent clique of academics and pundits in the United States?
Mr. Orban was happy to portray himself as the “black sheep” of Europe, hounded by a liberal old guard unwilling to admit that his brand of nationalist politics could still succeed in Europe.
Many of its members seem to think so. A crowd of them have had their passports stamped in Budapest and others are poised to follow.
If they are correct, Mr. Orban’s Hungary is a particularly fraught model—assuming, that is, that integralists believe that democracy remains a value worth preserving. (Among some monarchy-minded integralists, democracy appears only useful as political window dressing.)
Since his election in 2010, Mr. Orban has acquired an impressive collection of critics who allege that he has been systematically subverting democratic institutions in Hungary. Freedom House, the global political rights monitor, reports that Mr. Orban has “dropped any pretense of respecting democratic institutions” in his drive to consolidate power under Fidesz.
Mr. Orban and his supporters argue those criticisms are reflections of liberal bias and hostility to the Christian nationalism espoused by Mr. Orban and Fidesz. It is certainly true that some members of the crowd converging as his opposition coalition are not exactly exemplars of liberal democracy themselves—one party is attempting to escape past flirtations with anti-Semitism and its own reputation for nationalist extremism, and two others are struggling to shake off a historical association with Hungary’s former Communist overlords.
But are his ardent U.S. supporters likewise simply blinding themselves to the ambitions of a neo-authoritarian and the crony capitalism and compliant political apparatus he is constructing to confirm his rule? Is Mr. Orban Central Europe’s Vladimir Putin or just its Donald Trump?
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Orban has been able to confound critics by building up an undeniable and so far unstoppable base of popular support. His Fidesz Party has been returned to power in three consecutive elections.
Are Mr. Orban’s ardent U.S. supporters likewise blinding themselves to the ambitions of a neo-authoritarian, and the crony capitalism and compliant political apparatus he is constructing to confirm his rule?
Speaking with America during an ultimately unaired interview in 2019, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto wryly remarked that Fidesz had not won its supermajorities in Parliament through “the lottery” nor was the party’s latest victory in 2018 an “outcome of a coup.”
It was the “outcome of an election,” though the process toward that victory was not without controversy. E.U. observers complained the 2018 vote was “characterized by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis.”
“When the liberal [critics of Mr. Orban] speak about democracy,” he said, “I always ask them, ‘So if you speak about democracy, why don’t you respect the will of the people?’ People went to vote and then people decided to give the supermajority to us. Maybe there’s a reason for that.”
Though it may pain Pope Francis to know it, sentiment on migrants and refugees among average Hungarians, nearly 60 percent of whom are Roman Catholic, may be a lot closer to Mr. Orban’s position than to the merciful and welcoming response he has urged.
Father Kornel Fabry, secretary-general of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress, said that what the prime minister says about immigration “is the same thing the majority of Hungarians say.”
“We should not bring troubles into Europe, but instead we should help where there is trouble,” he said, adding that the Hungarian government “has been the state that has helped the most” in providing humanitarian aid in war-torn countries, such as Syria.
“We must help people to be able to live with dignity, in peace and in comfort in their own country,” he added.
Hungary Helps but keeps migrants out
Indeed, Hungary Helps, a program begun by Mr. Orban’s government in 2017, has pumped millions into restoration efforts in Iraq and Syria and development projects in Africa. Hungary Helps claims that its efforts have allowed more than 250,000 people “to stay in their homeland or its immediate region instead of migrating, which poses both security and health risks.”
Hungary reserves the right “to decide whom you would like to allow to enter the territory of your country, and whom you would like to live together with and with whom not.”
Mr. Szijjarto explained that instead of tolerating—or, worse, encouraging—migration, United Nations and European Union officials need to do a better job in first addressing humanitarian needs in conflict-zone border states like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and in restoring refugees to their home communities.
“We are a true Christian country, which definitely feels responsibility for the Christian communities all over the world, especially in the case of the persecuted Christian communities,” Mr. Szijjarto said. “Our principle is that we have to bring help to where it is needed and should not bring problems where there are no problems yet.”
Much of what Mr. Szijjarto, and by extension his boss Mr. Orban, say about immigration does not sound unreasonable. It surely would be better if desperate, poorly equipped families did not accept the often-fatal risks of the treacherous migrant trail to Europe. It surely would be satisfying to return them, in peace and security, to the places of their birth and the cultures and countryside that is familiar to them.
But in most contemporary refugee and migrant crises, that is wishful thinking or a disingenuous screen for xenophobia. It is impossible to imagine how many such conflict zones, devastated by war and riven by religious and ethnic tensions, could be restored to a condition that would allow refugees to return.
Other states in Europe appear to have accepted that migration will remain a feature of contemporary geopolitical life, whether it represents desperate people fleeing conflict, hunger, climate change or all of the above. Since the 2015 crisis, E.U. officials have struggled to devise a quota system to respond to modern migrations. That proposal aims to share the burden of incoming migrants and refugees among member states without creating more suffering in deflecting migrating people altogether.
Hungary has declined to participate in quota-based responses. Mr. Szijjarto said that Hungary, in an exercise of its national sovereignty, reserves the right “to decide whom you would like to allow to enter the territory of your country, and whom you would like to live together with and with whom not.”
“We made it very clear that we are not ready to receive any kind of illegal migrants in our territory, but we are ready to help development programs on the spot.”
That stand will likely prove good politics at home and good politics among Mr. Orban’s integralist fans overseas. On Sept. 12, Pope Francis will have the opportunity to remind Mr. Orban, however, that it is not a position altogether in sync with the “good Samaritan” church he is leading.
With reporting from Catholic News Service