• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Europe’s migrant crisis: Hungary deserves a hearing

Watching the thousands of mig­rants walking on the highway from Budapest to Austria, I am reminded of my family’s escape from Hungary. After the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution we walked 32km before we reached the Austrian border. As a refugee I have always empathised with the plight of people forced to leave their home. So why do I feel so ambivalent about the drama unfolding on the border of Hungary today?

Having spent a few days recently in eastern Europe I feel more than a little troubled about the present situation on the continent, particularly the growing tendency to counterpose the rights of migrants to those of national sovereignty. My problem is not with the migrants (I can sympathise with their aspiration for a better life) but with the constant attempt to exercise moral blackmail by an intolerant, vociferous “open the border or else” brigade.

In recent weeks Hungary has been singled out as the main target of a moral crusade promoted by the “let’s get rid of border controls” lobby. Advocates of opening the borders portray the Hungarian government as the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.

In numerous media accounts the trains in Budapest railway stations are described as if they are an updated version of the wagons that transported people towards the concentration camps. As someone who has lost most of his family in the Holocaust I feel anger and disbelief when analogies are drawn between the present situation in Hungary and the evil record of the Nazi regime.

Everyone is entitled to question or criticise the policies or behaviour of any government. But whatever one thinks about the government of Hungary it is evident that it has not set out to persecute the people who have forced themselves across the country’s border.

In its own — often ineffectual — way the Hungarian government has attempted to retain a measure of control over its border. Fully aware that EU official opinion is behind them, migrants feel empowered to ignore the prevailing legal framework and demand entitlements that no normal tourist or visitor would dare seek.

Nor would any Hungarian citizen feel that they had the moral right to bend the law to their will. One Hungarian acquaintance of liberal disposition tells me that walking on the motorway is a punishable offence under the law: “If I did it, the police would arrest me.” He asks: “Why does the west European press demand such double standards?” Why indeed?

My friend Janos is a long-time socialist, firmly committed to the humanist values of the Enlightenment. He and his family went to Budapest railway station to give bottled water and bread to some of the migrants sitting on the road. Yet even he is disturbed by the casual manner in which foreign critics of Hungary encourage the breaking of rules.

Where the western European media sees Hungarian police as callous storm troopers, Janos sees them in a very different light. He believes their behaviour is far more gentle than if they were confronted with fellow citizens seated on a busy road.

The chaos enveloping Europe has led to understandable anxi­eties that the EU-Angela Merkel approach of “open the borders” is likely to serve as an invitation to others to embark on the journey to Germany. It is possible they are right and that Europe is set to become the site of a demographic transformation. My concern is not with the migrants looking for a new life. My issue is with the ascendancy of an EU-sanctioned “open the borders” campaign and its corrosive consequences for national sovereignty and democratic accountability.

This week European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker called for a “united European migration policy” that would open the door to immigrants from all over the world, based on the imposition of quotas on member-states. The consequence of the Juncker revolution would be to dispossess the EU’s nation-states of the authority to regulate the flow of migrants. This call to weaken the sovereign power of nations from an unelected functionary in Brussels represents the negation of democratic accountability.

Who is more moral?

Virtually anyone of any influence in Europe is calling for “more compassion” and “more generosity” towards the refugees. Those who dare raise doubts about calls for a supposedly humanitarian and enlightened approach risk being denounced as ignorant fools who have not learned the lessons of the Nazi experience.

Even those who are sceptical of the “open the borders” thesis accept the premise of their opponents, thinking there is something morally dubious about their own reaction. They often opportunistically argue for imposing controls on the movement on the grounds that the sudden tide of migrants will benefit far-right xenophobic politicians.

In this climate of moral posturing it is important to take a reality check. Yes, Europe has its share of narrow-minded xenophobic political movements that will exploit the unease that millions of citizens feel towards the flow of strangers into their communities. However, their reaction and behaviour is no worse than the attitudes promoted by the “let them all in or else” crowd. These polar opposites in the immigration debate are actually captive to a similar illiberal impulse towards their fellow human beings. One side expresses prejudice towards migrants, the other contempt for EU citizens.

Many advocates of opening the borders concede their outlook does not represent the sentiments of significant sections of the public. Frequently, in private conversations they hint at the dangers of populist undercurrents and regard ordinary people as potential recruits for a xenophobic army.

One of the ways supporters of the Juncker approach have sought to manage public opinion has been to avoid and sometimes prevent debate on the subject. That is why throughout the debate on the migration crisis there has been a systematic attempt to avoid engaging with the opinion of the European public.

Although the “open the door” lobby promotes its cause in the language of morality, it lacks the courage of conviction. One reason the campaign against the Hungar­ian government has assumed such virulent form is because of the fear that its views would resonate with sections of the European public.

A recent editorial in The Guardian notes that Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia broadly share the attitudes expressed by the Hungarian government. The editorial concludes that the “xenophobic narrative coming out of Hungary needs to be tackled head-on, before it encourages more chauvinism elsewhere in Europe”. By “tackling head-on” the editorial does not mean debating and arguing against the alternative narrative but shutting down discussion.

The aim of representing any alternative to the Juncker plan as xenophobic is to construct a moral quarantine around the discussion of migration. In effect this top-down approach is underpinned by the conviction that the views of ordinary European citizens are not worthy of note. Their contempt for the people of Europe and for the exercise of democratic accountability exposes their moral claims as the cynical posturing of illiberal functionaries.

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