Hungary: migration westwards and the response of the center-right government

Population drift to the West is a common thing for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as the opening of the labor market now offers people more job opportunities in the West. Different countries address this problem in their own ways. Western Europeans have developed a fear of new migrants, while Eastern Europe is facing challenges to overcome issues of population decline and slow economic growth that are all exacerbated by migration.

For the time being, emigration presents striking economic benefits. According to the World Bank data the amount of inwards remittances to Hungary totaled $2,514 million in 2010 whereas outward remittance flows were around $1,338 million in 2009. The difference between the two is significant and indicates that Hungarian migrants are strongly supporting the country’s economy by sending money back home.

Generally speaking, Hungarians perceive remittances as a positive effect of international migration and the brain-drain as its negative side. In the meantime, major political parties such as Fidesz seem not to recognize that migrant labor and remittances are a way of improving the current economic situation and dealing with unemployment.

Whatever the immediate economic benefits of emigration and remittances might be, they can also exacerbate an already difficult political and demographic situation. According to the latest data on migration from the Central Statistical Office of Hungary, the country’s population is less than 10 million and is steadily declining. And the situation is worsening due to the international financial crisis that severely hit the country’s economy and widened the gap between public revenues and expenditure.

Last June the New York Times predicted that Hungary might repeat the Greek debt crisis. Hungarian officials gave assurances that this scenario is rather unlikely, since the economic situation in each country is different. However, the Hungarian government still labors under the heavy burden of an aging population and massive outflow of young people.

The topic of migration has never been off the table in Hungary and local politicians and the media frequently address these issues. Some media point to the results of various pollsshowing that one out of six Hungarians would like to move abroad, preferably to Germany, the UK, or neighboring Austria. They also state that the chances of finding work there are higher, since the unemployment rate in Hungary is 11.4% – better than in Spain, but 1.5 percentage points worse than the EU average. Other surveys show that many young Hungarians are planning to emigrate and don’t see any future in their home country.

It is apparent that this attitude is more prevalent among youth than any other age group. Even so, this does not mean young people are necessarily as likely to emigrate as they say they are.

The statistical evidence might be true, but it also might be inaccurate, since it is hard to track down precisely how many young people left the country to study abroad and never came back, or moved to another country for a better job. At the same time, surveys cannot show how many people claimed to return to Hungary yet did not. Clearly this situation requires thorough understanding and clarification which statistical language is unable to provide.

Migration issues cannot be understood without a context, and in this case the historical context does indeed matter. After the two world wars Hungary lost almost two thirds of its territories along with the people living in them. Ethnic Hungarians were scattered across Europe in what is now Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, etc. Under Soviet-imposed Communist rule, migration was forbidden so that  population figures did not change much. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many ethnic Hungarians returned to their motherland, while others took advantage of their newfound freedom and left Hungary.

There are various other reasons for the population decline in Hungary. One reason is late motherhood combined with the lowest fertility rate in Europe according to figures publishedthis April.  Others point to current economic instability and the high unemployment rate that has forced people to seek jobs abroad. Migration is an on-going process and politicians seem to address all the mentioned causes constantly.  Almost a year ago, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán expressed a desire to create one million jobs in order to prevent population drift. Has anything changed since then? By January-March 2010, the unemployment rate in Hungary had reached 11.8%, but this year’s data for February-Aprilindicated 11.4% unemployment. However, it is still unclear whether Viktor Orbán’s initiative has anything to do with this slight drop.

The far right party Jobbik that holds about 17% of seats in the Hungarian parliament calls attention to this problem and urges parliament to “stop Hungary’s population decline.” At the same time it is difficult to imagine what measures Jobbik would be in favor of, since this party is known for its harsh anti-Romani rhetoric and nationalistic views. Jobbik’s stance is openly racist and against foreigners living in the country. One of the party’s speakers Krisztina Morvai warned that “Hungarians will not be second-class citizens in their own country,” meaning that foreigners will not be allowed to purchase any Hungarian land.

The ruling conservative party, Fidesz, is trying to solve the issue of migration as well. Since the party has a legitimate two-thirds majority in the parliament, it is able to pass any legislation it likes and this is exactly what Fidesz has done.

The new Hungarian constitution, which was approved in April 2011, sparked a new round of debates on Fidesz’s abuse of power. The prominent international organization, Human Rights Watch, is concerned that the new provisions of this constitution might impose a ban on abortion in the country as they specifically state that a foetus is granted the right to life from the moment of conception. However, it is too early to say whether Fidesz will be able to proceed against abortion, since the new constitution will only come into effect next year.

Fidesz is also planning to propose new electoral legislation under which all ethnic Hungarians abroad will be entitled to vote, even without Hungarian citizenship. This proposal has already sparked a debate in Slovakia—which has a sizable Hungarian minority population. Leaders of Fidesz were accused of fueling the idea of a “Great Hungary.” Supporters of this idea wish to regain all the territories Hungary lost under the Treaty of Triannon after WWI. Hungarian opposition parties are openly against the proposed changes to the electoral process, but their voices are drowned in the din made by pro-Fidesz supporters.

By adopting all the above changes, Fidesz is trying to address the problem of the declining Hungarian population and issues of migration. Only time will tell how effective their policies will be.  However, at present, Fidesz’s activities look rather alarming for Hungarian democracy. Hungary needs to implement long-term solutions by encouraging the young educated generation to stay in the country and not leave for political or economic reasons. The new flat-rate income tax of 16% has created more incentives for people to stay in Hungary.  Hopefully, the government will be able to implement more positive changes of this kind in order to counter plunging population rates.

This article was published on Future Challenges web site. You can find it here

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