Former commissioner criticizes Hungary for dehumanizing refugees

October 2, 2016

“Those who prefer to be unilateralists, those who prefer to take advantage of the refugee shock for domestic political purposes are not helping the community, maybe in the long run they are not helping their own countries either.”

“If there is a role in the case of such shock for a government, it would be to clarify the situation and inform society to help avoiding panic rather than fueling panic.  What we have seen I’m afraid in Hungary is more creating panic, ensuring that the population gets scared of Arabic people. Yes, it’s true that Hungary is a country . . . without a history of immigration from the countries which are now the source countries of the refugee flow.  But this should even more call for some kind of government campaign to inform instead of generating this animosity, if not hatred, of Muslims, Arabs, as if all of them would be terrorists or terror suspects.

-László Andor, former EU commissioner from Hungary

Former Hungarian European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion László Andor is appalled by the government’s anti-resettlement quota campaign, saying its purpose has been “to turn the refugees into an enemy and dehumanize them.”  He says the purpose has been to dehumanize those fleeing war and overcrowded refugee camps by “killing emotions that would be sympathetic, killing solidarity, and antagonizing the Hungarian position vis-a-vis the West European mainstream which, at least, in the political decision . . . point towards more cooperation and more solidarity across the European Union.”

A multi-layered crisis

He attributes the EU’s tendency towards disintegration to destabilizing factors “inherent in the structures of the single market and the monetary union which carry deep imbalances”, as well as developments “in the neighborhood of the European Union such as the Arab Spring and the collapse of particular states which result in large flows of refugees.

“We have a multi-layered crisis today,” says the former commissioner, adding that the EU’s poor handling of the long monetary and financial crisis “weakened the capacity of some member states to deal with the crises.

“Greece and Italy have been in the frontline of the refugee crisis.  Both countries, but especially Greece, have suffered a lot because of the economic crisis of the recent years,” says Andor, adding that after losing about a quarter of its GDP Greece cannot be expected to tackle a large-scale immigration crisis.

Brexit

He says Brexit was “the product of the bad outcome of domestic politics” and “it would be very hard to prove that the UK suffered” from being a member of the European Union.  The picture presented to UK voters about the EU was “not properly informed and balanced and we saw the consequences after the referendum.”

Democratic backsliding in Hungary

Andor says Hungary’s political situation under the third Orbán government is very different from when the country joined the EU in 2004, and that “a strong case can be made for the argument that, were Hungary to apply to the EU today, it would not meet the Copenhagen criteria.

“Before you join the European Union, you have to comply with the so-called Copenhagen criteria which were laid down in 1993 at the time when the application just started for EU membership from the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe,” he says, explaining that meeting certain criteria with regard to democracy, rule of law and pluralism was a precondition for EU accession negotiations.

“I think very often the conclusion is that there has been a democratic backsliding in the case of Hungary.  That also triggered a series of debates in the European parliament and in the Council of Europe, in the Venice Commission and a variety of other fora because of the constitutional changes.  Hungary now has a new Basic law which has been amended several times.  A lot of experts who try to look at this objectively say there has been a great damage to pluralism and rule of law in Hungary, and this is a matter of great concern inside and outside the Hungary.”

Pro-EU but anti-Brussels

Andor says that according to polls, Hungarians are, by and large, pro-EU.  “The European Union has been and remains quite popular.

“Of course a lot of people can be critical about particular decisions and the way the EU is governed, but the fundamental idea that Hungary should belong to this community of 28 countries . . . has been quite firm.”

He warns that popular support for the EU notwithstanding, it is possible to generate a result that goes against Brussels.  “The Hungarian government has been playing with this in a tricky way, as though Brussels could be separated from the European Union itself.

“In my view to campaign against Brussels is just a crude way of campaigning against the European Union in general.”

More and better cooperation, not less

Andor observes that there are many who believe there are some bureaucrats and officials in Brussels who ignore public opinion, do not care about the problems of ordinary people or ordinary nations, and that the member states themselves could handle issues much better. Also that we need a Europe of nations purely functioning on the basis of intergovernmentalism, and that cutting back the competencies of the EU institutions would help solve the current situation. But “given the challenges Europe faces today, you realize we are extremely interdependent on most of the issues we are facing. Only more and better cooperation can result in more efficient responses.”

The former commissioner says understanding of this is lacking because “most of the debate in Hungary has revolved around a single issue, the resettlement quota, while there are many other issues on the agenda of the EU, and the complexity of this is hardly ever explained.”

Blaming the political left

Andor says there is no basis for Orbán’s claim that the political left has driven the EU into a dead-end and that it has been the main driver of centralization and policies that are pro-immigration.

“If you look at the politics of the last six to eight years in the EU, the last thing you can say is that the political left has been dominant,” he says, pointing out that “it’s been the political family of Mr. Orbán that has been dominant, the European People’s Party.”  For this reason, he believes it is “wrong and inaccurate to shift the blame for failure onto the other political side.”

Surge in refugee numbers came as a shock

Andor says the rise in refugee numbers in 2015 took many people by surprise, and that in retrospect more support should have been provided to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which “have been receiving and supporting the largest number of Syrian refugees beyond their means.

“Make no mistake about this, this refugee crisis came as a shock, although some trends were developing before.”  The crisis should have resulted in a cooperative solution instead of “individual European leaders persuading their own idea or gut feelings.

“The Hungarian government has been driven by the gut feelings as opposed to a cooperative instinct together with the larger community,” says Andor, who bemoans the lack of dialogue and preparation during the period leading up to the crisis.

“What we have seen instead is a gradual build-up of a comprehensive strategy.  Elements were put together very slowly.  It is obvious that a proper policy can only be comprehensive.  Better management of borders, better control of security, but also better integration, faster resettlement, if necessary, to relieve the burden on particular countries, better cooperation of neighboring countries which are on the route of refugees towards Europe, or which have settled the largest number of refugees.”

An obligation to help

Andor says Europe has a fundamental obligation to do more to help, but this requires “a concentration of resources but also a cooperation of action.

“Those who prefer to be unilateralists, those who prefer to take advantage of the refugee shock for domestic political purposes are not helping the community, maybe in the long run they are not helping their own countries either.” He warns that the government’s handling of the refugee crisis is “leading to the further marginalization of Hungary and a further drift to the periphery” as the views of the prime minister and foreign minister come to be linked more and more to the extreme right, as opposed to the centrist politicians of Europe.

In Andor’s view, the government’s propaganda campaigns contradict the principles of Pope Francis “who has been asking the Catholic community to extend help, support, generosity towards the refugees who are in a desperate situation and would need more help and assistance.”

Hungary’s drift to the periphery

Andor says that what we are witnessing in Hungary is “a lot more manipulation than fact-based explanation”, and Hungary’s drift to the periphery will have long-term negative consequences for the country “if a vast campaign results in misconceptions of migration in more general terms, why migration happens, why Europe and the richer countries of Europe are the chosen destination countries of larger scale migration flows, and the connection between the Arab world and terrorism in Europe.”

The role of government in times of crisis

He says he has never seen anything like the current referendum campaign since the end of communism.  “The amount of resources going into this campaign is probably extraordinary, focusing on one particular subject, the refugee crisis, but in a confusing way.” The purpose of the campaign has been to ensure that people who want to approach the refugee question with more solidarity are sidelined.

“If there is a role in the case of such shock for a government, it would be to clarify the situation and inform society to help avoiding panic rather than fueling panic.  What we have seen, I’m afraid, in Hungary is more creating panic, ensuring that the population gets scared of Arabic people.  Yes, it’s true that Hungary . . . is a country without a history of immigration from the countries which are now the source countries of the refugee flow.  But this should even more call for some kind of government campaign to inform instead of generating this animosity, if not hatred, of Muslims, Arabs, as if all of them would be terrorists or terror suspects.”

The purpose of the campaign had been to portray those fleeing war and overcrowded refugee camps as “illegal immigrants” in an attempt to dehumanize them and turn them into an enemy.

“For example, on state television you hardly ever see refugee children.  We know there is a large number of refugee children, many of them arriving without parents.  You can learn this from the German television but not from the Hungarian television” where the focus is on young men because they can be portrayed as combatants.

Andor observes that at the heart of the government campaign is “killing emotions that would be sympathetic, killing solidarity, and antagonizing the Hungarian position vis-a-vis the West European mainstream which . . . point towards more cooperation and more solidarity across the European Union.”

No big deal

He does not think that resettling 1,300 refugees is a big deal and believes there will be communities willing to accept them.

“We saw a mobilization of civil society last year and demonstrations against the government’s anti-refugee policies.” While “we have seen signs of solidarity and humanism,” the government “has been quite effective in shifting public opinion away from this solidarity and increasing suspicion, if not hatred, vis-a-vis the refugees.”