Hungary was right about the migrant crisis

ROGER BOYES July 12 2017, The Times

Europeans are embracing the idea that nation states, not the EU, must deal with immigration

There’s a German word for it: Weltschmerz, the thud of anxiety that comes from living through, or alongside global upheaval. Brexit, Trump, serial terror attacks, the Grenfell Tower fire, we have all been touched by it, the galloping migraine-inducing pace of events.

Imagine, then, what it feels like to live on the Italian island of Lampedusa, to have welcomed with aching hearts the thousands of refugees who washed up on its shores after the 2011 Arab uprisings, and to have shared the meagre infrastructure, so poor that pregnant locals have to take the long ferry ride to Sicily for a check-up. Then to be abandoned by the European Union and the Italian government, as the Mediterranean route became the chief entry path into the Continent for the desperate of sub-Saharan Africa.

Now the Lampedusans have turfed out their mayor Giusi Nicolini who, decked with international prizes, had joined Angela Merkel as the champion of an open, liberal Europe. The locals want a mayor who will say to the world that the island can no longer cope; that Merkel’s “welcome culture” no longer works for them.

This is pretty much the story of the south and east of Europe. Their difficulty with strained infrastructure, once so acute that populist parties made political capital everywhere, was never really addressed. Central government’s priority in 2015 was to provide a sticking plaster and it was left to local hosts to struggle on as best they could. Now the migrant numbers are rising fast again. Last year 181,436 migrants took the central Mediterranean route, up 18 per cent on the epic figures of 2015. This year is shaping up to be just as high.

It has been two years since Merkel announced her Willkommenskultur and Europe is still groping around for a solution. Centrist parties, in the absence of a coherent multinational policy, are adopting the tough lines once advocated by the pariah parties of the far right. Germany recently tightened its deportation laws — rejected asylum-seekers can now be detained and electronically tagged long before their official deportation date to prevent them slipping the net. Personal data can be trawled from the mobile phones of refugees. Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian foreign minister, said earlier this month that his country should be ready to send troops to the Brenner Pass if it seemed that multitudes of migrants were about to come over from Italy.

In Denmark, the centre-left Social Democrats have been making overtures to the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party. The Social Democrats even backed the (rarely used) jewellery law, whereby police were allowed to seize the jewellery of immigrants to pay for their stay.

Suddenly, it seems as if the Hungarian model for dealing with immigration — widely condemned as a violation of civilised European values — was ahead of its time. Some 400,000 migrants travelled through the Balkans and across the Serbian border into Hungary in 2015. They were on their way westwards, drawn by Angela Merkel’s offer of an open Germany, and very quickly Hungary felt overwhelmed. Tough police units were filmed beating back the foreigners and Hungary was cast as the ugly face of Europe.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s garrulous prime minister, presents himself as the enemy of the EU liberal consensus (though happy to take its subsidies). Sure enough, there are grounds for concern, not least his hateful public campaign against the philanthropist George Soros. It does not bolster confidence when he declares that “ethnic homogeneity” is a key to economic success. Yet his reasoning behind the tainted rhetoric does strike a chord with many ordinary Hungarians. “I do not want to see the country drifting towards a situation where lower-skilled work would only be carried out by foreigners,” he says. “We ourselves have to do the work required to keep our economy going, from scrubbing toilets to nuclear science.”

Orban’s point: if open immigration leads to an underclass of foreigners then it ends up sapping national dignity. His critics say that since he rejects the very idea of a benign multicultural society, he does not even want to make the effort of integrating foreigners or making the economy so porous that immigrants can prosper. It’s not so much populism as indifference.

The Hungarian prime minister is plainly no saint but he has been right in two important respects. First, Europe really is adrift on immigration. Second, it is ultimately up to nation states to find the correct balance between incomers and residents.

Many in the EU are already quietly resigned to the idea that fortification of the external borders is the way to go. “I would find myself with Sebastian Kurz stating our arguments to a roomful of ministers,” Peter Szijjarto, the Hungarian foreign minister, tells me, “and I would find the colleagues discreetly texting me: ‘Well said!’ or ‘If only I could have said that!’” Political correctness is blocking the way to a collective recognition that the principles of asylum have to be re-thought, that the bar on allowing refugees to work has to be lifted, that Schengen borders can no longer be as porous as they once were.

Hungary doesn’t have all the answers but it recognises the migrant crisis is a rolling one. We have to brace for the eventual collapse of the EU-Turkish deal which has kept so many Syrian refugees out of the EU over the past year. And if only a fraction of the climate change predictions are true, much of the world will be trekking towards Europe in a couple of decades. Let’s start thinking more clearly about what that means for our frontiers and the way we are going to live our lives.

Source: The Times