For Hungarian migrants, home is where the political disarray is

Denmark and the EU hope to pressure the Hungarian government into rolling back controversial reforms, but Hungarians living here are less than optimistic

When Tamás moved to Copenhagen last year, he had every intention of returning to Hungary when he finished his studies at the Danish Design School. But that move is looking increasingly unlikely. 

“I originally came here to experience something new and to study,” he said. “Two years ago things weren’t that bad in Hungary, but now a lot of people are moving away, not just friends, but friends of friends too.” 

The reason why he and other Hungarians won’t move back is Viktor Orbán.

Orbán, the country’s prime minister, gained a two-third majority in Hungary’s parliament in 2010 with his Fidesz party. Since then the country, not known for being in the limelight, has attracted hefty criticism from the EU and the US, as well as human rights watchdogs, for passing several controversial reforms and changes to its constitution.

What they are upset about are amendments that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, limit the power of the Constitutional Court and provide the head of the National Judicial Office the right to move cases between courts, a measure seen by critics to compromise the independence of the judiciary. 

The changes have made Hungary, which joined the EU in 2004, something of an outcast in Brussels. Most recently, the European Parliament on Wednesday approved a resolution calling for some of the constitutional changes to be reversed.

If the Orbán government doesn’t abide by the resolution, the European Council could suspend the voting rights of Hungarian MEPs. The drastic measure has only been taken once before: in 2000, to punish Austria for allowing the far-right wing Freedom Party of Austria to enter into a government.

Orbán, appearing in parliament ahead of the vote, lashed out critics. 

“We don’t want a Europe where the unity expressed by the two-thirds majority is condemned instead of respected,” he said.

Speaking with The Copenhagen Post, Ferenc Kumin, a spokesperson for the Hungarian government, said the report the resolution was based on was unjust and primarily based on business lobby interests. 

“The report,” Kumin said, “severely violates Hungary’s rights by disregarding the European Parliament’s powers and upsetting the balance of rights between member states and the European Union. It also aims to harm a member state’s sovereignty, which poses a threat to the whole of Europe and its future.”

Danish MP Nikolaj Villumsen (Enhedslisten) said the changes had eroded human rights in Hungary, as well as its democratic institutions, and that other countries need to keep up the pressure. 

“I feel that the development in Hungary is very frightening, and we in Denmark should be critical,” he said. “It is vital that we don’t close our eyes to human rights violations. Countries should call attention to worrying problems and it is in that way that Denmark can make a difference.” 

Hungary’s critics in Denmark haven’t gone unanswered. Last March Ferenc Szebényi, the Hungarian ambassador to Denmark, wrote an open letter to Politiken newspaper that criticised the newspaper’s coverage of the situation in his country. 

Kumin, the government spokesperson, claimed that criticism of the Orbán government was politically motivated, pointing out that the resolution had been passed by “extreme left, socialist, liberal and green MEPs”. 

Exodus of the young

Over the last couple of years Hungary has experienced a large increase in emigration to other EU countries. 

According to the country’s own statistics, the number of Hungarians who left the country each year between 2004 and 2010 was stable at around 26,000 people. The figure shot up in 2011 to 85,000, a sizable increase for a country of around ten million. 

Immigration statistics in Denmark reflect those numbers. Hungarian immigration between 2008 and 2011, according to Danmarks Statistik, was about 650 people a year. In 2012 it had nearly doubled to 1,030, making Hungarians, together with Romanians, the country’s fastest growing EU minority. 

According to research company GKI and employment firm CV&More, those leaving are primarily those aged 20 to 29, precisely the age group Tamás, and his sister, Edit, who lives in Copenhagen, fall into.

For Tamás, at least part of the reason why he doesn’t expect to move back is the effect Orbán government’s changes have had on the economy. 

“It seems almost impossible to start a company there at the moment. New taxes are constantly being introduced and the entire system is getting way too complicated.”

Edit, who arrived in Denmark in 2010 to study at Roskilde University, was more worried about politics than the economy. 

“I would say that democracy doesn’t exist in Hungary, it is a dictatorship,” she said. “The government calls it democracy, but it isn’t.” 

Even discussing politics, she said, has become difficult. 

“Everything is so heated you actually risk losing friends.”

Tamás agreed: “You can’t say anything without wondering if it will backfire against you. You might get audited by the tax office, I can really imagine anything.” 

When it comes to their country’s future in the EU – and the likelihood they’ll move home – neither was very positive.

“They change the constitution every minute, I can laugh about it, but I also cry about it,” Edit said.