Orbán wins the migration argument: Suddenly most EU leaders echo the Hungarian prime minister

No one in Brussels wants to say it out loud, but Viktor Orbán is winning the migration debate. The Hungarian prime minister may be much maligned in European capitals for his anti-immigrant rhetoric, his opposition to the EU’s refugee relocation policy, and for building a border fence. But look closely at how EU leaders now talk about the issue and the policies they’ve adopted since the 2015 crisis, and it’s clear Orbán’s preference for interdiction over integration has somehow prevailed.

There was an echo of Orbán’s long-standing call for tougher border controls in Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s claim in his State of the Union speechthis week that “We are now protecting Europe’s external borders more effectively.”

At other points in the speech, it could easily have been the Hungarian premier speaking, as Juncker emphasized efforts to stop migrants before they leave Africa and return those who reach Europe’s shores. “When it comes to returns: People who have no right to stay in Europe must be returned to their countries of origin,” said Juncker.

While Hungary and Slovakia recently lost their fight against the EU’s relocation scheme at the European Court of Justice, the facts on the ground show that the legal victory for Brussels was hollow.

“Germany was quietly looking for common ground with the Visegrad and several aspects of what they were proposing were incorporated into the discussion” — Milan Nic

“Nobody will admit it in this town, but yes, Orbán’s narrative is prevailing,” a senior EU official said.

From French President Emmanuel Macron gathering the leaders of Germany, Italy and Spain for a migration conference in Paris at the end of August, to Juncker’s shout-out to Italy’s “generosity” in his speech this week, the EU has made great efforts to emphasize solidarity, particularly with Rome and Athens, which bear the brunt of migrant arrivals.

But the actions by European governments, including Italy’s effort to crack down on NGOs and the EU’s push for accords with African governments, fit neatly with Orbán’s long-stated positions. He has called for stronger protection of external borders as well as for opening up migration reception centers in Africa and a tough line on NGOs, especially foreign ones.

At the meeting Macron hosted in Paris, the four EU leaders — who were joined by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini — gave their blessing to a shift in the way Italy has been dealing with migration, which critics say also goes Orbán’s way.

Macron hosts the leaders of Germany, Spain and Italy in Paris for a migration conference | Yoan Valat/EPA

After the closure of the Western Balkan route last year, migrants kept on arriving in Italy. But figures this summer were unexpectedly low as Italians outsourced the solution to Libyan political powers and accused NGOs of colluding with smugglers, forcing them to accept an EU backed code of conduct.

“For a center-left government like in Italy, this is dangerous because what they are doing is not different from what the far-right is asking for,” said Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank. Because an alternative plan has not been agreed, he said, “The debate is completely moving in Orbán’s direction.”

Applause from the right

That the migration debate might shift toward Orbán’s view is not necessarily surprising. German Chancellor Angela Merkel faced a brutal political backlash in September 2015 after she decided to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees. In many ways, European leaders have been backtracking and side-stepping ever since.

With Orbán and other Eastern European leaders resisting the compulsory relocation policy, EU leaders found it easier to agree on toughening control of external borders, which had grown lax over the years.

Answering the calls for stronger border protections from the Visegrad Four — Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — offered a way to bridge the deep divisions and project unity at a time of serious discord, said Milan Nic, senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “Germany was quietly looking for common ground with the Visegrad and several aspects of what they were proposing were incorporated into the discussion,” he said.

Orbán’s stance was even more hard-line, calling for refugees to be allowed to request protection only from outside the EU.

Two years later, at the Paris meeting, Macron pushed for the creation of migration centers in Niger and Chad. The proposal is opposed by humanitarian groups who insist it will not work, but whether it is implemented or not, it’s hard to dispute that the French president has partly adopted Orbán’s approach.

“It’s just that first we had to show things are under control, then we can work on better ways of managing flows” — EU diplomat

Rights advocates also fear that migrants will be treated badly, as is the case now in migration centers in Libya, where humanitarian groups have documented terrible conditions. The far-left GUE group in the European Parliament called the plan “racist and a fundamental breach of human rights.”

By contrast, the same plan was immediately greeted with satisfaction by the leader of Brothers of Italy, a far-right party. “Wasn’t it a xenophobic idea?” Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Brothers of Italy, wondered on Facebook. “Time has proved we were right.”

‘Managing flows’

EU officials and diplomats insist that the apparent alignment with Orbán is just a case of the Hungarian prime minister’s views reflecting basic common sense in certain areas. But, they said, the EU leadership remains committed to policies of openness, and especially to encourage legal migration — a point Juncker stressed in his speech.

“Europe is and must remain the continent of solidarity where those fleeing persecution can find refuge,” he said.

A train with migrants is stopped in Bicske, Hungary, in September 2015 | Matt Cardy/Getty Images

One EU diplomat noted that Hungary had taken actions that were in violation of international law or EU policy, while Brussels was working to develop legal solutions. And the diplomat insisted that any seeming agreement with Orbán was temporary at best.

“It’s not a matter of being in line with Orbán,” the diplomat said. “It’s just that first we had to show things are under control, then we can work on better ways of managing flows.”

Orbán has been insisting for months that he’s winning the argument. When discussion of opening refugee camps in Africa resurfaced among EU leaders last December, he told journalists: “Earlier this was seen as a proposal which could have come from the Devil himself.”

He added: “Our position is slowly becoming the majority position.”

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