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Central and Eastern European countries have other experiences with migration

Gergely Prőhle is a long-standing Hungarian diplomat who currently directs the Petőfi Literary Museum in Budapest. Between 2000 and 2002, he was Hungary’s ambassador in Berlin and worked under the Orban government in leading posts as part of the country’s public administration.

Interview by Gemma Pörzgen

Hungary has adopted a highly restrictive stance to European refugee policy. What are the reasons behind Hungary’s approach?

On the one hand, Hungary’s position is based on democratic theory. Should it not be the parliamentary majority in Hungary – as an expression of the will of the Hungarian people – that decides who should live in the country? The government in Budapest takes a clear stance on this issue: it stresses that this decision should not be made by anyone else, not even by the EU. But there is a practical issue as well: the need to accept around 1300 refugees as part of the EU quota scheme. We have already admitted this many people into our country, and, therefore, have already fulfilled the requirements. We also have doubts about the EU quota scheme. The situation in Germany illustrates one of its problems: refugees prefer to live in sunny Bavaria rather than in foggy Berlin. This means that it is naive to believe that Brussels can decide where refugees are going to take up residence.

But why reject a common solution?

There are vast differences between countries in Europe. In the former colonial powers, such as France and Britain, immigrants fought for these countries during the First and Second World War, and, therefore, proved their civic solidarity. Clearly, these fellow citizens belong to these countries, even if they do happen to have a foreign religion. Then there are countries like Germany and Austria that decided to admit guest workers more than 50 years ago. As the writer Max Frisch once said: ‘We asked for workers; we got people instead’.

Are different historical experiences of migration the main reason behind the divisions within the EU when it comes to the issue of refugees?

Central and Eastern European countries have not made the same positive experiences with migration as countries in the West. Hungary has the third largest Jewish community in Europe. We are pleased that people can wear a kippah in Budapest without having to worry about safety; as we all know, this is not the case everywhere in Europe. Hungary is not trying to avoid embracing solidarity. We are very clear about the fact that we have to participate in a number of measures – in common management of the EU’s external borders and in aid programmes for Africa, for example. The construction of the now ‘infamous’ fence on the border with Serbia also cost a considerable amount of taxpayers’ money.

But isn’t the fence more of a symbol of Hungary’s isolation?

Yes, of course. But it enabled us to close the Balkan route, which means it also protects Germany, and this is why refugees are no longer pouring into the Germany.

But doesn’t that mean that the EU needs a common immigration law so that it can regulate which people should be allowed into the EU?

I don’t think that people should be brought into the EU, and certainly not from civilisations that have nothing to do with the Enlightenment or our Christian-Jewish tradition.

But we live in a globalised world, and increasing numbers of refugees are heading to Europe, whether this is due to climate change or the on-going wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya. Don’t you think that Europe – and this includes Hungary – should take on more responsibility and provide these people with refuge?

Everyone has to take on more responsibility. But this needs to be done within the countries of origin. There is no need to bring people to Europe. We should be making sure that they have a future in their own country. And as former German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble once said, every euro there is worth far more than in Europe. It would be better to provide help in the countries of origin than to set up a new immigration programme.

The way in which refugees are dealt with in Hungary has been highly controversial. The ‘transit zones’ that you have established have been criticised harshly by refugee initiatives. Why do people have to live in such undignified conditions in these camps?

They are clearly not the most comfortable places to live in, but they serve as a deterrent. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that real refugees have no chance of remaining in Hungary. I’ve met some of these people myself – my family is involved in an integration programme as part of the Lutheran Church. I’m talking about language courses and people getting to know Hungarian culture. The programme invites refugees to Hungarian families, and this helps acquaint them with aspects of European civilisation.

How do you explain the contradiction between the volunteer work undertaken by many Hungarians for refugees and the restrictive course followed by the Hungarian government?

Martin Luther put forward the thesis of the two kingdoms. Luther believed that the coldness and harshness of the law was just as important as Christian philanthropy. When someone visits my family, we take on individual responsibility. But in order to protect the community, government and the judiciary must demonstrate a certain level of firmness.

You spoke about the vital role played by experiences of migration. How will Hungary be able to gain such experiences if it allows so few people into the country?

The real question here is whether anyone actually wants to come to Hungary. Hardly anyone does. They all want to be close to their former neighbours and friends in Germany and Sweden. This is another reason why the EU quota system has failed.

But isn’t it really because Hungary focuses on deterrent rather than on welcoming refugees?

Hungary clearly employs a certain element of deterrent. Although we understand that countries such as Germany have achieved some success with integration, they have also faced great difficulties. Therefore, whoever still has the power to decide, decides not to take on refugees. If we look at the situation in Germany, it is clear that the refugee crisis has destabilised the country. Germany even had difficulties establishing a stable majority government. Moreover, some of the laws that Germany has adopted are much harsher than those in other countries, but they are not being enforced. This is the case, for example, when it comes to deportations. If we look at the recent scandal in Bremen’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), it is clear that even Germany’s ‘amazing’ administrative system seems to have stopped functioning properly. As so many things are going wrong, we should hardly be surprised if other countries chose not to follow suit.

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