Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
It’s been a busy view weeks for the man opposition demonstrators like to call ‘Viktator’. Freedom House downgraded Hungary to “partly free,” the first EU member state to qualify for this dubious distinction.
On Tuesday Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, troubled Viktor Orban with a visit. The effect was mixed. On the one hand, the Trump Adminstration finds Orban’s nationalism congenial. But the US (if not the President himself) is growing increasingly concerned by how close he’s got to his fellow reactionary strongman, Vladimir Putin.
Then, on Wednesday, the reinvigorated opposition held another demonstration, this time on the banks of the Danube outside the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Not content with expelling Budapest’s internationally renowned Central European University, he’s now turned his sights on the rest of the higher education sector, seeking to politicise and control it. One by one, Hungary’s independent institutions are being snuffed out.
Some four-fifths of all nominally non-state media have been amalgamated into a single foundation controlled by one of his cronies.
New administrative courts are being created, directly under the control of the Ministry of Justice.
And the larger opposition political parties have been hit with arbitrary fines (the office of a smaller one suffered a mysterious fire).
Orban boasts a racist obsession with immigration, saying (according to the official English translation of his remarks): “we do not want our own colour, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others.”
But his real problem is emigration. The now discontinued independent news site Budapest Beacon estimated that 600,000 Hungarians — one-tenth of the working age population — had left to other parts of Europe by 2016.
People have gone not only for better wages, but to escape corruption and politicisation of their work. If you’re a heart surgeon, why work for a corrupt political appointee when you can go to Germany or Britain instead? Along with these disproportionately educated and hard working people go their taxes. Public hospitals are now so short of resources that the opposition Momentum party has taken to handing out loo roll to patients.
This is happening despite high nominal economic growth. The country is suffering from a severe labour shortage. Orban’s first plan to deal with this was to change the overtime law. This did not first sight seem inherently objectionable — except that the workers would have to wait three years for their extra pay!
His second plan is to find more workers, but he’s ruled out the easy way to get them — immigration. In the same speech where he said he wanted a white-only Hungary, he also pledged “to keep Hungary as it has been for the past 1,100 years.”
His method is import substitution. Perhaps inspired by that German AFD election poster showing two pregnant women under the caption “let’s make our own”, Orban has turned to natalism.
Like other Orban initiatives, this can seem superficially plausible but conceals a much darker reality.
Hungary’s fertility rate is low (1.42 births per woman) so in the long run more children are needed to achieve replacement level even with modest immigration.
Increasing fertility to those levels is not impossible. France has a generous system of child benefit and extensive state childcare (40 per cent of children below three and almost all above three are in formal childcare), and a fertility rate of 1.96. Sweden has a similar record (almost 55 per cent and 90 per cent), and a fertility rate of 1.85.
Both France and Sweden have done so without taking too many women out of the labour force. In France, parenthood reduces the average amount of time women spend in work by only about ten per cent (and in Sweden actually increases it fractionally). Yet in Hungary it reduces it by a third — by far the largest amount in any European country.
Instead of following their example, Orban has come up with two policies: the first a gimmick, the second sinister.
His first idea is an income tax cut for women who have four children. Fair enough, you might say. But since Hungarian childcare is so poor, how many women with four children are going to also have the time to earn enough to benefit from the tax cut? Cynics have already pointed out one benificiary: Orban’s wife (she has five children).
The second is far more ominous. Married women under 40 (and note, married women only) are to be eligible for a huge loan — of ten million forint, or about £27,000, 30 times the average monthly salary — which will be forgiven if they have three children.
This is a huge amount of money, particularly in poorer parts of Hungary where salaries worth a few hundred pounds per month are normal. It might sound like a nice deal if you’re a young woman from an impoverished village: get married, have some children. But what happens if you don’t like your husband? Or he’s violent or abusive? Or have a terrible pregnancy and don’t want another one? Or even if he just loses his job? The payments on the loan would be crippling. The pressure to have more children (and, given the parlous state of Hungarian childcare provision, and difficulty of getting part-time work; and long commuting times in sparsely populated areas) would be severe.
This isn’t a positive incentive to have children, but debt-peonage to the state.
Nor would it even work in the medium term, because it takes women out of the labour force, exacerbating the labour shortage, instead of getting them to work in order to relieve it.
This policy won’t make a dent in Hungary’s labour shortage, but it will put Hungarian women under the thumb of the government and their husbands.
Maybe he needs a new name: Orban the Taliban.