A tale of two protests

If the Brussels protests were a demonstration of ignorant bigotry and rage, the people massed on Budapest’s streets showed the limits of illiberal populism.
Wednesday 19/12/2018
People hold a big European Union flag during a protest against a proposed new labor law, billed as the "slave law", in front of the Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, on December 18. (Reuters)
People hold a big European Union flag during a protest against a proposed new labor law, billed as the "slave law", in front of the Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, on December 18. (Reuters)

What happened in Brussels and Budapest on December 18 was about immigration and its real or imagined consequences. The portents of events in Budapest should dismay everyone, including Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orban.

In Brussels, 5,000 right-wing protesters took to the streets in protest of the government’s decision to sign the platitudinous, non-binding and wholly unenforceable UN Global Compact for Migration. The Brussels protesters clearly believed the Belgian ultra-nationalist Vlaams Belang party’s scaremongering about the agreement.

The party, which recently strategically quit Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel’s coalition government, has spread incendiary rumours that the compact could lead to a compulsory increase in immigration to Belgium. In fact, the compact can do nothing beyond offering thoughts and prayers to those who flee their own country because of war or persecution or migrate to another in hopes of a better life.

So far, so usual for European nationalist politics, ahead of next year’s European parliamentary elections but what happened in Budapest is more extraordinary by far.

In the Hungarian capital, 10,000-15,000 people protested against laws enacted by Orban’s government. Not only did the illiberal government recently seize executive control over Hungary’s hitherto independent courts, it empowered employers to demand up to 400 hours a year in overtime. Payment for the extra work can reportedly be delayed for three years. The protesters call it the “slave law” and the reason for its enactment — a massive labour shortage in the country — is migration.

Hungary has had too much outward migration and too little inward migration. Deaths outpace births in Hungary, the European statistics agency said. The country has been experiencing a brain drain to wealthier European countries since 2004 EU membership gave Hungarians freedom of movement across the 28-member regional bloc.

The answer to Hungary’s problems ironically is migration. The government could allow the controlled entry of foreign workers in the sectors it wants and in the numbers it needs. It could even set limits to the time a foreign worker can spend in Hungary. Then, the “slave law” would not be needed and the protests would stop. Contrary to what Orban and his Fidesz party constantly say, migration is not always a problem. Sometimes, it can be a solution.

That Orban won’t — or can’t — allow inward migration is an indication of the limits of populism and of migrant-bashing.

If the Brussels protests were a demonstration of ignorant bigotry and rage, the people massed on Budapest’s streets showed the limits of illiberal populism. Ultimately, it fails those it claims to protect.