You are sitting with your family and friends watching your country compete for the Olympic gold medal. The game is nerve-racking, with everyone on the edge of their seats. You would do whatever it takes for your country to win. As this final round progresses, you realize that you do not know much about the sport, nor have you ever had much interest in it. You convince yourself that you are still worthy enough to watch this game because your country is playing. Of course, you are not a bad person for supporting your country. Your pride is patriotic, you are proudly participating in nationalism. What is wrong with that?
We have been reading about the rise of nationalism and populism for the past couple years, but most of us cannot discern the difference between the two “isms”. Benjamin De Cleen and Antonis Galanopoulous wrote an article illustrating the differences between them. Populism can be described as a political logic that “revolves around the powerless-powerful dimension, a vertical dimension – the down versus the up – where the populists claim to represent ‘the people’ against the current elite that does not represent them.” Nationalism however, “is not built around this vertical dimension, but instead around a horizontal dimension; nationalist politics construct and claim to represent the nation, which is discursively constructed by distinguishing between those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’ of the nation.” This short article will focus on the recent rise of ethnic nationalism in Hungary, and how those who are “out,” are being blamed for internal issues within and leveraged as legitimizing tools for Hungary’s nationalist parties.
Nationalism has many shapes. Cheering on your nation during the Olympics is a form of civic nationalism, while cheering on your nation to form ethnic or racial solidarity against minorities is ethnic nationalism. Hungary for example, has built a fence along the Serbian border to block the outsiders, refugees, from entering their nation. This is a result of rising ethnic nationalism within. Research suggests that “differences in state wealth and migration rates are the best predictors of barrier construction.” Hungary has experienced a significant rise in the number of refugees seeking asylum in the past five years and many of them are coming through Serbia. Serbia’s GDP per capita is nearly half of Hungary’s GDP per capita. A fence on the border was nearly inevitable.
Hungary’s autocratic, and perhaps even kleptocratic, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the Fidesz Party is a large proponent of the ethnic nationalism movement that is snowballing in Europe and other parts of the globe. In October 2016, Viktor Orban submitted to Parliament a Bill for constitutional amendment in a move to ban refugees. He has vowed to block an EU program which was designed to redistribute refugees from Greece and Italy to nations such as Hungary. With nearly 85% of Hungarians perceiving themselves as ethnically “Hungarian,” and a per capita income only two-thirds the EU-28 average, Viktor Orban has leveraged the rise in anti-refugee sentiment within his nation to legitimize his nationalist platform.
The Fidesz Party and its coalition the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) have 131 of the 199 seats in the National Assembly. The Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) Party controls 24 seats in the National Assembly. The Fidesz-KDNP and Jobbik are theoretically in opposition, but issues on migration are the exception. Both nationalist political groups have not held back in expressing their anti-refugee sentiment, and their current and expected political power is most concerning.
Jason Pack, a researcher at Cambridge University, sums up the situation in Hungary quite well, “Despite the ease of movement afforded by their EU passports, fewer Hungarian young people study abroad than five years ago; fewer are trilingual than a generation ago; the country’s economy and political system are gradually reverting back to Soviet-style cronyism, after a brief flirtation with liberal democracy; free flows of investment capitalism have halted; and – most worryingly– Hungarian ethnic nationalism deploys increasingly irredentist themes.” This is a major concern because Hungarians aged 15-44 constitute approximately one-third of the population. Rising ethnic nationalism driven by older demographics is concerning, but when this phenomenon is being driven by young people, it becomes devastating. The young are blaming refugees for their hardships.
A similar narrative took shape during the 2016 U.S. election. The great and prosperous boom after World War II was followed by a significant increase in supply of jobs, which not only fostered happier citizens because their net worth was increasing, but also helped crystalize civic nationalism. Since there were so many jobs, immigrants and refugees coming into the country were not of grave concern, and were often welcomed. Now that the has music stopped, frustration and anger have been building up, and the blame game naturally follows.
Three combined ingredients – increased supply of refugees, increased demand for anti-refugee policy, and a relatively weak economy – are the recipe for leveraging ethnic nationalism to blame refugees for Hungary’s economic hardship.
On an absolute and relative per capita basis, Hungary is receiving . However, Hungary rejects most of these applicants, and has the lowest acceptance rate in the EU. Refugees are being blamed for Hungary’s weak economy, although Hungary has accepted few refugees. So what can be done?
While the EU is becoming increasingly frustrated with Hungary’s approach to the refugee crisis, it is important to realize that EU pressure is only adding fuel to the nationalist fire in Hungary. Hungary has a relatively weak GDP per capita and their economy is not likely to improve anytime soon. Instead of the EU trying to enforce minimum asylum acceptance thresholds, it would be more beneficial for all European nations to instead let Hungary independently decide how many refugees it wants to receive. Although this at first sounds counterintuitive, EU pressure is inadvertently increasing the legitimacy of Hungary’s ethnic nationalism. Hungary’s nationalist coalition in power along with Jobbik have made it clear they will block the EU’s refugee program. The more the EU pressures Hungary into accepting refugees, the more Hungary’s nationalist parties can blame refugees for everything going wrong to legitimize these party’s platforms.
Hungary is blaming refugees for their internal issues, despite very few refugees being granted asylum. The EU’s increased pressure on Hungary is legitimizing ethnic nationalism within, making it increasingly harder for those on the outside to have a chance of ever being accepted on the inside.