Garvan Walshe: Orban’s fertility drive is an attack on Hungarian women

The man his critics call the ‘Viktator’ has two new policies – one a gimmick, one deeply sinister.

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.

The EU is no land of milk and honey – let’s be optimistic about our future as an independent nation

This is a momentous year in the history of the United Kingdom. The voices of 17.4 million voters who took part in the biggest act of democracy in our history will finally have been heard and in the decades to come, history books will pronounce 2019 as the year that the UK once again became […]

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This is a momentous year in the history of the United Kingdom. The voices of 17.4 million voters who took part in the biggest act of democracy in our history will finally have been heard and in the decades to come, history books will pronounce 2019 as the year that the UK once again became a proud, independent nation.

And it won’t be forgotten that it was the Conservative Party that gave people a chance to give their verdict on the EU in the 2016 referendum, and which entrusted the people with such a momentous decision about our constitution and destiny.

Of course, as we approach the pivotal moment of 29th March when we leave the EU, we are once again being force-fed a diet of doom, gloom and despondency from those who wish the result had turned out differently.

But we must remember that these people have a democratic right to propel these arguments, just as 17.4 million voters had a right to rubbish their claims during the referendum – which they did, resoundingly.

And it turns out that they were absolutely right to do so. This really is a time for hope and optimism, not despair and fear. Since 2016, in spite of dire predictions made during the campaign, we’ve seen a tax windfall, the fastest growth in wages in almost a decade, record employment levels and steady economic growth. Our future has never looked brighter.

If we had have chosen to leave some sort of Utopia, I would understand people’s concerns. But the EU is no Utopia and if it were, voters would have had the wisdom to recognise this during the referendum.

In Italy, months of uncertainty and inconclusive elections have resulted in two populist parties – the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and right-wing League – forming a coalition.

Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the federal parliament for the first time last year. As with Italy’s League, it is an anti-euro party and it has strong anti-immigration policies. In 2017, next door in Austria, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) become a junior partner in coalition with the Conservatives and talk of banning headscarves for girls under 10 in schools and seizing migrants’ phones is now a part of mainstream Austrian politics.

In April last year, Viktor Orban secured a third term in office in Hungary with a landslide victory in an election dominated by debates about immigration. Orban once warned of the threat of “a Europe with a mixed population and no sense of identity” – comments unheard of in the UK political context.

The Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) was the largest party in last year’s general election in Slovenia. Its party leader, Janez Jansa, formed an alliance with Mr Orban in opposing migrant quotas, Poland has also condemned the EU’s handling of the migrant crisis and in Denmark, the police are now allowed to seize migrants’ property to pay for their upkeep and has pledged to boost contraception aid to developing countries to “limit the migration pressure”.

And of course we’ve seen the distressing scenes in France. Weeks of street protests have erupted into a full-on anti-government movement leading to the worst violence in central Paris in a decade.

The EU is not the land of milk and honey many would have you believe. The tide is turning against the EU and the way it does business in scores of EU countries and our friends on the continent are being forced to make their voices heard through the prism of extreme political parties.

Turning to the economy, around 90 per cent of global economic growth will come from outside the EU over the coming years and the EU now accounts for less than half of our overall trade.

The EU’s economic clout is also falling, with its share of the global economy almost halving over the last 30 years. That’s why people voted to Leave so that we could take back control of our trade and regulatory policy and strike trade deals with the emerging powerhouses of the world economy.

And for every unemployed Brit, there are two people unemployed in the euro area. Unemployment is five times higher in Greece, almost four times higher in Spain, double in France and between 17-19 per cent in much of the south of Italy.

As much as my opponents like to whip up a fevered frenzy about Armageddon scenarios, cliff edges and crash outs, the truth is that we are doing well in the UK. We are also lucky to have had a chance to register our discontent in a referendum, and fortunate to be having such a thorough, engaging and relatively peaceful debate about what our post-Brexit future should look like.

We haven’t seen a rise of extremist parties in the UK, nor have we seen riots on our streets. We have simply concluded that the EU is not capable of change and that it doesn’t have our best interests at heart and we’ve done all this without making extreme political choices.

But we must be careful to ensure that we keep our debate within the political mainstream. Many people who voted in 2016 did so for the first time in their lives and there would be disastrous, political consequences if we decided to ignore or reverse the result.

The British people have boldly trodden where no other EU country has yet dared to tread and we are leading in Europe, as we always have done.

Let’s hold our heads up high and show how you can be a proud European nation without belonging to the institutions of the European Union. And let’s lead our friends and allies into the 2020s as we forge a strong, peaceful and prosperous path together.

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Garvan Walshe: Conservatives should defend human rights in Eastern Europe – Hunt must condemn Orbán

This autocratic thuggery is happening less than two hours’ flight away. We must not turn a blind eye to it.

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the British Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.

Budapest. Thousands march towards the state TV building to demand they cover days of popular protests they have studiously been ignoring (pigeons and their fate, among other things, have been prime time news on Hungarian official channels).

1988? No, this week. Opposition parliamentarians demand access to the building, as is their right in Hungarian law. Entrance is refused, but they find their way in. They want to read their demands, which include the restoration of media freedom and the abolition of new courts established under the direct control of the justice ministry, on TV. Their request is refused. Finally, the next morning, they’re roughed up and expelled from the building by private security guards. One, Laszlo Varju, is beaten so badly he is hospitalised.

Something is changing. The precarious balance where Viktor Orbán pretends not to be a dictator, and the opposition pretend there’s no need or possibility to rise up against him, has shattered.

Since taking power in 2010, he has hollowed out Hungary’s democratic institutions one by one. He calls this “illiberal democracy” but it´s really zombie democracy in which people’s formal power is ignored in the service of a governing clique.

Let me declare an interest. I’m no fan of Orbán. I chair Unhack Democracy Europe, which is running an initiative to investigate irregularities in the 2018 election. I believe that people who still live in functioning democracies should help people whose institutions are under threat.

With a two-thirds majority in the parliament, control of 87 per cent of the media (state and nominally independent) Orbán seemed unassailable. He could expel Hungary’s most reputed university, pass legislation that taxed political activity he didn’t agree with watch his cronies get inexplicably wealthy, all the while subsidised by British taxpayers’ EU contributions.

Then he made a fateful mistake. Alongside the constitutional manipulation of which he is a past master (this time to set up a network of courts directly under government control) he rammed through a new labour law in an irregular session.

The tumult (including a visibly shaken Orbán) was livestreamed by MPs and found its way to millions of mobile phones across Hungary.

The labour law, that involved extending the amount of overtime that could be included in contracts, contained one crucial catch: employees would have to wait three years to actually get paid for their extra work.

Unions and opposition campaigners swiftly denounced this as the “Slave Law” — an exaggeration, but hardly as exaggerated as the florid claims of a George Soros led conspiracy made by Orbán himself.

What had been a recondite debate about the powers of government that only elements of society already opposed to Orbán concerned themselves with suddenly became something that hit people’s daily lives.

As thousands took to the street official propaganda mouthpieces denounced them as agents of, guess who, George Soros, and, in a slip that betrays official Hungary’s alignment with Putin, accused them of plotting a Ukraine-style “Euromaidan” peaceful overthrow of a corrupt autocrat.

Pigeons were indeed a safer choice of topic for the state broadcaster.

Tomorrow, a bigger demonstration is planned. As in Communist times, the target is the state lie machine the regime uses to hide from its own people the costs of its corruption and mismanagement, and blame them, as though taking its lines from a Nasserite dictatorship, on the machinations of a Jewish financier.

In Hungary, despite consistent and fast economic growth, public services are suffering after political cronies have replaced competent managers. Hospitals struggle to retain staff, who have left for freer places, and even, in an echo of Communist times, remain under-stocked with toilet paper.

Until recently, the regime has kept its repression financial: taxes on private advertising to bankrupt independent media; tilting public procurement to cow the private sector; direct interference in universities and ministerial pre-clearance of cultural institutes’ output; politically motivated audits of businesses affiliated with the opposition.

In recent weeks, however, the pressure has turned darker. A mysterious fire at an opposition party’s offices. Police pepper spraying peaceful demonstrators. And now the assault on an opposition MP. The issue is not a single law, but abuse of power by an unaccountable ruling clique.

This raises an important question of conscience of the Conservative Party.

Indeed, Péter Niedermüller, an MEP for the DK party whose offices suffered the fire, told me he was “saddened” by Tory MEPs vote with Orbán over the application of the EU’s Article 7 in September.

Rumour has it it was done in an attempt to curry favour with Orbán in the Brexit negotiations. If that was the reason, it has clearly failed.

The Hungarian government’s behaviour has now crossed the line beyond which considerations of national sovereignty should affect Britain´s diplomatic stance.

The Conservative Party stood up for human rights in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and it´s time we did so again.

Jeremy Hunt should condemn this autocratic thuggery, which is happening less than two hours’ flight away.Leaving the EU must not mean leaving the European community of democratic values.