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‘Hungary to build “more massive” anti-migrant fence, says PM Orbán’. This headline in the Irish Independent demonstrated the remarkable contrast between two Hungarians – Miklós Németh and Viktor Orbán – and between their relationship with fences.


Miklós Németh  

Miklós Németh, a Harvard educated economist, was Head of Economic Policy in the Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party which had ruled since the Soviet Union quelled the 1956 uprising. In the late 1980s, the long rule of Janos Kadar was coming to an end and Soviet-style communism was under strain and collapsing across Eastern Europe.

Mr Németh’s reputation for economic expertise and his experience negotiating Hungary’s national debt with the International Monetary Fund and Deutsche led to his name emerging in a contest to find a new leader. Miklos Németh took the oath as Prime Minister on 24 November 1988 after the other candidates had withdrawn from the contest and became the world’s youngest head of government at the time.

One of Mr Németh’s first decisions as Prime Minister was highly controversial. He ruled that Hungary should allow citizens of East Germany to enter Hungary and travel through the country towards West Germany. This decision stemmed from the recognition of the open borders offered by Western European countries in 1956, which enabled more than 200,000 Hungarians to flee anticipated Soviet reprisals.

In May 1989, Hungary commenced the process of dismantling its border fence with Austria to allow the hundreds of East Germans on holiday in Hungarian resorts to travel safely to Austria and then onwards to West Germany.

In August 1989, Prime Minister Németh visited Bonn to meet with the West German leaders,  Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. He informed them that a crucial decision had been made to open the border to enable East Germans who wished to do so should to leave the country within a few weeks. The Germans informed the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, of the decision and its implications. Gorbachev expressed a positive view of the development. On 11 September 1989, Hungary opened its borders permitting as many as 30,000 East Germans passage to West Germany through Hungary and Austria.

The immediate impact in East Germany was dramatic. Efforts to block movement towards the West led to an outpouring of public anger, to the removal of the Communist chief, Honecker, and to the historic opening of the gates at the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989.

Miklós Németh was Hungary’s first post-Communist Prime Minister and served as Provisional Prime Minister of the new Third Hungarian Republic until May 1990 when the first free elections produced a clear victory for the Hungarian Democratic Forum party of Jozsef Antall. I recall visiting Hungary during that election campaign as part of a Socialist International observer mission, attending events organised by the small Hungarian Social Democratic Party in Budapest and Debrecen.

Miklós Németh became Vice President of the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the financial institution established by the international community to assist the countries of eastern and central Europe and the former Soviet Union in their transition to market economies. He was responsible for organisational affairs and played a central role in creating an effective organisation. I had the privilege of working with him in my time in the Bank as Director for Ireland and Macedonia. He left the EBRD in 2000 to return to Hungary where he made an unsuccessful attempt to re-enter political life.


Viktor Orbán

Viktor Orbán has been Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010, having previously held the position from 1998 to 2002. He has led the conservative FIDESZ party since 1993. In the 2014 general election, the party won 133 of the 199 seats in the National Assembly, gaining 44.54% of the national vote, down from 52.73% in 2010.

Mr Orbán set out the main lines of his political theory in a widely quoted speech in 2014 which argued that the state is “the means of organising, invigorating, or even constructing the national community.” Mr Orbán believes that the state should promote national self-sufficiency, national sovereignty, familialism, full employment and the preservation of cultural heritage and points to Turkey, Singapore, China and Russia as models.

Mr Orbán advocates a form of soft Euroscepticism and populism which, according to Politico “echoes the resentments of what were once the peasant and working classes” by promoting an “uncompromising defense of national sovereignty and a transparent distrust of Europe’s ruling establishments.”

On 1 June 2011, Viktor Orbán spoke at the IIEA about his country’s Presidency of the Council. He expressed a highly critical view of Brussels which he described as ‘far away’ and ‘complex.’ He said that the far right offered answers to some issues which challenge the moderate right while the approach of European liberals was ‘soft’ on many national issues.

The 2015 European migrant crisis saw thousands of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa traversing Hungary and Austria, seeking to reach the perceived safety and prosperity of northern Europe. Prime Minister Orbán ordered the erection of a razor wire barrier on the Hungary-Serbia border to block entry of illegal immigrants in order to register all the migrants arriving from Serbia, under the terms of the Dublin Regulation.    The fence has greatly slowed the flow of people and as many as 3,000 new border police have been deployed to tighten control.

More recently, Mr Orbán has indicated his determination to build a new, larger fence on its southern borders to defend against a possible surge in the number of migrants. He has called for the stronger protection of Europe’s external borders, stating that joint efforts were needed to defend the borders between Serbia and Macedonia and Macedonia and Greece.

Mr Orbán contends that Hungary “does not need a single migrant for the economy to work, or the population to sustain itself, or for the country to have a future”. He argues that immigration damages Europe’s security and brings the threat of terrorism, adding that this arises from allowing the uncontrolled entry of large numbers of migrants from regions where Europe and the Western world are seen as enemies.

Prime Minister Orbán ordered a national referendum on 2 October 2016 on EU policy on settlement of immigrants, with the question “Do you want the European Union to be able to prescribe the obligatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?” A Government referendum pamphlet gave the following description of the Hungarian government’s actions:

“The Hungarian government built a border fence for the protection of Europe and Hungary, and  European politicians and press launched a campaign against it.  In spite of this, more and more have come to support the Hungarian solution.  Instead of forced settlement, protection of the outer borders is needed, so that you can still travel unimpeded within the Union.”

The referendum returned in a 98% majority in favour of rejection of the EU quota system which would have located 1,300 asylum seekers in the country. However, only 40% of the electorate voted, less than the 50% required to legitimise the result. Prime Minister Orbán responded by saying that what mattered was that there was a clear majority for his position.

Miklós Németh and Viktor Orbán have diverging opinions towards borders. While Mr Németh took an unprecedented step in letting Hungary become a gateway to Austria in the late 1980s, Mr Orbán has been notable for closing, not opening, passageways to the West. Although there are a number of dissimilarities between the two crises, the most striking dissimilarity lies in the way the two leaders chose to approach the issue of individuals wishing to pass through Hungary to seek refuge further afield.