Hungary

How progressives can win the immigration debate: Lessons from the Hungarian National Election

In the anti-immigrant narrative, immigration itself is not the key problem. Hungary is a good case in point.

On the 8th of April, Viktor Orban won the Hungarian national election with an overwhelming majority for third time in a row. He and his party campaigned on a deeply anti-migrant platform and crushed their opposition. But it’s not only Hungarian progressives who have had a hard time developing an effective counter-narrative to the anti-migrant agenda.

The election of Trump and Brexit revealed that progressives are losing the debate over immigration worldwide. To effectively respond to anti-immigrant invective, progressives should go beyond emphasising the economic benefits of immigration. In the anti-immigrant narrative, immigration itself is not the key problem. Hungary is a good case in point.

Progressives are losing the debate over immigration worldwide.

In the last weeks of his campaign, Orban and his party poured its new posters onto the streets of Budapest. The posters depicted marching migrants with an enormous ‘Stop’ sign stamped on the left-hand side. These posters were not only racist, they were also stolen. Fidesz recycled the very same photo that Nigel Farage had used in the Brexit campaign two years ago. During the campaign, British tourists traveling to Budapest could also travel back in time.

The case of this reused British photo in Hungary shows that while party leaders in different countries want to strengthen their borders in order to keep migrants away – either by erecting a fence in Hungary, by building wall in the US, or by leaving the EU – the negative campaign against immigration can easily cross borders. And it falls on fertile grounds in each country. Even though the anti-migrant messages of these different campaigns are very similar, when it comes to statistics about immigrant groups in each nation, Hungary is an outlier.

According to the Office for National Statistics, of the resident population in the UK, 14 % were Non-UK born or Non-British national in 2016. The case is similar in the US, with 13.4 % of the US’ population in 2015 identified as immigrants. In Hungary, however, even the latest data shows that only 2.4 % of the population are immigrants who have been residents for more than 3 months. This means that such anti-immigrant campaigns are effective, even in an almost immigrant-free context.

It means that such anti-immigrant campaigns are effective.

How, then, could a campaign against immigration be successful in Hungary? To argue that Eastern Europeans are more xenophobic than their western counterparts would be an oversimplification. In fact, when it comes to the groups about whom Western Europeans are most sensitive, they can be just as prejudiced, if not more so, than Eastern Europeans. Therefore, to be able to answer the question, one should study the underlying structure of the anti-immigrant agenda.

In a context where people have little or no experience with immigrants, what resonates with the local population are existential threats. Domestic workers are afraid of losing their jobs and of not having social security. On top of that, people are also afraid of losing their cultural identity. In short: people feel insecure. These fears are being exploited by neo-nationalists worldwide. They unload voter’s economic and existential insecurities onto immigrants and draw a line between domestic and immigrant workers. This is why reacting to anti-immigrant messages with pro-immigration remarks misses the point.

To develop a coherent message about a better, economically secure future

Progressive arguments mainly revolve around how a world of free movement would be trillions of dollars richer,  or how taking back control over immigration would be too expensive. In light of the underlying insecurities of voters, these arguments seem weak. To prevent anti-migrant hate campaigns from polluting even more countries, progressives should erase the line separating domestic and immigrant workers. To win the immigration debate, they should directly address these insecurities and develop a coherent message about a better, economically secure future. A future, where immigrants and natives can achieve their common goals by working together. Developing such a frame requires new thinking, careful research and new ways of communicating. A demanding, but necessary step if progressives want to move forward.