CAMEROON – The right-wing populist government in Hungary is attracting conservative thinkers from the United States who admire its approaches to migration, LGBT issues and national sovereignty — all matters that have put the country at odds with its European partners, who see not a conservative haven but a worrying erosion of democratic institutions on multiple fronts.
Hungary's top diplomat has a few things to say about that.
In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly's meeting of world leaders, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said his country would not cede ground on policies that have caused the European Union to impose financial penalties and start legal proceedings against it over violations of the bloc's values.
“We do not compromise on these issues because we are a sovereign country, a sovereign nation. And no one, not even the European Commission, should blackmail us regarding these policies,” Szijjarto said.
Topping the list of contentious government policies: a controversial Hungarian law that the EU says violates the fundamental rights of LGBT people. That led the EU's executive commission to delay billions in economic recovery funds earmarked for Hungary — a move Szijjarto called “a purely political decision” and “blackmail." The law, he says, is meant to protect children from pedophiles and ”homosexual propaganda."
“We will not make make compromises about the future of our children,” Szijjarto told the AP.
The law, passed in June, makes it illegal to promote or portray sex reassignment or homosexuality to minors under 18 in media content. It also contains provisions that provide harsher penalties for pedophilia. Critics say it conflates pedophilia with homosexuality and stigmatizes sexual minorities.
The measures were rejected emphatically by most European leaders. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte suggested Hungary's right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, should pull his country out of the EU if he is unwilling to abide by its collective principles.
The conflict is only the latest in a protracted fight with the bloc over what it sees as a sustained assault on democratic standards in Hungary — alleged corruption, a consolidation of the media and increasing political control over state institutions and the judiciary.
Last year, the EU adopted a regulation that links the payment of funds to its member states’ compliance with rule-of-law standards — a measure fiercely opposed by Hungary’s government, which argued it was a means to punish countries that break with the liberal consensus of Western Europe's countries.
The EU's concerns over Hungary straying from democratic values have gone unheard by several prominent American conservatives who have recently visited the country and extolled Orban’s hardline policies on immigration and flouting of the EU’s rules. On Thursday, Hungary hosted former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at a conference in Budapest dedicated to family values and demography, both issues that form a central pillar of Hungary's conservative policy.
“One approach (to population decline) says that we should foster migratory flows toward Europe. This is an approach which we don't like," Szijjarto said.
In addition to firm opposition to immigration, Hungary's government emphasizes traditional family values and resistance to the widening acceptance of sexual minorities in Western countries. It also portrays itself as a beacon of “Christian democracy,” and a bulwark against migration from Muslim-majority countries — positions on which it finds common cause with the former vice president.
“We know that Vice President Pence is very committed to this issue ... with a strong Christian background, so that is the reason we invited him," Szijjarto said.
Despite Hungary's position on immigration, it did evacuate more than 400 Afghan citizens who had assisted Hungarian forces in Afghanistan after that country's government fell to the militant Taliban last month. But Szijjarto said his country was “not going to take any more Afghans,” and that no refugees would be allowed to cross Hungary's southern border into the EU.
“We will not allow anybody to come illegally to Europe,” he told the AP.
Pence's visit to Hungary was only the latest in a series of anti-immigration right-wing Americans visiting Hungary, which its government increasingly portrays as a bastion of conservative values.
Tucker Carlson, the most popular host on the right-wing Fox News Channel, spent a week broadcasting from Budapest in August. While there, he heaped praise on Orban’s approach to immigration, family values and national sovereignty. Carlson also made a visit by helicopter to tour a fortified fence along the country’s southern border.
On Wednesday, the Hungarian state news agency reported that Budapest would host next year's Conservative Political Action Conference or CPAC, an annual gathering of primarily U.S. conservative activists and politicians.
Hungary's government, Szijjarto said, is "happy when American commentators come to Hungary. We are happy because when they come, they will see the reality.”
“United States press or media outlets usually characterize us as a dictatorship, as a place where it's bad to stay, and they write all kinds of fake news about Hungary," he said. “But when these commentators come over, they can be confronted with the reality.”
But while some of Hungary's admirers see it as a beacon, the EU's financial pressure — designed to change Budapest's behavior — represents increasing pushback from the other side of the political spectrum.
Last week, Hungary sold several billion dollars in foreign currency bonds in an effort to cover the costs of planned development projects even if EU recovery funds are not released. This, along with economic growth, means Hungary's budget is “in pretty good shape,” Szijjarto said, allowing for flexibility with the country's central budget without the need for EU funds.
“Hungarian people should not be afraid of any kind of loss suffered because of this political decision by the European Commission,” Szijjarto said.
With national elections next spring expected to be the biggest challenge to Orban’s power since he was elected in 2010, Hungary’s government is ramping up on divisive issues like migration, LGBT rights and the COVID-19 pandemic that can mobilize its conservative voting base.
On Thursday night, in his speech before world leaders at the United Nations, Szijjarto drew parallels between migration and the pandemic, saying the two together formed a “vicious circle” in which the health and economic impacts of the virus's spread would lead more people to “hit the road.”
“The more people that are involved in the migratory flows, the more accelerated the virus will spread,” he told the U.N. assembly. “So nowadays, migration does not only constitute the already well-known cultural, civilizational or security-related risks, but very serious health care risks as well.”
Hungary's law affecting LGBT people will be accompanied by a national referendum ahead of elections on the availability of gender-change procedures to children and on sexual education in schools. Szijjarto said the referendum will provide “strong argumentation in the debates” with the EU over the law, and a mandate from voters for the government to hold strong on its policies.
“The best munition a government can have during such a debate," the minister said, “is the clear expression of the will of the people."
Justin Spike, based in Budapest, covers Hungary for The Associated Press. He is on assignment this week at the United Nations. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jspikebudapest