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Eduard Habsburg on Hungary’s Family Policy Successes

A conversation with Hungarian ambassador to the Holy See and Twitter personality Eduard Habsburg
Mass of the Polish Embassy for the 30th anniversary of the Visegrad Group

There’s something a bit weird about seeing a Habsburg pop up on Twitter. If 54-year-old Eduard Habsburg’s surname seems familiar, that’s because his family ruled Austria for more than six centuries. The Habsburg dynasty began in 1273 when Rudolf I was elected King of Germany, boasted emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, and only ended in 1918 when the cataclysm of the Great War forced Charles I from his throne and into exile in Switzerland. Eduard himself is the great-grandson of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, and King of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia.

Eduard Habsburg has served as Hungary’s ambassador to the Holy See and Sovereign Military Order of Malta since 2015. “I am unusual as an ambassador in that I have done many other things—TV work, animation producer, screenwriter, bishop’s spokesman—before, much to my surprise, being nominated as ambassador by the Hungarian government,” Habsburg told me.

In Austria he is still known popularly as Archduke Eduard, and the Habsburgs maintain their royal bloodlines—his wife is Baroness Maria Theresia von Gudenus, with whom he has six children. It is an ancient family with a very current role in 21st-century politics: “I had visions of diplomatic life that can best be summed up as ‘standing around at boring cocktails, holding a glass, and always having to say nice things.’ Boy, was I ever wrong.” Habsburg, who tweets his thoughts on a wide range of issues daily, is a staunch advocate of the pro-life and pro-family policies of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Habsburg is a devout Catholic and Orbán is a Calvinist, but the two agree on much.

As a diplomat, Habsburg represents one of the European Union’s most controversial countries. Joe Biden called Hungary and Poland “totalitarian regimes”; historian Anne Applebaum took aim at Orbán and his allies in her 2020 book Twilight of Democracy; and mainstream media outlets regularly speak of Hungary in ominous tones. This largely stems from Hungary’s social and cultural conservatism, which is offensive to many progressive and liberal journalists and commentators.

“With Hungary you are facing the rare beast of a country where a conservative government has been ruling for three uninterrupted periods—with a two thirds majority,” Habsburg told me. “We all know that a great part of the journalists in the so-called Western world pride themselves on being slightly (or strongly) ‘left of the middle.’ These two realities must necessarily clash, even if we had a prime minister who would speak and act like a mix between Gandhi and Martin Luther King—which Viktor Orbán doesn’t.”

Habsburg says that the media interprets Orbán for the wider public. And since “Hungarian is a unique language that very few people speak themselves,” most people “have to rely on sources inside or outside Hungary that translate material about Hungary. And many of those sources have, let us say, peculiar or strongly political points of view.” The reality is also that “Hungarians don’t like to chisel away at a statement for hours until it is politically correct but like to communicate in a clear and direct way without taking into account how things might be perceived in other countries.”

“This is usually why Hungary has diplomats,” he noted wryly.

Despite the controversies, Habsburg has been effective in finding common ground with his hosts in the Vatican. “There is a number of topics where Hungary and the Holy See easily see eye to eye, such as helping persecuted Christians, family topics, fighting anti-Semitism, and special interests like politics in favour of the Roma population. When it comes to hot topics like migrants, I like to point out that the position of the Holy Father is often assumed to be far more radical than when you read his actual statements.”

Hungary’s most fascinating initiatives are her pro-life and pro-family policies, which have successfully reduced abortion and divorce while boosting birth and marriage rates. “I think there’s three keys to this success,” Habsburg told me. “You need measures that really encourage people to have more children—and that means you need to take money and spend it on families. As a father of six I know that every little help with living space, tax exemptions, government grants, help with the family car, etc., makes a huge difference. With this security in view, more people will simply get married.”

It takes giving people concrete help: “From the third child onwards, you pay practically no more income tax; a woman with four children never pays any taxes again,” Habsburg told me. “There is a loan of 33,000 euro for young married couples (a significant amount in Hungary) that you do not have to pay back from the third child onwards, and only in diminishing parts after the first and second child is born. A nice detail here is that if you apply for this loan after the 12th week of pregnancy all repayments are suspended until after your third child.”

To accomplish this, you need buy-in. “That money, of course, has to be taken from somewhere else, so you need people convinced of and committed to this cause and ready to pursue such an agenda in the face of ridicule or outright criticism from other E.U. countries,” Habsburg noted. “In fact, our family minister Katalin Novák is travelling to conferences all over the world to convince other countries to join in with our family project and to share her experiences.”

Hungary also ensures that the costs associated with growing families are manageable. “The government offers loans for housebuilding, write-offs for mortgage credits, financial support for larger family vans (more than 7 seats). Grandparents can receive financial support for childcare. For Hungary, it is important to offer free choice to parents; that is, not to promote only a ‘stay-at-home-mom’ image but to help families freely decide and help both mothers who want to stay at home or go to work. All of these measures have probably contributed to a climate in which marriage numbers have gone up while divorces and abortions have gone steeply down.”

One of Habsburg’s observations seems like a veiled dig at Europe’s predominantly childless leaders. While Orbán has five children, many major leaders—Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Claude Juncker, Mark Rutte, Nicola Sturgeon, among others—have none. When the Hungarian government promotes family policy, it is obvious that Orbán’s understanding of what large families need is not just theoretical. “You need people in the public space like prime minsters, members of government, people in sports and other prominent members of society that regularly show themselves to be family people with more than 1.5 children. Seeing that you’re not alone with a numerous family will give more people the courage to try that difficult but beautiful path.”

Championed by freedom fighters like Viktor Orbán, who battled communism, and diplomats with ancient titles such as Eduard Habsburg, the Hungarian experiment is a fascinating attempt at renewing the ways of life that once sustained generations—fathers and mothers raising large families. The Hungarian government’s mission to create a family-oriented economy is nearly unique in the West, and it is one that we should be watching very closely.

Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.