Will Hungary Be Vindicated Again?
In a Europe at war, Hungary stands nearly alone in calling for peace.
Hungary has staked out a lonely position on the war in Ukraine. As every other European power calls for escalation, it has called for peace. That is why Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, was so in demand at the U.N. this week, where we sat down for an interview.
“Our position is crystal clear: We should put an end to the suffering of the people: first with a ceasefire, then peace talks,” Szijjarto told me. “Of course, we stand by Ukraine. We condemn the war. We support territorial integrity and sovereignty … but what we have to prevent is this regional war becoming a global war.”
Hungary’s government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, is used to standing alone. In 2015, it was roundly condemned by its fellow members of the European Union for refusing to receive migrants. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, accused Hungary of failing to “respect Europe's common values.” Orban’s policy stood in stark contrast to that of Angela Merkel, who welcomed migrants with the declaration, “We can do this!”
Eight years on, the politics of migration have radically changed. Hungary’s policy is quietly imitated by other European countries, not because they have elected “far-right” governments, but because mainstream parties have silently adopted anti-migration measures.
Will Hungary be vindicated on Ukraine as it was on the migrant crisis? If so, it will likely be because Europe finds the costs of war too heavy to bear.
In November, Gen. Mark Milley estimated that 40,000 civilians had been killed, along with more than 100,000 soldiers from each army. More than 8 million people have poured out of Ukraine—including into neighboring Hungary. “We have received more than a million refugees,” Szijjarto said. “We give them free schooling, free access to healthcare, we give incentives to companies to employ refugees.”
Far from the front lines, the costs of war have been felt. Europe’s economy has relied on the combination of Russian natural resources and European technology. But with the outbreak of war and the imposition of sanction, the connection between the two has been severed. This means, as Szijjarto noted, that “the long-term basis of European economic growth is over.”
Sanctions directed against Russia have boomeranged. In Germany, household energy costs are 23 percent higher than last year, despite offsetting policies. Food prices have likewise increased 20 percent. Hungary has been hit particularly hard. Szijjarto describes the grim situation: “In 2021, in the year before the war and before the sanctions, we had to pay 7 billion euros for imported energy. In 2022, last year, after the war has broken out and the sanctions have been introduced, we had to pay 17 billion euros. Inflation went up to 25 percent. Before that, it was less than 5 percent.”
Parties that might have been expected to favor peace have instead emerged as strongly pro-war. Germany’s Green Party, a junior member in the current government, was once noted for its anti-militarist stance. As recently as September 2021, its leader Annalena Baerbock campaigned against “the export of weapons and armaments into war zones.” But along with her party, Baerbock has reversed course. In her role as Germany’s foreign minister, she has staked out a more pro-war position than her country’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz.
Perhaps this should be unsurprising. The Green Party’s hostility to fossil fuels means that it can regard one of the downsides of the war—rising energy prices—as a benefit. Meanwhile, its fervent commitment to progressivism inclines it to view the war in ideological terms, as a battle on behalf of progress against the forces of bigotry.
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Orban sees things differently. In a speech delivered on February 18, he said, “The war in Ukraine is not a war between the armies of good and evil, but a war between the troops of two Slavic countries: a war limited in time and—for the time being—in space.” This view stands in contrast to dominant narratives in both Russia and the West. Putin has presented his invasion as a holy struggle against a godless foe. Leaders in Europe and the United States have presented their cause as a crusade for democracy. Each side has revived memories of World War II, insisting that they are fighting against resurgent fascism. In Orban’s view, the stakes are somewhat lower.
If Europe does come around to the Hungarian position, Szijjarto expects no credit. “It is possible that in the future the European policies will be closer to what we represent now. But you know, politics is not a profession based on credits. Regardless of the fact that now everybody does what we have been doing since 2015 on migration, no one admits that. No one says, ‘Sorry that we judged you in 2015. You were right.’ This is not a sentence that you would hear, ever.”
Yet Hungary does not quite stand alone. On February 22, Pope Francis once again called for peace. “I appeal to those in authority over nations to make concrete efforts to end the conflict, to reach a ceasefire and to start peace negotiations.” Pope Francis’s statements on the war have sometimes drawn criticism. But his support for peace talks is shared by Hungary, as Szijjarto notes: “Pope Francis spoke very clearly about the necessity of peace, and this is exactly our position.” It is not the worst company.