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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

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10 December 2023

Babies First: Hungary’s Efforts to Repopulate the Population

OSCAR NEWMAN

Europe is facing a democratic crisis of unprecedented scale. The continent’s population is set to shrink by around 6% by the turn of the century, with the lowest continental growth rate in the world. Although this trend doesn’t spark apprehensions for many who hail it as a positive step towards sustainability, concerns are raised when it comes to the real issue:  the ‘greying’ of Europe. The continent is ageing faster than any other, ringing alarm bells for the viability of the welfare state, given the disproportionate number of elderly citizens over working-age people. Whilst Western states look towards immigration as a quick remedy, the ultra-conservative right are staunchly resisting this move, spearheaded by Hungarian PM Victor Orbàn. 

 

Although raw population levels haven’t yet decreased across the continent, there’s been a pretty noticeable downturn in the growth rate. In the last decade, we’ve witnessed a mere increase of 0.8 million people per year in the EU, a far cry from the 3 million extra people a year during the swinging ‘60s. The fertility rate for the EU stands at 1.53 as of 2021, far below the ‘golden’ replacement rate of 2.1 required to sustain a population. The result: mixed with increased life-expectancy, countries in Europe are ageing rapidly. 8 out of 10 countries hitting the highest global proportion of elderly citizens are situated in the EU. To put it simply, the elderly are gradually outnumbering those footing the bill for their retirement. Although this is obviously an issue. What’s not so obvious, for some, is the way to tackle this. 

 

Generally speaking, countries that have opened their doors to immigrants are riding a population wave, whilst those with a ‘keep out’ sign are watching their numbers dwindle. Take France, Italy, Germany or the UK, where raised immigration has led to both a population boost, particularly amongst working-age people, and a boost in fertility. The same however, cannot be said for certain Eastern and Central European states. 

 

There’s no doubt that migrants coming from outside the EU tend to favour Western European nations over those in the East, often due to their allure of  more generous welfare states and attractive job markets. Nevertheless, Orbàn has staunchly, and rather counterproductively, rejected immigration as a remedy for Hungary’s demographic crisis. 

 

In 2010, at the dawn of Orbàn's term as PM, Hungary was burdened with the lowest fertility rate in the whole EU, at a mere 1.26 children per woman. Vast research has established that immigration is positive for population growth, making Orban’s downright refusal even more  bizarre. Luxembourg, Spain, Austria and Sweden have all benefited from migration, both in terms of population growth and economy. So what’s stopping Hungary from doing the same?  

 

Orbàn makes no surprise of his fierce opposition to migrants, a simple Google search reveals his fiery and quite frankly racist anti-immigrant rhetoric. In his eyes, the inflow of non-ethnic Hungarians results in ‘non-Hungarian children’; at odds with his vision of Hungary’s future. Proudly claiming ‘we do not need numbers. We need Hungarian children’. And he’s not all talk; Orbàn’s actions have closely mirrored this stance. Perhaps most famously, during the 2015 migrant crisis, Hungary shamelessly closed its borders on several occasions, engaging in illegal confrontations with migrants and passing legislation often in breach of EU law. Tapping into the far-right ‘great replacement’ theory embraced by controversial figures such as Jordan Peterson and Eric Zemmour, Orbàn makes no secret his genuine fear that native Hungarians will be replaced by non-white migrants. 

 

Orbàn’s solution: babies first. In his administration, an unprecedented amount of money has been put into boosting the ‘native’ population level. In 2021, 5.2% of the GDP was allocated towards ‘family support’. This cash has been injected into tax-alleviating measures; most notably a lifetime exemption from income tax for mothers of over three children, and a 10 million forint (£25,400) loan to young married couples, written off after their third baby. Hundreds of millions have also been spent on government ad campaigns and even dystopian state-run ‘baby fairs’ for young couples It’s clear that repopulation is at the forefront of the agenda for the Hungarian government. 

 

The results: Hungary’s fertility rate has skyrocketed to an impressive 1.55, now 15th out of 27 EU countries. Although raw figures tend to be superficial, one can’t deny the remarkability of this increase. But, predictions show the projected population as 9.27 million by 2050, still down from 9.73 million today (eurostat). This, although expected given the severity of the decline, still questions the efficiency of the ‘Hungarian model’.

 

Whilst Orbàn’s thinking has been revered by many on the right, it still begs the question: is it worth it? 

 

If you’re a president fanatically obsessed with nativist and ultra-conservative ideals, it's probably the best option. It is worth noting however, that many predictions project Hungary’s population could still decrease, even if the ‘golden’ 2.1 fertility rate is reached, due to the current and continuous drop of childbearing-age women in the country. In other words, population science is complicated, and the effects are long lasting and thus irritatingly difficult to reverse.

 

And of course, a certain amount of hypocrisy lies within Orbàn’s philosophy. 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees have moved through Hungary freely, with some 35,000 refugees allowed to remain there, a welcome not received by those from Africa and the Middle East. It is clear that Hungary’s migration policy is inherently colour-coded. Despite emphasis on the repopulation of ethnic Hungarians only, a blind eye is turned to this policy when considering white Europeans. Although it’s an expensive gamble yet to prove effective, if you’re an ultra-conservative nationalist hell-bent on preserving the ‘native’ population, it’s probably the best option. But for those countries with someone more tolerant at the helm, it’s far easier, and better for the economy, to simply embrace the outsider. 

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