Budapest Demographics Summit
On September 23rd – 24th, the Fourth Budapest Demographics Summit was held in the Hungarian capital. The summit, which was first held in 2015, happens every two years and represents an organised show of force, when it comes to the more illiberal streak of Central Europe and the Western Balkans.
Hungarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban underscored family values and slammed the LGBTQ and gender “lobby” on Thursday at a biennial demographic summit attended by Western conservative leaders in Budapest that cements Hungary’s reputation as a bastion of conservatism in the European Union.
In power since 2010, Orban has styled himself as an “illiberal” defender of “Christian Europe” and frequently clashes with Brussels over his anti-migration and anti-LGBTQ policies.
First held in 2015, the so-called Budapest Demographic Summit takes place every two years to rail against migration and urge Christian couples to have more children.
The summit, one of PM Viktor Orban’s favourite gatherings, reunited some of the region’s right-wing, conservative, populist leaders, with a guest appearance from Mike Pence, former Vice President under the Trump Administration and one of America’s staunchest traditional political figures.
Whereas the basis of the summit has been to address the looming and ever-growing problem of the population decline in the region, Hungary’s Viktor Orban has used this summit as a platform to issue his grievances towards the EU, Western values and progressive policymaking.
In recent years, most EU countries have recorded declining birth rates. For example, Hungary’s population has been shrinking for 40 years, as its citizens keep getting older. “In 1981, Hungary’s population peaked at 10.7 million. At the beginning of this year, it was estimated to be 9.73 million. Every year for 40 years, more Hungarians have died than were born”, states the same BIRN analysis.
But, Orban, a father of five, rejects one of the world’s most used solutions to counter this worldwide trend – immigration – and is urging his fellow compatriots to have more children.
“At the last forum in 2019, Orban told international politicians, religious figures and diplomats that migration was contributing to “population displacement”, using a loaded term used in extreme-right wing circles. Earlier that year, Orban announced a package of financial incentives to increase birth rates, including a lifetime tax break for women bearing four or more children”, states France24.
At the summit, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was joined by leaders of neighbouring countries – Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and the Czech Republic to strengthen the position and the reason behind the summit. This is, namely, to advocate for family values and to find alternatives to grapple with the demographic situation that differs from the Western agenda.
Mike Pence’s presence at the Budapest Summit was also extremely important. His presence and, by implication, direct agreement with the values conveyed by the summit, are extremely important for a region of Europe, whose traditionalist values feel threatened by the liberal status-quo. As a bastion of conservatism in the Western world, Pence represents the very coexistence and possibility of such values and beliefs in a world order that is in deep disagreement with such ideologies.
Apart from Pence and heads of states from the region another important figure was in attendance, who could have an important impact on how the ideological makeup of Europe will play out in the next few years. Eric Zemmour, a French far-right political pundit, who is dubbed by critics as the “French Fox News” and is possibly also eyeing a run for the French presidency, was also present at the pro-family summit. Marine le Pen’s ideological rival, he is shaking up the French presidential contest and his ambitions to get to the Élysée Palace are already upsetting next year’s race.
Zemmour is known for his divisive rhetoric on immigration and identity, a common area of interest when it comes to Orban’s agenda. “I find that Viktor Orban has understood the evolution of the world… and defends the identity of his country and therefore that of Europe,” Zemmour told CNews channel.
Among the first speakers at the two-day forum was former US Vice President Mike Pence, who served under Donald Trump.
Pence stated at the summit that “to renew and preserve our families on which our civilisations have been built. Strong families make strong communities and strong communities make strong nations,” he said, calling on governments to “put families first”.
Praising Orban for introducing tax exemptions for mothers of four or more, Pence blasted China for “decades of abuses in the name of population control” under its one-child policy.
Orban pressed on, stating that “Hungary must defend itself because the western left-wing is attacking. It is trying to relativise the notion of family, its tools for doing so are gender ideology and the LGBTQ lobby, which are attacking our children,” the Hungarian leader told the Budapest Summit.
Moreover, what is interesting to point out is that Viktor Orban’s summit was smartly eyeing established figures from traditionally liberal and Western countries to join the gathering, in order to legitimise and give more credit to the ideological and political efforts that are done by statesmen in the region.
In essence, the values they are fighting for are not only present in Central and Eastern Europe, but there are factions of it, many of which unrepresented and vilified, because they are navigating within a liberal order that is denying not only their input, but also their right to actively take part in the democratic system.
However, the dichotomy is visible here. Parties, entities and figures with undemocratic values, aspirations and policies are demanding to take part in the democratic system. The scope of this discussion deserves a debate in and of itself.
The Budapest summit comes in the wake of an ever more strained relation between Hungary and the EU leadership at Brussels. Tensions between the two parties boiled over in June over a controversial law adopted by the Hungarian parliament banning the “promotion” of homosexuality to minors. As EU leaders slammed the law, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called it a “shame”.
The ensuing tensions that are continuant along the East-West ideological and geographical border is a phenomenon that is not characteristic of Europe only. As populist, far-right leaders are becoming ever more assertive and vocal, the EU leadership and the liberal status quo in general is facing and will continue to face a multitude of challenges, as the political makeup, the demands of the electorate and societal visions are becoming more complex, unpredictable and difficult to forecast.
Photo source: Reuters