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No Sex Please. And No Immigrants Either

Hungarians don’t particularly like each other, so why would they like anybody else?

by Balint Szlanko 26 May 2010

Hungary is about to reach a melancholy milestone: sometime this summer, after three decades of decline, the population is set to sink below 10 million, a fall of nearly 1 million in the past 30 years.


Perhaps, in this post-nationalistic age, bereft of many illusions about the value of such things, (and recognizing that demographic decline is quite typical of advanced societies), population decline is seen as a disaster mostly on the romantic Right. Many Hungarians will tell you privately there are probably too many of us bastards as it is.


Yet surely it is still a failure, economic and social, that this most basic of urges – to reproduce – is found unfulfilled.


The population of some Western countries may have gone into decline partly through choice: In Germany, for example, some 30 percent of women say they simply don’t want children, according to Tiborne Pongracz, a demography expert at Hungary’s Central Statistical Office.


But Hungarian society is supposed to place a very high premium on the family and on children. Few say they can imagine life without kids. Four in five think married life is the ideal state. Yet Hungary produces proportionately fewer children than most EU countries (1.3 per woman), and the number of marriages (36,000 last year) is so low that some experts think there is no way to go but up.


Some of this is probably just hypocrisy: people trumpeting traditional values, yet now enjoying the party too much to actually make the required sacrifices. A wife and kids? Think about the implications, man.


Self-delusion on a fantastic scale becomes more obvious when we glance at the other end of the line. While staring into the doomed nation’s grave (a favorite, and extremely tiresome, image of apocalyptic Hungarian poetry and pamphleteering for half a millennium), Hungarians are also killing themselves like there is no tomorrow.


The country has an extremely high mortality rate, mostly due to unhealthy living habits such as lack of regular exercise and too much fatty food, plus excessive drinking and smoking. We may be about to disappear but at least we’ve had a good time.


These facts suggest to optimists that the decline might be stopped, perhaps even turned back, with clever social policies. Value choices may be hard to shape in a democratic state. Money, though, is a big incentive – but Hungary already has one of the longest stay-at-home child-support schemes in the Western world, seemingly to no end. (Although the recent crisis did away with some of that, to the cheering of the tax-paying and non-child-bearing many.)


The alternative path seems more treacherous. Large-scale immigration has been the solution for many Western countries, even if not as a conscious choice. The European Union sees a central role for immigration to stop the continent’s demographic decline.


For Hungary, that pill seems hard to swallow. Never mind post-nationalism, even a modicum of openness and curiosity about the outside world is hard to find here. Every poll tells you that Hungarians, most of whom have never met an asylum-seeker or a legal immigrant in their lives (because there are so few), are hostile to them as few Europeans are.


In 2009, a scary 33 percent thought that no asylum seeker should be allowed into the country under any circumstances. (To be fair, broadly similar attitudes have been measured in other Central European countries.)


More quizzically, a solid two-thirds rejected out of hand the immigration of the Piréz, an imaginary people inserted into the questionnaire by good-humored researchers trying to measure “instinctive” resistance to immigration. Arabs, Chinese, Vietnamese, Romanians, and other riff-raff were even less welcome to come.


An easy explanation for all this is that Hungarians have no earthly idea what they are talking about. There are only about 70,000 non-EU immigrants in the country (170,000 or so migrants altogether). Most of those are educated, self-employed, family men, even car-owners. Fewer than 600 are on the dole, so they are hardly a drain on public resources. (Tax-paying citizens of this country, few as you are, relax!)


Yet the perpetual fear surrounding immigrants and asylum-seekers is that they will take jobs away from honest, hard-working Hungarians. A bit cheeky, you might think, in a country where barely half the working-age population actually works, and tax avoidance is a national hobby proudly elevated to art, but there you have it.


The truth is that there is probably a large dose of simple bad atmospherics behind all this. Hungarians aren’t a particularly happy lot. They are prone to nagging, depression, suicide, blaming others for their ills, and thinking that they are the one single person in the entire country that does any honest work while all the others are scratching their bottoms and making money off it hand over fist.


We don’t particularly like each other, so why would we like anybody else? Suspicion and cynicism is everywhere, which, by the way, is ultimately the reason our democratic experiment has been less than a shining success. All of this has lately got worse as people discover that democracy and free markets won’t automatically turn the place into Switzerland. To return to our starting point: unhappy zoo animals don’t reproduce, either.

Balint Szlanko is a journalist based in Budapest.
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