Hungarian Border's Razor Wire Aims at Voters as Much as Refugees

  • Tough stance on migrant issue helps Orban arrest poll-slide
  • Polarized opinions make it difficult to forge EU consensus

Migrants scramble through the border fence between Serbia and Hungary.

Photographer: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Anas, a 22-year-old refugee from the devastated Syrian city of Aleppo, says the razor-wire fence on Hungary’s border with Serbia was so easy to get around that he barely noticed it. As long as Hungarian voters see it, though, it still serves a purpose for Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The grim news of 71 dead bodies found in a Hungarian-licensed truck in Austria last week is helping focus the attention of European leaders on the flood of people into the region through the Balkans. But Orban, his nation’s most successful politician of the past quarter century, zeroed in months earlier. He used the platform of a January demonstration after the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in Paris to rail against“economic migration.”

From that point on, the issue gradually became the centerpiece of Hungarian government communication, complete with billboards, a national mail-in survey, the construction of the fence and the establishment of “border hunter” police units. While they angered European leaders, the campaigns helped Orban stabilize the popularity of his party. Fidesz, in power since 2010, earlier this year lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority after anti-tax protests and corruption allegations against the government dented its support while radical nationalists surged.

“It’s been in the government’s interest to make this look as dramatic as possible,” Attila Juhasz, a Budapest-based analyst at Political Capital, said by phone. “The message, that the government can stop everyone from coming in, has been all about political gain.”

Hard-line Leader

As the European Union agonizes between providing refuge to millions fleeing war and calls for shutting the bloc’s borders, Orban has stood out as one of the most hard-line leaders, arguing that mass immigration will cause unemployment, crime and terrorism. He refused to accept any immigrants in the 28-nation bloc’s distribution plan beyond those already in the country.

Viktor Orban

Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister

Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

Anticipating the crisis, Orban’s government plastered the country with Hungarian-language billboards this summer, warning migrants not to take jobs from locals and to respect the nation’s culture. A government survey was conducted on the links between immigration and terrorism.

Most visibly, razor wire was laid across the 175-kilometer (109 miles) Serbian border and a 3 1/2 meter fence will follow, putting up a barrier 26 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain on Hungary’s western frontier. The daily tally of arrivals into Hungary so far peaked at 3,241 on Wednesday, part of the 300,000 the government expects this year.

Voter Support

Orban’s measures have struck a chord with voters. Sixty-one percent of Hungarians “tend to agree” with the government on the need to construct the border barrier, compared with 27 percent who are opposed, according to July a 10-15 survey by the polling company Szazadveg.

The issue helped Fidesz recover support and maintain its lead in polls, as shown by a separate Szazadveg poll conducted June 10-14. Its backing rose to 30 percent from 27 percent among eligible voters. The second-placed radical nationalist Jobbik party’s dropped 1 percentage point to 16 percent.

While in the vanguard among European leaders urging a tough stance, at home the Hungarian premier has mostly followed Jobbik’s cue. Ideas such as the border fence and army deployment were both floated first by the radical party, which last week urged the use of water cannons and stun grenades at the border. 

Orban’s success with the anti-immigrant rhetoric shows the political calculus that may keep the EU from rallying around a single policy, even as the numbers swell. Most refugees, including Anas on the Hungarian-Serbian border, want to make their way to Germany, which expects 800,000 of them this year.

Merkel Criticism

“We want to go on and work in Germany,” said Anas, who left Aleppo about a month ago and refused to give his last name. Like thousands of others, he’d simply followed railroad tracks across the border, bypassing the razor-wire obstacle completed Sunday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the collective response to the crisis “unworthy of Europe” and urged EU nations to share the burden. Hungary’s stance also drew the ire of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who urged the nation to scrap the barrier, saying in a Sunday interview with i-Tele, Europe 1 radio and Le Monde that Orban’s government “isn’t respecting the common values of Europe” with the fence and that the EU must have a “severe” discussion with it. 
Orban is undeterred. His foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, summoned France’s charge d’affairs in Budapest and called the comments by Fabius “shocking” and the sign of a lack of appreciation for the “astounding and dramatic pressure” on Hungary, the state-run MTI news service reported.

The government has vowed to get tough with migrants, including by jailing those who cross the border illegally. Showing its resolve, the cabinet announced last week that it was deploying 2,100 policemen to the border and discussed sending soldiers along. The fence will serve to steer asylum seekers to official entry points, government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said by phone Wednesday.

“We’re the only ones across the western Balkan migration route who are actually doing something, who are trying to impose order and defend Europe,” said Kovacs.