The right-wing Fidesz party has long lobbied the EU to take a harder stance on immigration into the continent-wide bloc.
The European Parliament’s (EP) vote to confirm the commission of Ursula von der Leyen, a centre-right politician from Germany, brought hope to Hungary’s staunch anti-migration party that the EU might clamp down on migration entirely.
The Fidesz party’s EP group said in a statement “there is a need for a new chapter in the functioning of the European Union, a profound turnaround in immigration and economic policy, which is possible more than ever with the new European Commission," after the vote on November 27.
The von der Leyen Commission was confirmed with 461 votes in favour, 157 against and 89 abstentions. The EU Commission (EC) wields decision-enforcing power, proposes legislation, makes sure EU treaties are upheld and oversees everyday operations of the 28-member union.
Hungary’s choice for the Commission of the the EU’s Neighbourhood and Enlargement portfolio, Oliver Varhelyi, caused controversy among certain members of the EP.
Varhelyi, who will oversee accession to the EU by applicant states and relations with countries on the EU border, is a longtime member of the far-right Fidesz party which runs Hungary’s government and has courted controversy in the EU.
End of ‘migration debate’?
Varhelyi’s nomination came after the EP’s Committee on Legal Affairs blocked over concerns about conflicts of interest Hungary’s first nominee, Laszlo Trocscanyi, a former justice minister who has criticised multiculturalism and migration.
Fidesz’s leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has rallied against liberal causes and stated his desire to create an ‘illiberal’ democracy in the style of Russia, implementing changes criticised as anti-democratic.
Fidesz has ruled Hungary since 2012. The party has maintained a constitutional majority since 2014, allowing for widespread changes without input or resistance from the opposition.
Detractors have accused Fidesz of attempting to limit judicial independence, freedom of educational institutions, laws that target nonprofits that help asylum seekers and government-funded media campaigns against migration, specifically from Muslim-majority countries.
Opposition politicians from the Momentum Movement, a liberal Hungarian party, abstained from voting to confirm van der Leyen’s commission.
Momentum MEP Katalin Cseh wrote in a social media post that Varhelyi “refused to respond” to questions about his independence from Fidesz and “backdoor” deals that helped form the new commission.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Hungarian government directed TRT World to comments Orban made during a radio interview, saying Varhelyi’s appointment the “biggest diplomatic success of the past ten years”.
The “debate” on migration needs a “good closure”, Orban said.
Salah Khonsari, an Iranian given refugee status in Hungary in 2013, told TRT World that Fidesz talking points on migration were a smokescreen. While Orban has painted himself as a defending Christian Europe from Muslim immigration, the Hungarian government doesn’t apply its strict requirements evenly, Khonsari claimed.
“There are many Muslims – Arabs, Iranians – living here. They just have money. If you start a currency exchange shop or a shisha bar, the government doesn’t have a problem”, Khonsari said in an interview.
Khonsari, who asked his name be changed, said the government’s anti-migration stance isn’t reflected in daily life in Budapest.
“Hungarians are welcoming, especially if you learn their language,” he continued, referencing the difficulty of the Hungarian language. “I’ve never had any serious issue with racism here”, Khonsair said.
“Things could be different in other parts of the country; there’s racism everywhere. But it hasn’t hurt me”, the refugee said.
‘European way of life’
Van der Leyen previously courted controversy after unveiling a portfolio for “Protecting our European Way of Life” in September, which was tied to the issue of migration.
After criticisms that the portfolio pandered to the far-right, van der Leyen announced it would be called Promoting the Euroepean Way of Life”.
The portfolio will feature a Commission Vice President post, given to Conservative Greek New Democracy politician Margaritis Schinas.
Schinas is a longtime Brussels diplomat, beginning his career with the EC in 1990. Van der Leyen’s letter to Schinas which outlined the post said there is a “need for well-managed legal migration, for smooth integration of migrants and refugees, and for common solutions on migration and security, based on European values and responsibilities”, according to a report from the European Parliament Research Service (EPRS).
Van der Leyen also proposed a new, EU-wide asylum system and a “reinforcement of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency to a standing corps of 10,000 border guards by 2024, earlier than the current target of 2027”, the EPRS said.
The new EC will push for further reforms to the “search and rescue” operations and in the Mediterranean Sea and its return policy rules, both of which have faced criticism, especially in returning asylum seekers to war-torn Libya.
Khonsari said he hoped the new rules would benefit asylum seekers, but he has his doubts.
“It’s only become harder to get asylum in the EU in the last years”, he concluded.