Hungary’s “Let’s Stop Brussels” campaign: Propaganda and xenophobia masquerading as consultation

“Let’s Stop Brussels!” read the many government-funded billboards lining the route to Budapest’s Ferihegy Airport.

The road to and from Budapest’s Ferihegy airport is lined with advertising billboards, and until recent years the goods and products and services they were hawking were hardly surprising: swimwear, mobile phone companies, festivals, and so on. However, the past couple of times I’ve visited, a new trend has emerged. Amongst the more customary billboards, the Hungarian government’s ruling party, Fidesz, is now regularly using a number of them to proclaim its latest agendas.

Last summer my journey into Budapest was flanked by billboards asking me “Did you know that the Paris terror attacks were carried out by migrants?”, or “Did you know that Brussels wants to settle a city’s worth of illegal migrants in Hungary?”. This anti-migrant rhetoric of questionable factual accuracy was part of the government’s country-wide referendum on EU migrant quotas last year, in which 98% of those who participated voted to reject the quotas.

Though this result may sound comprehensive, and was hailed a success by prime minister Viktor Orbán, the referendum did not achieve the 50% turnout threshold required for it to be considered valid. Consequently there was nothing politically or legally binding about the referendum result, despite the government’s protestations to the contrary.

Last week, a new billboard campaign greeted my arrival in Hungary. This campaign extended into the city’s streets and metro stations, with all of the posters and banners conveying one simple message: “Állítsuk meg Brüsszelt!” (“Let’s Stop Brussels!”). The campaign doesn’t stop on the streets; all of this is in aid of the government’s latest ‘National Consultation’, in which it purports to seek Hungarian citizens’ opinions on particular issues affecting the country. It’s doing this by mailing questionnaires to every Hungarian citizen, asking them for their thoughts on six issues, at an estimated cost of 1.2 billion forints (£3.2 million, $4.1 million).

If the title of the consultation didn’t provide a hint as to the response the Hungarian government is looking for, the questions contained within its survey certainly don’t leave any room for doubt. Both the letter accompanying the questionnaire and the questionnaire itself are shown below, translated from the original Hungarian:

Translated from Hungarian — view the original Hungarian documents here.

From an English perspective, it’s hard not to see parallels with the rhetoric of UKIP in this questionnaire: blaming a combination of the EU and illegal immigrants for the country’s woes is a tactic right out of the Nigel Farage playbook. The questions are hilariously leading, with option a being the ‘correct’ choice in every case as far as the government is concerned, and the contrasting options being written to sound as unpalatable as possible.

Much like a lot of the anti-EU propaganda here in the UK (the ban on bendy bananas, anyone?), lies and misdirection come built in to this consultation. For example, the survey makes it sound like the EU is unhappy about tax cuts for individuals, when in fact it appears to be Hungary’s tax cuts for corporations that it’s concerned about. The proposed cuts would leave Hungary with the lowest corporate tax rate in the EU, and set it up as a potential European tax haven for businesses.

The anti-immigration questions are sadly less than surprising considering they come from the government of Orbán, who in September last year stated his opinion that all immigrants into the EU, including refugees fleeing violence in countries such as Syria, should be rounded up and shipped onto a guarded island outside the EU until their claims could be processed. Hungary has already been trialling a small-scale version of this by detaining would-be immigrants in shipping containers, with Amnesty International’s 2015 report alleging numerous human rights abuses in detention camps near the border.

Just as concerning are the somewhat paranoid-sounding and vague references to ‘foreign organisations’ seeking to ‘incite illegal activities’ and ‘interfere with internal affairs’. Only last week the Hungarian government passed a law stating that foreign-accredited universities could only operate in Hungary if they have a base in their home country — a ruling widely considered to be targeted at the Central European University (CEU), which Fidesz have previously accused of “undermining the lawfully elected government” and Orbán’s quest for an “illiberal state”. Further to this, the government have also drafted a law against NGOs that receive foreign funding, which Amnesty International has branded as “reminiscent of Russia’s draconian ‘foreign agents’ law, and… an ominous blueprint for the oncoming assault on Hungarian civil society.”

These laws being passed before the national consultation is even complete just emphasises the tokenism of the whole venture. The only Hungarian citizens likely to return their surveys are those who agree with Fidesz’s policies, and no matter how few the respondents, the government will use their responses as a mandate for twisting the country’s laws to its bidding. The consultation will have no independent verification, and you can be sure that Fidesz won’t be publicising the percentage of surveys that actually get returned.

Protesters in Budapest near Heroes’ Square on April 12.

Hungarians have not stood silent on these issues. The law placing CEU’s future in jeopardy was met with large-scale protests, with 70,000 protesting the ruling last Sunday. Another protest in Heroes’ Square on Wednesday also drew tens of thousands into the streets, and yet another on Easter Saturday loudly proclaimed “Nem maradunk csendben!” (“We won’t stay silent!”).

A banner at one rally summed up Hungarian fears about the direction their government appears to be taking: “Orange is the new red”. Under Fidesz (whose party colours are orange), the shadow of communism, which retreated from the country 28 years ago, appears to be growing again. Stickers stuck over the “Let’s Stop Brussels” posters amusingly proclaim “Let’s Stop Moscow!” or “Let’s Stop Orbán!”. Elections loom in 2018, but a fragmented opposition means Hungary may be dealing with the fallout from Fidesz’s policies for many more years to come.

“Let’s Stop Moscow!” proclaim stickers stuck over the “Let’s Stop Brussels!” posters.