The Italian PM is one of only a few big names set to appear at this year’s Budapest Demographic Summit, suggesting the Hungarian prime minister’s drawing power is on the wane.
By Edit Inota
Giorgia Meloni is saving Victor Orban’s pet project this year. The Italian prime minister will be the star guest at the fifth Budapest Demographic Summit, a biennial gathering of conservative to far-right figures that begins in the Hungarian capital on Thursday.
The decision to attend the two-day event by Meloni, whose election victory last September was greeted ecstatically by Prime Minister Orban, is all the sweeter for the nationalist-populist government in Budapest, as its hopes of having a new close ally in the EU have so far been dashed.
“Meloni’s visit is highly important for Prime Minister Orban, who has become increasingly isolated in the EU since the war in Ukraine, and needs to prove to his electorate that he still has some heavyweights on his side in Europe,” Zsuzsa Szelenyi, foreign policy expert and program director of the CEU Democracy Institute, tells BIRN.
Yet it is not only Orban who might gain from the visit. “Meloni has to perform a careful balancing act. She is pursuing a more pro-EU agenda than expected, but part of her electorate cherishes Orban,” Szelenyi, the author of Tainted Democracy, a book about the global rise of populist autocracy, explains. “She has to keep her party base happy.”
Szelenyi also believes that despite differing positions on Russia, Orban and Meloni – who will also hold bilateral talks – can find common ground on EU policies, such as rule-of-law issues, which the government could then sell to the Hungarian public as a big victory and preserve Orban’s image as an influential politician within the EU.
Judging from the roster of speakers at this year’s Demographic Summit, Orban’s drawing power certainly looks to be on the wane.
From a political perspective, the guest list is lower profile than in previous years for the simple reason that several of Orban’s Central European friends (Andrej Babis and Janez Jansa) have been voted out of office since the last conference in 2021.
Besides Hungarian President Katalin Novak – the driving force behind the summit – and Orban, the political panel will include the Hungarian prime minister’s new best friend, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, pro-Russian Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, Italy’s Meloni and, from further afield, Philip Isdor Mpango, the vice-president of Tanzania. One could argue he represents the world outside of Europe, as former US vice-president Mike Pence or Australian prime minister Tony Abbott did in previous summits, but perhaps with a bit less heft.
The overall guest list is written proof of Hungary’s diplomatic shift eastwards. Ministers from Kazakhstan, Turkey, Qatar, Morocco and Bahrain will speak about protecting family values and how best to support families, while a keynote speech will be delivered by the speaker of the Azerbaijani parliament, Sahiba Gafarova.
Gafarova’s biography seems a little out of line with the Hungarian government’s general illiberal narrative: she is a graduate of women’s and gender studies in the US (gender studies are virtually banned in Hungary) and has also worked as a Council of Europe rapporteur on violence against women, refugees and migrants.
The intellectual highlights will be provided by the Canadian clinical psychologist and author Jordan Peterson, a controversial but highly influential public speaker and frequent guest of Orban. He once referred to Orban as a wannabe dictator, though later told the Hungarian pro-government weekly Mandiner that, “it’s always good to have something to constantly scare people with, to demonise someone. Europe also needs a bogeyman like Donald Trump, and that is the role that Viktor Orban has been appointed to play.” Peterson has also described Orban’s pro-family policies (see box below) as “impressive”.
The Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who has done most of his research on inequality, social mobility and early childhood education, will probably offer a more scholarly approach to family policy.
Of course, no demographic conference in Hungary could take place without the participation of Christian theologians and church leaders.
Syrian Orthodox Church leader Efrem Ignac, who has publicly praised Orban for resisting Western political correctness and urged the government to prevent the EU from putting Russian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill on the sanctions list, will share his thoughts on how the church can protect families in the midst of wars. Ironically, Ignac recently moved into the restored villa of former Hungarian Communist leader Janos Kadar, which now houses the secretariat for persecuted Christians in Budapest.
Christiaan Alting von Geusau, founder and president of the fundamentalist, anti-abortion, anti-birth control, anti-divorce International Catholic Legislators’ Network (ICLN), will also take the floor. The ICLN calls contraception “intrinsically evil” and abortion a “crime against humanity”, while donating sperm and artificial insemination are “morally unacceptable”.
Despite Orban’s growing popularity in US conservative circles, no senior US Republican politician is attending this year’s summit, with the exception of Valerie Huber, president and CEO of the Institute of Women’s Health.
Huber was former president Donald Trump’s special representative for global women’s health, and she drafted the anti-abortion Geneva Consensus Declaration, signed by mostly illiberal, autocratic regimes and whose secretariat is housed in Hungary. The Biden administration removed the US from the list shortly after being elected.
Panellists will also include Sharon Slater, co-founder of the fundamentalist Christian lobby group Family Watch International, which opposes abortion, sex education and birth control, and supports the criminalisation of homosexuality in Africa and the US.
Last but not least, the benefits of family life will be presented by Pat Fagan, a former deputy assistant secretary under former president George H. W. Bush and currently the director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, which describes marriage and weekly religious worship as “sources of the greatest social outcomes”, and urges young people to come to the altar as virgins.
The official budget of the conference is estimated at 3.8 billion forints (around 10 million euros), which will paid for out of taxpayer money, even as the government is being forced to scrap some of its flagship family support schemes due to budgetary problems.
Hungary’s demographic summits were originally intended to publicise Orban’s “Family Policy”, which comprises generous financial incentives for mostly middle- and upper-income families, such as full tax exemption for mothers with four children or cheap housing loans for young couples willing to have several children.
The results of this policy have been decidedly mixed, though. Hungary’s female fertility rate did indeed rise from 1.2 to 1.59 (children per woman) between 2010 and 2021, but fell back to 1.51 in 2022. That means Hungary has moved from the bottom of the EU to slightly above the average.
However, most demographic experts consider it unrealistic to expect that Hungary can reach a fertility rate of 2.1, the rate needed to keep the population stable. According to current calculations, Hungary’s population will shrink from 9.7 million today to 8.8 million in 2050.
The picture becomes bleaker upon learning that the government has been forced to scrap some of the incentives for urban families in 2023 due to financial constraints, in order to focus mainly on its rural constituencies. Furthermore, in 2021, Hungary nationalised all private IVF clinics, officially to boost fertility but some suspect ulterior motives about centralising the lucrative business. Although treatment in general has become cheaper, many women complain of long waiting lists and have decided to go abroad for treatment.
While many experts note how Orban has managed to sell his family policies as a huge success abroad, most of his fans outside the country have little knowledge of the chronically underfunded education and health systems that are essential for creating a truly family-friendly country.