Justin Trudeau and the Orbán government’s war on liberal values

By: András B. Göllner

As the Hungarian government’s anti-liberal, anti-refugee referendum campaign headed into its home stretch, liberal and progressive leaders from around the world, held their own rally in Montreal, under the patronage of Canada’s Prime Minister, The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau.  The location for this gathering of global progressives was Montreal’s famed Ritz Carlton Hotel, and the Musée des Beaux Arts. Hundreds of delegates, from over 20 countries, came to Canada’s cosmopolitan metropolis, to discuss the major challenges of the coming decades, including such policy issues as trade liberalization, inclusive prosperity, refugee policy, ethnic diversity, integration, and digital democracy. The guest list was a veritable „who’s who” of progressives, and included Thomas Perez, U.S. Secretary of Labor, Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City, Dutch deputy PM Lodewijk Asscher, Tina Brown, Founder of Women in the World, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, President of Save the Children, Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director, UN World Food Programme, Jason Furman, Chairman of the Council Chief Economic Advisors to the White House, Sigmar Gabriel, Vice Chancellor of Germany, Toomas Ilves, the President of Estonia and many more. Hungary was represented by former PM Gordon Bajnai, and by Viktor Szigetvári, the leader of the small democratic opposition party, Együtt (Together). Concordia University professor András B. Göllner, the Founder of the Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter was one of the invited delegates to the Conference and he filed this exclusive report for the Hungarian Free Press.

From Left to right: Tim Barber, Co-Founder of Canada2020., Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, András B. Göllner, Founder, Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter

From Left to right: Tim Barber, Co-Founder of Canada2020., Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, András B. Göllner, Founder, Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter

Global Progress is a worldwide network headquartered at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. It connects progressive think-tanks, initiatives, institutions and movements from around the world. The Global Progress network shares ideas, resources and talent in the pursuit of a more socially and economically progressive international community. Each year, it organizes a „Global Summit” at one of the major economic and cultural capitals of the world, to discuss issues of common concern to its members. This year’s summit – Global Progress 2016 – was hosted by Canada2020, Canada’s leading independent think-tank, and a member of the Global Progress network. Canada2020 organized the event in partnership with Washington’s Center for American Progress and with London’s Policy Network. The Montreal gathering, took place on September 14-15 and marked the first time a Global Progress summit was held in Canada. Canada2020 organizers lived up to the challenge. They put together a scintillating menu of speeches and round-table discussions. While a great many people contributed to the success of this year’s summit, delegates were particularly appreciative of the tireless and enthusiastic work, of Matt Browne, Executive Director of Global Progress, Tim Barber, one of the Founders of Canada2020 and Thomas PittfieldPresident and CEO of Canada2020.

Delegates were welcomed to the Montreal Summit at an evening reception in the Ritz ballroom, by Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie JolyMontreal Mayor Denis Coderre and New York Mayor, Bill De Blasio. The work began early next morning, on the heels of Quebec Premier, Phillip Couillard’s opening address. A number of provincial premiers, many of Trudeau’s senior cabinet ministers took an active part in the deliberations, including Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Trade, who spoke eloquently of Canada’s leadership on inclusive economic growth and its benefits to the middle classes. She, along with European trade ministers, and Germany’s Vice-Chancellor, also discussed the challenges and benefits of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

The highlight of the entire event, however, was an on-stage discussion of immigration and integration issues, by Canada’s PM, Justin Trudeau and the Lord Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Their views, frequently interrupted by laud applause from the delegates, stood in stark contrast to the ideas expressed by leaders such as US Presidential candidate Donald Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, or Hungary’s anti-liberal populist strongman, Viktor Orbán. (For a short excerpt from the discussion please click here.)

Trudeau was praised by Khan as a shining example of a new liberalism that is open to the world. Khan was enthusiastically cheered by the audience, when he stated, that the election of a liberal government in Canada was an inspiration to progressive movements everywhere in the world. „Canada, he said, is now „a beacon of how a civilized G7 country should treat those who are vulnerable and need help.”

Canada’s inclusive approach to immigration and integration was reinforced by Trudeau a few days after the Montreal Summit, at the UN’s 71st General Assembly. „We see diversity as a source of strength, not weakness. Our country is strong not in spite of our differences, but because of them. We see refugees as people with the same hopes and dreams as our own citizens… Refugee camps are teeming with Syria’s middle class. They care about their families. They want a better life—a safer and more secure future for their kids—as we all do. We are going to refuse to give in to the pressure of trading our cherished values for easy votes. The world expects better from us, and we expect better from ourselves. Canadians have opened their arms and their hearts to families fleeing the ongoing conflict in Syria. The 31,000 refugees were welcomed—not as burdens, but as neighbours and friends. We know we need to do this all together. We know it will be hard work… But we’re Canadian. And we’re here to help.”

What sets Trudeau and Orbán apart within the Euro – Atlantic community is their signature approach to immigration, integration and the challenges of diversity. Trudeau embraces immigrants, multiculturalism, and social inclusion. Orbán is a self-professed anti-liberal and an opponent of the values that are sacred to most Canadians. Orbán’s wants to burry liberalism, not to praise it. While Trump wants to make America great again, Orbán wants to make Europe Muslim free and white again. In a recent interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he stated that his goal is simple: „It’s to keep Europe Christian.” Earler this year, in his weekly radio interview, the Hungarian leader was more explicit in distancing himself from Trudeau and the values embraced at Montreal’s Global Progress Summit: „Liberalism is an enemy of freedom, especially freedom of speech. Liberalism supresses all negative news associated with refugees or migrants. Liberals want to take in immigrants, thinking that it is a good thing. For my government, slowing down immigration is not enough: it must be stopped outright. To this end, we must build lines of defence; Hungary has set an example in this. And that is where we must stop – not just slow down, but stop – immigration”.

To achieve his objective, Orbán built a razor-wire fence along Hungary’s southern border in 2015, and dismantled the legal and practical framework of refugee protection in Hungary. According to Maria Padavi, former vice-chair, of the Europan Council on Refugees and Exiles „it is now only NGOs that offer integration services specifically for refugees, the funding of which comes from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. Essentially, the EU and UNHCR funds are what keep the limited integration services for refugees above water in Hungary.”  According to Padavi, by now, even these meagre efforts are under government assault in Hungary. NGO’s helping refugees risk criminal persecution.

Parallel with these harsh measures, Orbán’s government embarked on an anti-refugee hate campaign, already two years ago, wallpapering the country with xenophobic billboards that demonize immigrants as good-for-nothing free-loaders, terrorists, and as threats to European civilization. All of this as a lead up to a national referendum, scheduled for October 2nd of this year. Orbán wanted to use the October referendum results as his leverage for passing legislation to override any Europe wide policy that seeks to share the burden of care for those who are fleeing the war torn regions of the Middle East and Africa. According to Hungary’s referendum rules, a referendum is only valid, when one half of those eligible to vote in the referendum plus one, cast a valid vote on the question put before the voters. (According to the government’s own estimates, this was the most expensive referendum in Hungary’s history. The amount spent by the government on the anti-refugee hate campaign was almost double the pro and contra expenditures of all participants in the recent Brexit referendum.)

As the government financed hate-campaign roared towards the finish line, more than 20 of Hungary’s leading civil rights organizations, including the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Europe Society, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, issued a desperate cry for help: „This government is inciting hatred against refugees that will further weaken the already shattered social solidarity in our country. The government wants to create creatures who decide about public matters and the fate of others based on our worst instincts. Instead of informing people, the government seeks to eliminate the possibility of free citizens making rational, fact-based decisions. It does not offer a solution either to the situation of refugees or the future of the European Union. It rejects solidarity with our fellow human beings in plight, just like with the other European member states. It has no intention to create a framework for peaceful coexistence. We are convinced that nobody can feel safe in the long run where public discourse is defined by hatred.This referendum is incompatible with the concept of human rights.” 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights came to the support of the protesting NGOs by declaring that Hungary’s approach is “an entirely unacceptable infringement of the human rights of refugees and migrants. Seeking asylum is not a crime.” Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights was equilly blunt. In a recent statement published by the New York Times he said this: „States have the right to set their own immigration policies, but those policies cannot contravene the European Convention on Human Rights and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, even in times of crisis. Hungary’s disengagement from human rights protections and the rule of law is not new. In recent years, its government has put pressure on the news media, eroded the independence of the judiciary and obstructed the work of nonprofit groups. But it is on migration that Hungary’s departure from human rights norms is most glaring. It has pushed ahead with an agenda that can be described only as institutionalized xenophobia. Smear campaigns against refugees are sadly not new to Europe: The U.K. Independence Party in Britain, the National Front in France and Italy’s Northern League have all exploited similar xenophobic messages. But in Hungary, it is the government itself that’s pushing such falsehoods.”

As these lines are being written, the results of the October 2nd referendum are known. Orbán failed to achieve his goal, because almost two-thirds of those eligible to participate in the referendum either spoiled their ballot or refused to cast one. Orbán did not get the necessary participation rate, the 50% plus one vote. The referendum is therefore invalid. Orbán did however win a large majority of the minority, that decided to participate in his deplorable exercise, and submitted an unspoiled ballot. Instead of conceding defeat, he has reframed the invalid referendum as a victory. He is now forging ahead to unilaterally change Hungary’s constitution, eradicating liberalism from Hungary’s political landscape, and setting up the necessary rules to keep Hungary off limits to people of different color and creed who may be fleeing from the ravages of war.

As Hungarians around the world get set to celebrate the 60th anniversary of their heroic rebellion against Soviet rule, and Orbán’s Foreign Minister, Peter Szíjjártó gets set to travel to Canada with Orbán’s senior officials, to host a glittering gala event in Ottawa, Prime Minister Trudeau should also be preparing. He should prepare to join people like the EU’s Commissioner of Human Rights, the current President of the USA, Barack Obama, and many other progressive leaders around the world, who have already spoken up against Viktor Orbán’s assault on the core values of the North Atlantic Community. He should repeat to Hungarian audiences the exhilarating message he gave to delegates at the Global Progress Summit in Montreal, and later at the United Nations. He should tell Orbán’s travelling representatives to Canada, that their leader is not welcome in this country. He should tell Mr. Orbán, that his anti-liberal, anti-refugee campaign is an insult not only to Canada, and to the North Atlantic Community, but to the Canadian Liberal Party as well, which after all, was the Party that provided safe haven 60 years ago to 40,000 Hungarian refugees, who were fleeing the violence that ravaged their homeland.

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