The Strategic Reason For Hungarys Free Fertility Plan

A move to give Hungarian couples free IVF treatment says as much about Budapest’s desire to keep out immigrants as halting the country’s demographic slide.

First his government took state control of six fertility clinics across the country, declaring in vitro fertilisation (IVF) a matter of “strategic importance”. Then Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced the clinics would offer free IVF treatments to couples, starting this month.

The stated reason for the policy is to increase Hungary’s fertility rate and stymie its population decline, which has led to labour shortages.

This is the latest in a series of articles about the demographic crisis facing Central and Southeast Europe.

Hungary, like most of Central and Eastern Europe, has experienced alarming depopulation. As of 2017, it ranked in the bottom 10 per cent of global birth and fertility rates. According to some projections, Hungary’s population will fall to 8.3 million from 9.7 million by 2050.

Despite the demographic outlook, the IVF policy is not driven by a desire to secure Hungary’s economic future but rather by a crude bigotry that has marked most of Orban’s time in office. This becomes clear when considering the alternative means that Hungary could pursue to improve the situation: allowing greater levels of immigration.

While having reluctantly admitted a limited number foreign workers to address Hungary’s immediate labour shortage, Hungary is notorious for having some of the strictest anti-immigrant policies in Europe.

Rather than adopting the more intuitive and cost-effective policy of increasing the number of foreign workers in Hungary over the long-term, Orban’s government has opted to pursue an expensive programme designed to preserve Hungary’s ethnic homogeneity.

The ethno-national motivations behind this policy are evident from Orban’s previously articulated fears that “Europe is no longer going to be populated by Europeans” and that there will be “an exchange of populations, to exchange the population of Europeans with others”.

Known as the “great replacement theory”, this perspective is common among members of the far right and has become a rallying cry for nativists throughout the West.

> Known as the ‘great replacement theory’, this perspective is common among members of the far right and has become a rallying cry for nativists throughout the West.

The tension of these views being held by the leader of an EU member state became evident in 2017 when Hungary refused to accept any refugees despite its legal obligation to do so following a ruling by the European Court of Justice.

Despite consistent defiance of EU laws and norms, Orban has been able to extract significant concessions from the EU on matters such as agricultural subsidies. He can get away with this due to inaction by those in the EU who fear that discipling Orban will exacerbate divides within the EU and compel Orban to either join the eurosceptic group of European Conservatives and Reformists in the European Parliament or start a similar group of his own.

This sentiment is especially prevalent within the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) from which Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has been suspended but is still a member, for now at least.

The EPP suspended Fidesz in 2019 after the party went so far as to launch a taxpayer-funded media campaign claiming that Brussels elites, in cahoots with US-Hungarian financier George Soros, were conspiring to flood Hungary with migrants.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the National Conservatism Conference 2020 in Rome, February 4, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE/MAURIZIO BRAMBATTI

Orban’s new IVF policy is the latest reminder of his government’s refusal to abide by EU values. The most straightforward remedy at the EU’s disposal is continuing the Article 7 process that has already been triggered against the country, which could potentially result in the suspension of Hungary’s EU voting rights.

The politics of enacting this “nuclear option” are complex, as it would eventually require a unanimous vote of every other member state in the European Council.

The United States, in realising that allowing faux democrats like Orban to degrade the EU’s core values is counter to its interests given the global decline of the liberal order, should pressure those EU allies who would typically be sympathetic to Hungary to instead vote for further action to be taken.

The most obvious example would be Poland, which has also undergone its own Article 7 process but is heavily reliant on Washington for security cooperation.

Regardless of whatever action the United States might or might not take, this is fundamentally an EU problem and requires an EU solution.

> This is fundamentally an EU problem and requires an EU solution.

In addition to furthering the Article 7 process, the EPP should call Orban on his bluff to leave the bloc by evicting his party, so that at the very least the ideological divide between those who support the EU’s core values and those who do not will be clear.

It is time that the EU shows political courage, unites around the values it espouses and takes serious punitive action against Hungary’s anti-democratic behavior.

In the meantime, free IVF treatments for couples will not be a silver bullet for a population crisis that only a more enlightened immigration policy can solve.

Austin Doehler is a visiting scholar at the Penn Biden Centre for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington, DC. He holds an M.A. from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.