Rita Antoni, Bence L. Bari and Orsolya Udvari
This article discusses the Budapest Demographic Summit IV (BDS) that was held on September 23-24, 2021. The authors summarize and contextualize the content of the summit to argue that the conference not only provided an opportunity for its participants to address the ‘demographic crisis’ in Europe and the ‘family politics of conservative’ governments,’ but also amounted to an attempt to develop a transnational narrative for such self-declared conservatives that could unite political and ideological actors on various continents. The article also sheds light on the mobilization against the summit on the ground and on its coverage in Hungarian and international media.
The Budapest Demographic Summit IV took place on September 23-24, 2021. Representatives from over 20 countries participated in the BDS, with participants from the United States, Great Britain, the European Union, South-Eastern Europe and Africa. The two-day-long forum had several discussion panels and lectures, was streamed online and was technically open to the public – one only needed to register and get accepted by the organizers.
The key theme of this year’s summit was sustainability in accordance with the summit’s title, Family: Key to Sustainability. The main idea behind this self-proclaimed ‘pro-family’ forum is to promote the importance of family and to discuss the main issues which affect this social unit. The main organizers and host, the Hungarian government with its various government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) explicitly defines itself as ‘family-friendly’, for whom ‘traditional family values’ have a key importance in policy-making and in defining concepts such as ‘nation’ and ‘community’.
The issue of sustainability is present in ecological, political, and social discourses on many different levels.
The organizers argued that a key aspect is absent from these discussions: for whom do we want to preserve our planet and resources?
The forum’s answer was that such actions are necessary for the sake of future generations and that is why families need to be strengthened and put back on the agenda of sustainability. Such an approach to social policies clearly draws on the environmental protection discourse.
A main goal of the Budapest Demographic Summit was to create a common platform for so-called ‘conservative’, ‘pro-family’ forces from around the world.
As the summit framed it, there is an ongoing demographic crisis of the ‘West’ due to a shift of focus from communities to the individual. Instead of the so-called ‘pro-migration approach’ that seeks to make up for population loss by means of immigration, the organizers, participants, and their supporters saw the solution to demographic issues in relying on internal sources: encouraging more births and ‘stronger’ families as the foundation of nations and healthy countries. In other words, they promoted a biopolitical perspective on contemporary issues. According to the Hungarian government’s narrative, such ‘pro-family thinking’ has been under attack by the ‘left-wing’ and ‘liberal’ forces. Organizing events and common forums as the BDS has thus never been more important.
Even when observed superficially, such a narrative has its basic problems. The pro-natalist family discourse of the Hungarian government is a highly selective one. It explicitly excludes several groups from the definition of ‘family’, for instance the rainbow families; furthermore, various other social groups are more implicitly excluded from the government’s family policies and related public, media, and cultural discourses. Who can get access to financial family support? Which women enjoy access to proper health care? What kind of reproductive rights do women have? How are their bodies perceived in public discourse and impacted through policies?
Hungarian government policy also makes a distinction between what is considered a ‘needed family’, which ‘supports’ the prosperity of the nation, and those families that are ‘not useful’ or even considered ‘harmful’. The Hungarian institutional discourse on families, similarly to its discourse on other key issues, is constructed in opposition to certain internal and external ‘others’ – and articulated from a seemingly defensive and reactive point of view. According to this narrative, ‘Hungarians’ as a whole, a people associated with the current government, are under attack from ‘the EU’, ‘the West’, ‘the neoliberal neo-Marxists’ etc., so they are provoked to fight back. This fight is undoubtedly an ideological one, where values are under threat and need to be protected and restored to their rightful place. This is the self-proclaimed mission of the Hungarian self-declared ‘conversative’ and ‘Christian democratic’ government and its supporters.
However, as mentioned above, the BDS aimed to be more than just a place to promote the agenda of the Hungarian government or a mere gathering of ideologically allied and ‘pro-family’ political leaders, thinkers, and researchers. In fact, the various participants often stressed their attempt to create a common ideological front. The panel titled ‘Family and demography in the grips of ideological battles’, the participants of which were Phillip Blond (ResPublica, UK), Dr. Frank Füredi (Hungary), Dan Schneider (American Conservative Union, US) and Archbishop Michael A. Blume, focused most directly on this endeavor. It identified the political ideology of the ‘Left’ as one opposed to that of ‘conservatism’.
According to the interpretation that was presented, the ‘Left’ pursues a political and social project of radical autonomy that aims to free the individual from the binds of any hierarchical structures – such as language and family.
The panelists furthered this view by stating that the views of the ‘Left’ were that of a modern and extreme version of liberalism, equal to a totalitarian, fascist fascination with the ‘will’ of the individual – thus echoing the arguments of Jonah Goldberg’s bestselling Liberal Fascism from 2010, in which the US-American conservative author drew a straight line from Fascist Italy to modern identity politics.
In contrast, the panelists identified ‘conservatism’ as an ideology that respects individual freedom and diversity of opinion while emphasizing ‘natural hierarchy within society’ and ‘family as a value.’ Interestingly, they also called for a return to an ‘idealistic’ form of conservatism that draws inspiration from 19th-century romanticism and balances nationalism with internationalism.
The event featured a number of further attempts to develop a common historical and geopolitical narrative for ‘conservatism’. In line with the special status of the host, Hungary and the strong presence of local-national actors, various participants stressed that the term ‘Central Europe’ (the Eastern parts of the European Union) refers to a ‘conservative’ region in which ‘family’ remains a value of utmost importance.
The French political journalist and presidential candidate Éric Zemmour elaborated further upon this concept, pointing out the common experiences small nations had of enduring imperial rule. Due to this historical heritage, Zemmour stated, Central European nations, such as Hungarians, can ‘detect dangers’, whether demographic or those posed by ‘foreign’ powers.
The main counter-concept to ‘conservative Central Europe’ the participants used tended to be ‘the West.’ Symbolized, above all, through the name of Brussels – which, in Hungarian government rhetoric, is meant to evoke parallels between the European and the Soviet Union – the lecturers interpreted the West as consisting of the former colonial powers that have exercised a selfish Machtpolitik towards ‘the East.’
As opposed to a conservative and vital Central Europe, this region – most notably, the Western parts of the European Union – are supposedly under the control of a ‘totalitarian’ Left pushing for ‘radical’ tolerance while experiencing a ‘demographic winter’ and an influx of (mostly Muslim) immigrants.
The participants ultimately called for a new European ideal based on ethnicity and the social policies of the ‘conservative center,’ so that the continent could emerge victorious in the current metaphysical ‘struggle for survival’ between the native, homogenous ‘European’ values and the ‘artificial’ ‘Leftist’, ‘Marxist’, ‘woke’ values.
When it comes to the perceived dynamics and stakes of this struggle, Viktor Orbán presented these in his speech at the BDS: “[The ‘leftist’] ideas and their political masters do not consider the cultural aspect of migration. […] Here, in Europe, where millennium-old and culture-based nations live, this is the most important dimension of migration. Here, migration is a question of identity. […] Here in Europe, a country only functions if its members share approximately the same opinion when it comes to their main problems and stand on the same ground. In absence of this, a country, a nation, inevitably falls apart in Europe. That is only a matter of time.” [Translation from Hungarian by Bence L. Bari.]
Based on these statements, one could describe the summit as an attempt to develop a common ‘anti-modern’ viewpoint. The various participants aimed to describe an alternative model of modernity that focuses on the regeneration of the national (and continental) ‘body of the community’ as opposed to the current demographic trends, immigration, and the ‘corrupting’ ideas of the ‘Left’. Viktor Orbán’s statement that Hungarians are “vaccinated against the woke virus” clearly pointed in this direction: according to the narrative of the event, ‘conservatism’ basically equals health, whereas the ‘Left’ is a source of probably lethal diseases.
Even though the participants made references to concepts such as (economic) ‘sustainability’, women’s rights, and tolerance, they essentially side-lined them to develop the abovementioned ‘conservative’ viewpoint and values. They displayed what was far from an unshakeable confidence in victory: besides the somewhat abstract peril of ‘national death’, Orbán also noted concrete and painful losses when it comes to Donald Trump’s and Benjamin Netanyahu’s defeats in the recent American and Israeli elections, respectively.
One could also identify more implicit sources of tension that disrupted the seemingly unified discourse. Whereas former American Vice President Mike Pence warned the participants against China, in line with the foreign policy discourse of the previous Trump-led administration, this threw a critical shade on the Hungarian government’s pro-China policy that manifests in recent government loans and the rather infamous plans to establish a local institution of the Fudan University in Hungary.
The concept of a ‘native Europe without immigration’ also overlooked the phenomenon of migration within Europe and the ‘brain-drain’ from the East to the West – which made the participation of pro-Brexit British intellectuals somewhat delicate, to say the least.
Their nostalgic remarks regarding the British Empire as a global kind of political space which offered that perfect balance between ‘nationalism and internationalism’ were in clear opposition to the viewpoints of several others who were highly critical of historical colonization and power politics. Finally, the shared Islamophobia and the new racialist superiority discourse of European participants was certainly in some tension with Nigerian scholar Obiajanu Ekeocha’s ‘native Africanism.’
Notwithstanding such differences and tensions, it was striking how participants regarded ‘national culture’ as a common point of reference and a useful political tool to shift popular mentalities in favor of ‘pro-family’ stances. Thus, the BDS was as much a cultural event as a political or scientific one: an event where members of various nations and countries gathered and spent almost two days together, getting to know one another. International conferences usually include such a component. However, culture played at least two more outstanding roles in the case of the BDS. First, short blocks of ‘Cultural Programs’ were an integral part of the event: the organizers featured Hungarian folk dance, folk music, and classical music. At first sight, these might have been considered pure entertainment, something to break the tight rhythm of a traditional conference. However, in most cases, child performers were on the stage along with adult partners. One could thus argue that these cultural interludes were meant as a promotion of ‘Hungarian national culture’ (as interpreted by the Hungarian government) and a feature to raise awareness concerning the importance of culture and the role of different generations in its maintenance. Culture certainly appeared as a central subject at the BDS, especially when it came to underlining the importance of its ‘preservation’.
As for the potential ideological role of culture, the panel ‘Publicity and the family’ provided an outstanding illustration. The participants agreed that there is a ‘cultural war’ in contemporary politics which the conservative side needs to be prepared to fight to put an end to the ‘suppression’ or ‘marginalization’ of its viewpoint.
As panelist Éric Zemmour argued, there is a strong deconstruction of traditional male-female roles in the media, a crucial actor in this struggle; his main examples were the products of the ‘LGBT-influenced’ Netflix or the ‘free and unspoilt’ French cinema. Zemmour argued that under the influence of ‘leftist’ and ‘liberal’ ideologies, media creates a totalitarian propaganda based on cultural prototypes.
The other panelists, Miklós Szánthó (Center for Fundamental Rights, Hungary) and Gergely Szilvay (Rubicon Institute, Hungary) also mentioned the role of the so-called ‘gender ideology’ and its alleged economic consequences: they maintained that if a shop or enterprise does not display the rainbow flag, they are bound to fail these days. They concluded that the conservative, pro-family thinkers should not just be present in the political field but eagerly disseminate their own cultural ideology and propaganda.
Given the presentation of such massive institutional, political, and ideological frameworks, it is no surprise that the BDS did not go under the radar; in fact, it provoked external reactions from the Hungarian and international public, which shed further light on the background and the context of the event. According to the Hungarian women’s group Nőkért Egyesület (Association for Women), the BDS posed a grave threat against women’s sexual and reproductive rights [point of clarification: one of the co-authors of this report is a member of the association in question]. They organized a campaign against the event.
The Association for Women argued that this has not been the first major government-initiated conference where women’s rights were portrayed as hurdles to the desired population growth: as a kind of ‘prelude’ to the summit, the fundamentalist Christian-conservative Family Science Alliance organized a conference at the end of May under the title Demography and the Culture of Relationship between Couples. During the event, which was opened by Hungarian Minister for Families Katalin Novák, religious authorities and other participants spoke out not only against abortion, comprehensive sex education and LGBTQ rights, but also against contraception and sex before marriage.
Press materials in advance of the Budapest Demographic Summit were rather scarce. The public was not really made aware that the invited guests were believers in biological essentialism and complementary gender roles, fighters against family planning and comprehensive sex-ed, as well as advocates for the ‘purity myth’ and conversion therapy for LGBTQ people.
This is what Association for Women wanted to change: its members and activists issued a press report on their organization’s website and carried out an online campaign via Facebook page in which they introduced ten select participants.
The Association raised awareness, for instance, of the fact that Marion Maréchal has expressed views on abortion that are stricter than those of the Catholic Church in France, and that Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik claimed the Srebrenica massacre was a “fabricated myth”. Activists also pointed out that Éric Zemmour, the famed French polemicist and journalist, had been accused of sexual harassment (as an exception, the Hungarian news portal Index.hu reported that he was sentenced for hate speech three times); and that Spanish ex-politician Jaime Mayor Oreja made a connection between the acceptance of same-sex marriage and the 2017 Barcelona terrorist attack. Italian politician Lorenzo Fontana had praised Putin’s Russia as the ideal contemporary society, while US-American ultraconservative activist Sharon Slater, a recurrent guest of the Hungarian government and head of Family Watch International, has asserted that comprehensive sex education is a war on children.
The Association for Women also found it ‘worrisome’ that the self-proclaimed ‘family defenders’ gathered hardly two weeks after a shocking and much publicized familicide in Hungary that exposed key problems with Hungarian government policy, including its lack of co-operation with women’s right organizations and its refusal to ratify the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Given these circumstances, the association found it hypocritical that the summit participants were discussing the protection of families and children without ever mentioning domestic violence, and that they portrayed women’s sexual autonomy, reproductive rights, and comprehensive education as the main threat instead. Activists affiliated with the Association carried out a flashmob before the opening of the Demographic Summit on September 23, which the oppositional media in Hungary covered widely.
Conversely, Hungarian state television interviewed Sharon Slater, who praised Hungary’s new ‘child defense’ law, which prohibits the presentation of LGBTQ topics to minors under 18 in schools and in the media, and highlighted the ‘sex change’ of children (which is illegal in Hungary) as the greatest threat imposed by ‘gender ideology’. Importantly, Slater later spoke out against teenagers getting contraception or abortion without their parents’ permission.
Since most Hungarians are pro-choice, one could argue that the Orbán government might like to but does not dare to ban abortion. However, the government has been making it more and more difficult for women to get one by means of less publicized legislation.
Social insurance does not cover contraception, and school sex education, which had already been inadequate, is gradually being replaced by ‘education for family life’ which promotes abstinence before marriage and having as many children as possible once married. It appears that the Hungarian government takes inspiration from US-American and other foreign fundamentalist figures like Slater, who are considered too conservative and too radical by the country’s general public.
In the days following the summit, Hungarian right-wing portals mostly covered Éric Zemmour, not least to defend his racist and sexist views. Zemmour, giving an interview to the French channel CNews, enthusiastically praised Orbán’s anti-immigration and anti-LGBTQ policies. In Hungarian right-wing media, he was basically presented as a celebrity who dares to speak the truth, and whose ‘old-fashioned anti-feminism’ is entirely harmless in comparison to the threats posed by ‘woke’ ideology or Muslim immigrants.
As for English-language portals, Open Democracy asked for a report on the demonstration from an insider perspective, Reuters published a brief and conventionally neutral report, whereas True Story Project from Romania pointed out that “Parties, entities and figures with undemocratic values, aspirations and policies are demanding to take part in the democratic system.”
In collaboration with Ferenc Laczo and Hannah Vos