Saturday 9 March 2019

Stephen Sackur doesn't do subtlety

What, no Michael Portillo?

Here's a transcript of Stephen Sackur's From Our Own Correspondent report this morning:

Viktor Orbán doesn't do subtlety.

I know this because I've been to his home village, a short drive from Budapest. Felcsút, population 1,800, has become a potent symbol of the Hungarian Prime Minister's vanity and the shameless merger of his own interests with those of the state. 

Exhibit A is the now notorious 'railway to nowhere' built as a pet project on the Prime Minister's orders in 2016. It connects Felcsút with an arboretum, reportedly owned by Mr. Orbán's dad, some three miles to the south. The railway was built with the help of two million euros of EU funds and has, on the busiest of days just a handful of passengers in its faux-antique carriages. Trains don't run at all from October to March. due to an overwhelming lack of public demand. 

Puskás Akadémia football stadium

The railway is by no means the most incongruous piece of expensive infrastructure in this rural backwater. 20 yards across the road from Mr Orbán's weekend cottage is an extraordinary timber, steel and copper clad football stadium, home to Puskás Academy - a Hungarian Premier League team founded by Orbán and his close friend Lőrinc Mészáros. Mr Mészáros was a plumber and pipe fitter when he first met the future PM; now he's Hungary's most powerful oligarch.

There is, not surprisingly, an intense loyalty to their home-grown Prime Minister amongst Felcsút's residents. Journalists from far away are viewed with deep suspicion. I was ejected from the village cafe when I tried to ask a pointed question about Mr. Orban's largesse, and a handful of locals refused to emerge from the nearby general store when they saw me loitering outside. Finally an old lady shuffled out, clutching a tray of eggs, to declare that Mr. Orbán was the saviour of the village and the country.

30 years ago Mr. Orbán was a fiery opponent of the dying Soviet empire, a champion of freedom from authoritarian rule who welcomed Hungary's embrace of the European Union. Now he's the continent's leading exponent of what he calls 'illiberal democracy'. Brussels is the enemy, run by a liberal elite intent on diluting the Christian identity of Europe with waves of immigration. 

The crisis of 2015, which saw hundreds of thousands of migrants cross into Hungary from Serbia in the hope of making it to Germany, was a political gift for the Orbán government. 

Migrants detained in Ásotthalom

In response he built a fortified electrified fence along 125 miles of the country's southern border. He rejected EU efforts to get all member states to take in a share of the refugee influx. He built detention camps on the border which human rights groups say flout international rules on the treatment of migrants. He now blocks UN efforts - and, indeed, mine - to gain access. 

All of this has proved tremendously popular with many Hungarians. I walked a stretch of the fortified fence with László Toroczkai, the far-right mayor of the border village of Ásotthalom. "Finally we have security. Now I sleep at night", he said, nodding to his own home 30 yards from the barbed wire. 

Mr. Orbán and his Fidesz party machine have done away with many of the institutional checks and balances associated with Europe's more liberal democracies. 500 of the country's media titles are now controlled by a conglomerate run by cronies of the Prime Minister. The Hungarian parliament has made it a crime for NGOs to offer assistance to migrants. 

And the Government continues to wage a vitriolic campaign against the Hungarian-born American billionaire financier George Soros, who has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into civil society organisations in his native land. Ironically a youthful Viktor Orbán studied at Oxford thanks to a scholarship funded by Mr. Soros. Now the Prime Minister rails against the Jewish billionaire as a crafty international speculator intent on filling Hungary with immigrants. 

It is cynical dog-whistle politics and, to the consternation of many, it works. 

'Screaming' poster

In the last few days thousands of posters have gone up across Hungary depicting Mr. Soros and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker side by side. "You have a right to know what they're doing" screams the poster's headline. "Undermining Hungary's security".

With European parliamentary elections looming Mr. Orbán is now coordinating with anti-immigrant political leaders in Italy, Poland and other member states to seize the political momentum and deal a devastating blow to the Brussels status quo. 

He may despise the EU in its current form but he has no intention of leaving. His ambition is much bolder. He wants to remake it in his own image.


  1. If he does the EU will only have itself to blame - there’s only so long you can surpress the views of a sizeable minority, potentially majority, before it all comes crashing down.

  2. The train project reminds me of the massive EU funding given to the Ffestiniog railway to re-create the old narrow guageWelsh Highland Railway (which closed down in WW2 after about 40 years without making a profit). It also barely runs between late Summer and spring.

  3. I heard that on the radio this morning and have to say his tone added to the bias on display.

    Have we ever heard Sackur address possible corruption in the EU elite in the same manner? Has Dominic Strauss Khan's appalling conduct ever been mentioned again by the BBC since his trial?

    This was a one dimensional view of Orban. We heard nothing of the man's intellectual acuity. He was made to sound like a crass vulgarian. Orban is however very much the heir to the intellectual traditions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unlike May or Corbyn he thinks deeply about things.

    Hungary does have a strong streak of anti-semitism, it's true. But as Orban's government makes clear, Hungary is now one of the safest places in Europe for Jews to live - far safer than France, Belgium or the UK. Trying to paint Soros as a beleagured philanthropic friend of democracy wasn't very convincing. Soros is the man (along with others of course) funding attempts to overturn our 2016 EU Referendum result in the UK. A fact not mentioned.

    There was no mention of the great economic success Hungary has enjoyed under Orban's tutelage (and in the absence of a BBC-approved migrant wave).

    There was fake news as well in Sackur miserable excuse for a report...As far as I know NGOs are perfectly entitled to help legal migrants to Hungary. It is only migrants who cross the border illegally who are subject to the sensible ban on NGO aid. But Sackur led us to believe ALL migrants are subject to the ban on NGO aid. But the New York Times (left-liberal rag)says the legislation : "criminalizes the act of helping undocumented migrants".

    Still the item did have its funny moments - sounded like a scene from a Hammer Horror film with the angry peasants reaching for their pitchforks to drive out of town the stranger.


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