Commentary

Hungarians and the Brexit

It was London, the spring of 2009. The financial crisis was transforming into an economic one. We were watching Bloomberg where refinery workers were protesting against immigrants (Italians in that case).

“British jobs for British People”

Four nationalities were represented at the table: a French manager, a German analyst, a Polish trader, and a Hungarian analyst (yours truly). The only Briton, Jeremy entered the meeting room, balancing a coffee, a Coke, a sandwich, and some other nonsense on his laptop.

“What’s the long face, team?”

Pascal (French) projected the photo on the wall. Jeremy didn’t get it.

“Well, this is a British workplace and we are not British people,” explained Pascal.

“But that’s not about you, guys…”

But anti-immigrant populism was unlikely to stop there. It has to go full circle and hit rock bottom before it gets discredited for a few lucky, post-conflict decades. I have drafted  a list of otherwise smart and well-meaning (often liberal) people I’ve met, who overthink themselves and end up voting populist. I wrote the post in preparation of the upcoming Europhobic referendum in Hungary – but it fitted the post-Brexit situation seamlessly.

Because the two referendums are the same: incompetent local elites blackmailing other countries’ elites in Brussels by threatening to unleash the lynch mobs they have created at home. It will be about the EU – and the scapegoats will be those ugly, brown-skinned but also (in Hungary’s case) non-existent migrants.

Ethnically motivated attacks are on the rise in the United Kingdom since the referendum. No, those voters are not stupid. They didn’t misunderstand the message. Gordon Brown promised “British jobs for British workers” back in 2008. So did BNP all those years. In the Brexit campaign populists of UKIP also used the ethnic narrative. Sometimes they didn’t even bother to pretend that they are “just” protecting British ethnic minorities from new immigrants, or “just” protecting white minorities, or any other twist on the same old “ethnicity matters” narrative. The same will be used in Hungary later this year.

News are pouring in about empowered nationalists targeting (among others) Polish people in the UK because “we’ve won“. Romanians were also singled out not just by misguided voters but even by Nigel Farage in this interview (where we also learn that Germans are OK). Romanians and Bulgarians also often feature in welfare-populism and as beggars.

But what about Hungarians?

Czechs? Croatians? What is a dutiful UKIP voter to think about them?

We had this routine in the team. Say, in the middle of a professional disagreement the German started accusing the French of inventing that awful thing, onion soup – and vice versa. The Polish team mate gamely piled on and announced that they also call it “the French onion soup” in Poland. So the squabbling parties turned against him:

“Shut up, you’re supposed to be a plumber, anyway.”

Then it was my turn to jump in – so I did.

But then Jeremy looked at me with an exasperated face.

“I have googled it a million times, please tell me a stereotype about Hungarians!”

And this is why I won every mock-argument.

This might also be the explanation of why Hungarians (the non-politicians) show an increased interest in finding a job in the UK before the bridges are drawn up. Job agencies are firing up and those who were postponing emigration seem to be making the jump.

(More about political reactions later.) 

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