Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared after the 2018 general election in Hungary that his plan was to make “demography” the focus of the next governmental cycle. Although some of the policy visions behind this statement are currently unknown, it is clear that the government is trying to place all its measures in the framework of family policy.

The main goal of family policy is to raise the number of childbirths. The government believes “a demographic turn” is necessary to achieve this; the preconditions of which are a long-term, stable family policy, maintaining significant payments to families and the preference for the traditional family model.

The government’s rhetoric repeatedly suggests that Europe’s population is falling, and while the West is trying to meet this challenge through immigration, Hungary and certain countries in the region are using a proposed solution based on internal resources.

In this regard, family policy is present as a tool in the civilizational war constructed by the government’s rhetoric which is aimed at defending the ethnic and cultural characteristics of the Visegrad Group (V4) and even Europe as a whole. These ideological frames are what primarily lift demography to the top of the government’s agenda.

Attila Juhász

At the same time, special attention paid to the issue of demography is also necessitated by economic considerations. The increasing shortage of young and skilled workers is posing more and more severe problems, emigration is already a threat to economic growth in the short-term, and it can stop the development of whole industries (e.g., construction, hospitality, healthcare, etc.). In the long-term, the pressure on the pension and healthcare systems is going to increase due to the aging and bad health of the Hungarian population.

Although some experts on demography would expect political decision-makers to propose solutions to demographic challenges based on facts, data and measures with determinable effects instead of a conflict of worldviews, this seems to be almost impossible in contemporary Hungary.

The reason for this is not that practically all policy decisions originate from some kind of value orientation, but that the government – going beyond this – has simplified and radicalised its stance on family policy to such an extent that it is often misaligned even with some of its own policy decisions.

Hungary’s demographic situation in a European comparison

The belief that all of Europe is uniformly hit by a demographic crisis is a myth. In the past 20 years, the continent has experienced vastly different processes in terms of change in population numbers. Data does not substantiate demographic narratives that try to explain these processes by contrasting the developed and undeveloped and the Muslim and Christian world.

The main problem in Europe is the disadvantageous transformation of society’s age composition, which is a threat to the sustainability of large provision systems (pensions, healthcare). Aging is a process that affects all European societies.

There are essentially two processes underpinning changes in population. First, the natural population increase/decrease measuring the difference between live births and deaths and, second, net migration.

On the figure below, we visualise country groups in Europe based on Eurostat’s data from 2017. The horizontal axis shows the share of the difference between live births and deaths in 2017 (natural population increase/decrease) in the population of a given country on 1 January that year. Where more children were born than there were deaths, the value is positive. The vertical axis shows the effect of net migration in 2017. Where there were more immigrants than emigrants, the value is positive.

Figure 1. Country groups in Europe (source of data: Eurostat, Political Capital)

It is clearly visible on the figure that the Orbán government’s argument that only migration is making up for the population decline is false.

In the countries marked in dark green (France, Ireland), natural population increase plays a much more prominent role in maintaining population numbers than net migration; net migration only has an extraordinary effect in Sweden. In countries marked in yellow (e.g., Germany), there is natural population decline, but net migration can balance this. Hungary, together with certain Southern European countries, belongs to the red group, where there is natural population decrease and this cannot be balanced by the low level of positive net migration to them. The five nations marked with dark red in the bottom-left quarter face serious challenges, as they are affected both by natural population decrease and negative net migration.

In terms of the total fertility rate (TFR), Hungary has caught up to the European average since 2011, showing a gradually increasing trend. The country is in the middle of the pack in Europe when it comes to aging. Hungary continues to be an insignificant target country in terms of international migration, but third-country labour migration to the country is increasing despite the sonorous governmental communication focusing on the refugee crisis.

The reason for this is the increasingly-severe skilled-workers shortage, which is partly generated by emigration from Hungary. Emigration is disadvantageous to demographic processes and the labour market, but the situation is not impossible to handle compared to other Eastern European countries. The largest, irreversible loss caused by emigration is that Hungary seems to be losing the most skilled and creative layer of its youth.

Ideology vs. policy

In 2017, Viktor Orbán said at a demographic forum organised by his government that “The time has come to talk straight: our homeland, our joint homeland, Europe is losing in the demographic competition of large civilisations. Fewer and fewer children are born from fewer and fewer marriages, so the population is aging and decreasing. There are two, distinctive views on this in Europe. One is represented by those who want to solve Europe’s demographic problems with immigration, and there is also another view, which is held by Central Europe and Hungary. Our opinion is that demographic problems have to be solved by relying on our own resources, mobilising our own reserves, and – let’s admit it – our own spiritual renewal.”

It is characteristic that the government-supported XIth World Congress in Budapest, organised by the Word Congress of Families (WCF), was closely tied to the government’s demographic forum. The Congress is mainly known for being a summit of Russian organisations disseminating the Kremlin’s propaganda and American far-right fundamentalists.

PM Orbán at World Congress of Families XI summit.

In contrast with the ideological starting point set out by the Hungarian prime minister, studies on demography show that there is no unified European way with regards to family models, there is no unified Central and Eastern European pattern, and there are vastly different family and household patterns even within the various strata in Hungarian society.

There are two phenomena that seem to be spreading all over Europe and Hungary in the long-term. One is single-person households, the other is the increasing popularity of domestic partnerships among couples living in a relationship.

Although the results of Eurobarometer’s 2017 survey show that Central and Eastern Europeans indeed have a more traditionalist view on female and male roles than their Western counterparts, but this traditionalist opinion is weakening. In Hungary, both male and female respondents started to agree in larger proportions that the mother’s career and close relationship with her child are not mutually exclusive. The majority of the population approves women having full-time jobs and those who believe this harms family life have been relegated to the minority.

These social changes have partly been considered by the Orbán government’s family policy after 2010, and the policy proposals published after the 2018 general election are not in complete alignment with its strengthened traditionalist ideology either.

Policies are also contradictory with ideological messages on the regional level. Although the V4’s ministers responsible for family policy issued a joint statement in March 2018 that they believe supporting families could be the solution to the Europe-wide demographic challenges, the practices employed by the countries in question show considerably divergent approaches.

There is no unified Central and Eastern European practice that can be contrasted with Western models, not even in terms of the actual rejection of immigration.

Considering the fact that campaigns aiming to entice emigrated citizens to return home have so far been moderate successes in the region, the increasingly severe skilled workers shortage might prompt V4 governments to ease administrative processes necessary to employ foreigners. This is justified by structural socio-economic reasons that could hardly be overwritten by short-term government decisions aimed at boosting its popularity.

Good practices in family policies in Europe

The best family policy practices employed by European nations also fail to justify the government’s traditionalist ideological approach. In the countries where they have introduced progressive family policies, fertility is higher, and a reform process – as it is visible in Germany – could start positive processes.

Experiences dictate that supporting and propagating the traditional family model can have a negative effect on fertility. However, even best practices in family policy can only yield results in the long-term, as it is indicated by the French and Swedish examples: these states are performing above the European average because of their consciously built family support systems. Both Sweden and France pay special attention to balancing parents’ careers and private life, and Germany has started moving towards that direction as well.

These measures help women not having to choose between childbearing and work, but even in this case states have to plan for the long-term, as societies must also become accustomed to and understand that mothers do not stay at home with their young children, but work alongside caring for them.

Despite the fact that direct financial transfers do not necessarily help encourage the growth of birth rates, they might have a role in decreasing (child) poverty; thus, it is worth it to target and concentrate them on helping poor families.

The family-based tax policy that Hungarian government also considers essential – and what can also be categorised as financial support – can play an especially important role in family policies focusing on encouraging women’s participation in the labour market. One of the most important best practices in this regard is giving tax breaks or deductions for services replacing household work. Any form of financial support can help families with children feel that they suffer no financial disadvantages compared to those without children.

Supporting the traditional family model can affect fertility negatively because it (1) might discourage couples wanting not to marry from having children and (2) might encourage women to make a choice between career and private life.

In the past century, Sweden always answered declines in fertility rates with progressive family policies, allowing it to keep its TFR above the European average in the long-term. Meanwhile, Ireland is a country with one of the highest TFRs in Europe despite the fact it left behind the traditional family model decades ago.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. 

Political Scientist, Senior Affiliate at Political Capital

Central European Futures

Over the past several years, it has become ever more apparent that the post-Cold War era of democratic reform, socio-economic development and Western integration in Central Europe is coming to an end.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German-Marshall Fund of the U.S..

Download the #CentralEuropeanFutures report in PDF