The US State Department is sending two high-level officials to a migration summit this weekend in Hungary – a country whose controversial far-right ruling party has maintained a hardline anti-migration stance, with one of the strictest policies against immigrants in Europe, and has cracked down on civic organizations, the media and academic institutions.
It is notable that none of the US’s key European allies – Germany, France, or the United Kingdom – are sending any representatives from their foreign ministries. And the decision by the US to take part comes amid concerns over the spreading influence of far-right ultra nationalist parties on the continent. Poland is the only other country besides the US and Hungary with a government official scheduled to speak; they’re sending a minister for humanitarian aid programs.
Hungary has built a border fence, sent the bill for it to the EU, and made it a crime for citizens to offer help to undocumented immigrants. The State Department officials will speak at the summit just days after Hungary’s ruling party was suspended from its EU Parliamentary coalition after refusing to moderate its views.
“We cannot compromise on democracy, rule of law, freedom of press, academic freedom or minorities rights. And anti-EU rhetoric is unacceptable. The divergences between EPP and Fidesz must cease,” Joseph Daul, the president of that coalition (the European People’s Party) said Wednesday.
A Hungarian government official stressed before the vote to suspend the party that they would “under no circumstances be able to compromise on fundamental issues such as the defence of Christian culture or the rejection of immigration.”
Meanwhile, Balazs Orban, the deputy minister and parliamentary state secretary for the Prime Minister’s Office, is touting this Budapest migration summit, which is organized by a Hungarian university, as a way to further their agenda, a place to “gather serious intellectual ammunition.”
“The migration policy of the Hungarian government, including determined, consistent, forward-looking strategic considerations, makes the country exciting for professionals who are concerned about massive illegal migration worldwide,” Balazs Orban told a Hungarian news outlet.
A State Department spokesperson said the officials who will attend and speak at the summit – Andrew Veprek, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and Pete Marocco, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations – “are attending the conference to discuss the U.S. government’s policies and approaches to international migration issues, stabilization, and conflict mitigation.”
The summit will feature speakers from a variety of think tanks, educational institutions and religious organizations, according to its website. Numerous officials from the Hungarian government are also listed as speakers.
Among those taking part are several from organizations who say their missions center on the preservation of western values and Christianity.
For example one of the partner groups, the Center for Fundamental Rights, which is based in Hungary, notes that it “considers preserving national identity, sovereignty and Christian social traditions as its mission.”
“It is a well-known aim of the Center to form a counter against today’s overgrown human rights-fundamentalism and political correctness that have been affecting numerous aspects of our everyday life,” the group’s website says.
Two speakers are coming from Harvard– Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an outspoken critic of Islam, and George Borjas, an economist who supports restricting immigration.
Veprek, one of the State Department officials attending, has previously provoked controversy. As CNN reported exclusively in June 2018, Veprek disputed the idea that leaders have a “duty” to condemn hate speech and incitement, and repeatedly rejected use of the words nationalism, populism, and xenophobia. He sought to strike that language from standard UN documents, saying, “There are millions of Americans who likely would describe themselves as adhering to these concepts. (Maybe even the President.). So are we looking to here condemn our fellow-citizens, those who pay our salaries?”.
In September 2018, House Democrats issued a scathing letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, expressing concern about the “Trump Administration’s policy of remaining silent in international fora about racism and xenophobia and declining to condemn hate speech and incitement.” The letter, signed by the ranking member of the House Foreign Relations Committee and the chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, referenced that June report.
Pompeo, who traveled to Budapest in February, defended the US’ engagement with Hungary despite concerns about their respect for the rule of law, saying the US would “certainly make the case about the things that we see that we wish were different here.”
“I think they are welcoming United States engagement,” he said at the time. “I’m confident they’ll listen.”
CNN’s Vasco Cotovio contributed to this report.