- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2019

Hungarian Family Minister Katalin Novak visited Washington this week to promote her country’s effort to boost an anemic birthrate by making parenthood at a younger age “trendy, fancy, sexy.”

“What we are doing in terms of pro-family policy support in Hungary is nothing new,” Ms. Novak, 42, said Thursday at the Hungarian Embassy. “What we are doing in Hungary is working.”

Since Hungary’s center-right Fidesz party took control of the government from the socialists in 2010, the country’s fertility rate rose from 1.23 children per woman to 1.45 children per woman, and the marriage rate climbed to more than 40%. The number of Hungarians has shrunk by 30,000 a year since 1981 because of the country’s low birthrate — nearly 10% of its population.

Earlier this year, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced full income tax forgiveness for women under 41 who have four or more children.

But Hungary faces criticism from Western democratic groups for its staunch opposition to immigration. This fall, Mr. Orban criticized “population replacement” with migrants as a solution to the nation’s declining citizenry. In 2015, he ordered the construction of a barrier on its border with Serbia and Croatia to prevent passage of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war.

Ms. Novak, a rising star in Fidesz, echoed the party line Thursday by referring to the “threat of immigration” and comparing Hungary — which she called a “small, open nation in the middle of Europe” — to the geographically and culturally vast United States.

“If we replace the lacking children with immigrants, we won’t maybe realize there is a problem,” said Ms. Novak, an economist and married mother of three. “But isn’t that a problem that many nations don’t reproduce? We think that we should tackle this issue.”

The Orban government has found sympathetic ears in the Trump administration and other nations, such as Brazil and Poland, whose diplomats met Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol for a pro-family conference.

“When we talk about nations, we are not talking about The Washington Post version of nationalism, but loving your country,” Hungarian Ambassador to the U.S. Laszlo Szabo said at the start of the conference.

Demographers say that a low birthrate, which fails to replace an aging populace, can damage a country’s economy by increasing medical costs and creating employment gaps. This fall, The Wall Street Journal reported that Hungary had begun adopting some of the most liberal employment recruitment laws in the European Union to attract foreign workers to fill jobs.

But Ms. Novak doesn’t want to cast the cause for boosting Hungary’s birthrate in cold numbers. She said she also hopes for the preservation of Hungarian culture.

“There will always be people who will come to Hungary to live in Hungary, to contribute to our communities and who are the most welcome, and — of course — be fully integrated into our society and who will contribute to the richness of our culture,” she said. “That has always been like that, and it will always be like that.”

But she added that preserving a culture’s “richness” isn’t as easy as bringing in new Hungarians and asking them to learn the language.

“If we support mass immigration, if we support illegal immigration, if we accept that immigration is something that is happening and we can’t do anything against, we should not even try to preserve the richness of our culture,” Ms. Novak said, expressing incredulity over the prospect of a new citizenry “with a totally different religious, cultural, linguistic background.”

Fidesz will control Hungary’s government for at least another legislative cycle, but elections this fall saw an opposition candidate take control of the mayoralty of Budapest.

“For this time in a row, we won two-thirds [in the] elections last year, so we have another two years,” Ms. Novak said. “And hopefully even more.”

Asked if it will take 10 years to increase the birthrate, Ms. Novak pushed back, seeming to suggest what economists have said — that birthrates can’t climb overnight.

“Maybe not in 10 years,” she said. “Maybe more.”

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