One of the most striking policies of the government of Hungary, under its controversial prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is that it encourages couples who want to have children, to have them. At a time when young woke people make principled decisions not to reproduce lest they damage the environment (see Prince Harry and Meghan), Hungary’s minister for families, Katalin Novák, is going out of her way to help people have however many children they want.
Couples who declare they want children are entitled to a generous loan which goes down by a third with each child they produce – so it’s written off with the arrival of the third child. A woman who has four children doesn’t pay income tax. There’s a large housing subsidy for families with children, plus shared parental leave for the first three years. After that, there’s free (or heavily subsidised) nursery and preschool education with free meals – three or four a day – for nine in 10 schoolchildren. For poorer children, there’s a week’s free holiday in the country every summer.
It sounds like a feminist-socialist Nirvana – or would if this were a Nordic country. But this is Hungary, and in an editorial the Guardian expressed its suspicion that this is a right-wing bid to return women to the home. A Swedish minister declared the policy was reminiscent of the 1930s.
Novák, a clever former economist, and mother of three, doesn’t buy that.
“I wouldn’t even use the word ‘incentive’ about our policies”, she says. “We’re not persuading anyone; we’re enabling them to have as many children as they want, when they want them.” Specifically, she says, young people would like, on average, 2.1 children – and she wants to help them do it.
Plainly this would have social benefits; Hungary, like the European Union generally, is failing to reproduce itself, and the government has eschewed the large-scale immigration adopted by countries such as Germany.
But the benefits are not aimed exclusively at mothers. Almost all the benefits are available to fathers as well. For those that go to parents rather than children, the only condition is that at least one parent should be in work. For the grant that goes to couples who register an intention to have children, the couple must be married, and in Hungary this means a man and a woman. Novák insists that the policy shouldn’t be seen in terms of expenditure (though it accounts for 4.6 per cent of GDP) but as “investment”. And it’s hard to think of any other country that’s providing such a family friendly environment. It’s had other effects too: the abortion rate has decreased and marriage rates have increased. Orbán’s government has attracted a good deal of criticism, but on this front at least, it’s hard to see what’s not to like.
Right now, there’s something of a hostile environment in Western European countries towards larger families, as the collective angst about climate change makes something as fundamental as children seem like an imposition on the planet. Novák has a trenchant response to that.
“We have to live in a responsible way and think about the future of the planet,” she says. “But it’s for our children and grandchildren that we’re preserving nature. I’m not doing it for myself, but for the next generation.”
It seems a sane approach to me.
During my stay in Budapest I visited the charming Mathias Church, where I found on the altar a picture of a handsome young man in military uniform. Below there were prayer cards invoking Blessed Emperor Charles – “peace-leader for a united Europe” (I’m translating from German here) who was only briefly emperor of Austria and Hungary, on account of the unfortunate circumstance of the Great War occasioned by the assassination of his uncle.
He was an interesting candidate for beatification. He had a military upbringing, but was always devout, being especially devoted to the Eucharist. In his youth, an enclosed nun with stigmata prophesied that he should endure great suffering. And it is one of the misfortunes of the war that he never properly ruled.
His approach to government was, it seems, informed by Catholic social teaching and he sought “the humanising of military tactics”. He was exiled after the war to Madeira where he died young, after enduring painful illness “as a victim for his people”. I can’t see his cult catching on here, but it seems to me there are worse candidates for sainthood.
In the Hungarian parliament, soldiers with swords stand guard over the Holy Crown of St Stephen, with its Byzantine base bearing images of Christ Pantokrator. But the most distinctive thing about it is the wonky cross on the top, from clumsy handling in the 17th century. It’s rather endearing that the most sacred symbol of the nation is instantly recognisable for being askew; but then the cross of Christ wasn’t perfect either.
Melanie McDonagh works for the London Evening Standard
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