Downing Street attempted to defuse the controversy over Boris Johnson’s decision to host a meeting with Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban on Friday, insisting he voiced “significant concerns” over his counterpart’s record on human rights.
In a statement issued after the talks, Downing Street said Johnson expressed his concerns surrounding Orban’s record on issues such as “gender equality, LGBT rights and media freedom”.
“The leaders also discussed a number of foreign policy issues including Russia, Belarus and China,” Number 10 added. “The prime minister encouraged Hungary to use their influence to promote democracy and stability.”
In recent years, Orban, who is regarded a rightwing populist and an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has become a controversial figure on the international stage.
Under Orban’s leadership, Hungary has blocked the EU from issuing statements criticising China and has argued against Russian sanctions.
The campaign group Human Rights Watch has accused the Hungarian government of using the pandemic “as a pretext” to undermine “the rule of law and democratic institutions” within the country.
Orban has also been criticised for his comments on immigration. In a 2018 interview with German newspaper Bild, Orban described refugees as “Muslim invaders”. Two years earlier, speaking at a press conference, he said that migration into Hungary was a “poison”.
Number 10 condemned his comments ahead of Friday’s meeting describing them as “divisive and wrong”. However, the timing of Johnson’s meeting with Orban is particularly awkward for the British prime minister. This week Johnson and the Conservative party were criticised by an independent report on the issue of Islamophobia.
Following the meeting Orban told journalists he stood by his anti migrant comments, arguing that migration within Hungary is seen in a negative light. “We don’t need migration, we don’t like that phenomenon at all.”
Orban added that while he understood why some regarded his comments describing the Muslim community as “invaders” was offensive, he argued that he was stating a “fact”.
“In democracy you have to name the fact, this was the fact sorry”, he said. “We don’t have any hostile feelings, we simply would like to defend our own rights.”
The British government has insisted that Hungary is “vital to the UK’s security and prosperity” and in July of this year the country is set to assume the presidency of the Visegrad group of central European nations, which consists of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
British diplomats have privately admitted they are uneasy about Johnson’s meeting with Orban, whose close ties with Russia, China and Belarus are sharply at odds with the UK’s current foreign policy.
Apart from Irish prime minister Micheál Martin, Orban is the only EU leader to have met Johnson since the UK left the bloc’s single market and customs union on January 1. However, Johnson will meet other EU leaders next month when he hosts the G7 summit in Cornwall.
In a letter to Johnson, Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, and the party’s spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Development, Layla Moran, criticised Orban’s record on human rights. “Orban’s rule has been marked by a sustained assault on Hungarian democracy, on press freedom and on human rights”, they wrote.
Meanwhile, shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy was among those calling for Johnson to address Orban’s “appalling record” on issues such as civil liberties.
Commenting ahead of the meeting, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng defended the government’s decision to hold the talks.
“As a leader, as politicians, people in cabinet, people in responsibility, we have to speak to all sorts of people, all sorts of leaders across the world whose values we don’t necessarily share”, he told Sky News.
“Hungary is an EU country, we were part of the EU and in this post-Brexit world, I think it’s absolutely right for us to be building bilateral relations”, he added.