Hungary and the EU: in search of respect and solidarity

Hungary and EU flags

During my visits to Brussels, Berlin and other European capitals in the last four years I have often heard Hungary being described as a ‘rogue’ member state on the verge of forsaking its (Western) European ties and commitments. Public criticism (formulated by international organizations, European institutions and the international press) that shapes Hungary’s image in the West and takes aim at the right-wing leadership’s controversial domestic political reforms (most notably the adoption of the new media law and the new ‘one-party constitution’) is well-founded. However, the dominant West European narrative according to which Orbán is seeking to move Hungary to Europe’s political periphery is in my view at least partially flawed and certainly limits thinking on Hungary’s role in the European Union. In what follows I will attempt to paint a more nuanced picture of the undoubtedly complex and tricky relationship linking Hungary to the EU by focusing on lay experiences accumulated in the course of the ten years that have passed since Hungary’s accession to the EU. The second part of the article will build on this analysis in an attempt to critically assess political parties’ vision and strategies in the context of the ongoing European parliamentary campaign.

“Sobering after a grim wedding”: Hungarians relationship to the EU

I derive the image of sobering from the title of an article[1] in which political scientist Krisztina Arató sought to evaluate the balance of Hungary’s accession to the EU. Her article begins with a quote from journalist Timothy Garton Ash who in 2002 published an opinion piece in The Guardian. I quote from Ash’s piece in length because it captured an element that is key for understanding Hungarians’ thinking about the EU and the East-West relationship today:

“Imagine a wedding party delayed for 15 years by the meanness and prevarication of the bridegroom. Who would have any pleasure in it when it finally came? Such now is the reunification of Europe: the wedding of the eastern and western parts of the continent divided for decades by the walls and barbed wire of the cold war. (...) Now the EU’s leaders have finally agreed that we must do the enlargement, but no one intends to pay for it. The net contributors to the EU budget, above all Germany, are damned if they’ll pay a euro more, and the net benefactors, such as Spain, are damned if they’ll take a euro less. The net sum that the EU proposes to transfer to its 10 new members over the three years from 2004 to 2006 is about €25bn. For comparison, under the Marshall Plan, the US transferred the equivalent of €97bn (at today’s prices) over the four years from 1948 to 1951, and in the 1990s West Germany transferred to East Germany some €600bn. (...) So much for the great solidarity of Europeans with Europeans.”

Ash’s emphasis on disappointment caused by the lateness of enlargement and the tangible lack of Western solidarity with ‘poor Eastern brothers’ captures the essence of new members’ mixed feelings about the EU. This is also true for Hungary whose postsocialist political elite committed the error of tacitly buttressing lay hopes on the prospect of catching up with neighboring Austria’s living standard in 20-25 years. The importance of rising living standards cannot be overstressed. According to the latest Eurobarometer poll conducted in November 2013 24 percent of Hungarians (along with 28 percent of Poles, 29 percent of Czechs and 37 percent of Slovaks) believe that the EU’s main prerogative should be the lifting of living standards in their countries[2]. (Improving the standard of living of EU citizens topped the list of desired objectives of the European project in all countries that are considered to be part of Europe’s economic periphery, but the highest scores were registered in postsocialist countries - Latvia, Bulgaria and Slovakia – besides Cyprus.) In Hungary and other postsocialist countries this expectation finds its support in a largely unvoiced but widely shared demand for historical reparation. Citizens of postsocialist societies share the conviction that history (that is: the Soviet Union) had robbed them of the opportunity to attain the level of welfare enjoyed by Western societies and that the latter (who, due to their geographic situation, were lucky enough to escape the shackles of ‘communism’) had the obligation to reunify the continent not only on the symbolic, but also the material plane.

Now, the question as to whether the old member states provided ‘real’ or ‘sufficient’ help and opportunities is still very much an ongoing debate in the region as a whole. With regard to the locus of the dominant position in this debate, I believe that Hungary lies at one end of the spectrum. Due to the particular socio-economic conditions and history of the country citizens who do not belong to the narrow upper-middle class (whose members reaped most of the benefits offered by accession, while being spared from its disadvantages) feel that they have lost out on the bargain struck between national and the European elites. Hungary’s situation is particular in that its national elite chose the most adaptive accession strategy: Hungary strove to be accepted before others as the best pupil in the class of countries aspiring to accession. Its elite sought to achieve this by asking for less derogations than other countries (most notably Poland). The effort was in vain. Instead of being allowed to join the EU before the others based on the principle of differentiation (which the EU silently abandoned in 2001) Hungary was incorporated into the first collective enlargement wave.

The price to be paid for the failed strategy was shorter transition periods for adopting the acquis in such politically sensitive areas as the free sale of land. The failed strategy did not only leave a material imprint on society, but (perhaps more importantly) a symbolic one too. Many Hungarians are convinced that their liberal-minded elite deliberately caved in to pressure from European negotiators with a view to creating openings for multinational capital into key sectors of the economy. This crucial story of abandonment was reinforced by popular experiences of dispossession related to the company closures and layoffs resulting from the Hungarian economy’s integration into the single market. (While most Hungarians may have not read about the destructive downward tax competition that Eastern European states engaged in with a view to drawing foreign direct investments, they have certainly heard about the closure of the last sugar producing factory in 2008 and know full well that Hungarian real wages only reach 40 percent of the EU28 average.)

One of the key lessons Hungarians took away from the ten years that have passed since their country’s accession in 2004 is that the nobly named reunification was the result of a pragmatic calculation, not a desire to heal the rift that divided the continent for half a century. Another important lesson derived directly from this one: If enlargement was primarily dictated by economic interest, then ‘we’ must make sure that ‘our’ interests are represented too. (This conviction is manifested in the mentioned Eurobarometer poll, which showed that only 38 percent of Hungarians – as opposed to 51 percent of Poles[3] – believe that the interests of their country are well taken into account in the EU.) In my reading it is this perceived necessity of defending national interest more vigorously that makes Hungarian citizens accommodating towards the politics of contention followed by Viktor Orbán vis-à-vis Brussels. While Hungarian commentators have tended to interpret the Prime Minister’s ‘freedom struggle’ as a reaction to domestic pressures – namely, the need to deflect blame for the lack of economic growth between 2010 and 2014 – this strategy also aims to satisfy society’s desire to break with a weak foreign policy and to see Hungary play a more proactive role on the European stage. It is this deep-seated desire to be accepted as equals which Fidesz attempts to give voice to in the ongoing European parliamentary campaign in the slogan “Respect to the Hungarians!”.

Eurorealism à la Orbán unopposed: lessons from the 2014 European parliamentary campaign

Speaking at a conference attended by Hungary’s honorary consuls last year the Prime Minister defined his European policy as Eurorealist, claiming that while he seeks to voice criticism of negative tendencies inside the EU he stands one hundred percent behind European values and the European community. While Eurorealism – as advocated by the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament – is usually associated with a strong anti-federalist stance, the prime minister’s European policy record demonstrates a more nuanced approach than that followed by the previous Czech right-wing governments[4] or by the current right-wing British leadership. There is not a grain of doubt that Viktor Orbán has sided with those who want to preserve the sovereignty of European nation states and grant priority to the intergovernmental approach in the ongoing process of European integration. But Hungary did not join the Czech Republic and Great Britain in their rejection of the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance and has generally shown more flexibility when defining Hungary’s position on key European matters (such as the ongoing Ukrainian crisis).

This flexibility has allowed him to secure a position for Hungary in the European political mainstream, as was clearly proven by the outcome of the vote on the Tavares report (which criticized Hungary for weakening fundamental rights and neglecting the rule of law in crucial areas). Despite tensions surrounding Hungary’s new constitution and the dismantling of the system of checks-and-balances under the right-wing government, MEPs affiliated with the European People’s Party overwhelmingly voted against the report. Orbán’s ability to forge alliances on the European level was also manifested in his successful effort to torpedo the proposal to introduce a cap on structural funds (amounting to 2.5 percent of GDP in all member states) in the 2014-2020 period together with Poland and Romania (which would have also been negatively impacted by the measure proposed by the Commission).

The argument according to which Viktor Orbán is intent on relegating Hungary to the margins of Europe flies in the face of this evidence and presents a serious problem for the left-wing opposition, which has attempted to present the government’s European record as a failure. Moreover, the effort of the Socialist Party, the Together 2014-PM alliance and the Democratic Coalition to present themselves as more European than Orbán fails to convince ordinary citizens who – as explained in the previous section – believe that the left-liberal elite’s accommodationist approach has done more harm than good. This is not to say that there is no space for a ‘pro-European’ politics. The point is rather that in order to mount a credible challenge the left-wing would have to change the object of its criticism and, instead of claiming to work towards ‘more Europe’, expose what kind of Europe it wants and how this matters for Hungary. Many of the citizens who today support Fidesz and Orbán would objectively have an interest in the establishment of a European minimum wage, stronger protection of workers’ rights, or the harmonisation of tax policies within the EU.

Yet, despite the presence of some or all of these pledges in the programs of left-wing opposition parties we have not seen a real effort to present an alternative vision of a socially responsible Europe. Neither have left-wing candidates provided a meaningful criticism of Orbán’s plan to re-industrialize Hungary and make it into the CEE region’s manufacturing center. Although the success of the plan relies on a number of problematic conditions – namely, the availability of cheap and flexible Hungarian labor and the upholding of competitive tax regimes inside a largely unregulated European single market – only the far-right party Jobbik has attempted to spell out what this would mean for Hungarian living standards and the hope of catching up with the ‘developed West’. Equally absent are voices calling in question Orbán’s plan to provide Hungarian households with cheap energy deriving from two newly built nuclear reactors in Paks. Only the green LMP party has attempted to explain the risks involved with the putatively ‘ultra-cheap’ loan provided by the Russian state and how the deepening of Hungarian-Russian cooperation in the energy sector could undermine the prospect of forging a common European energy policy (which would be vital for ensuring greater energy security in the CEE region in the future).

Instead of working out an alternative vision of the EU and Hungary’s role inside Europe the Hungarian left has retreated to its earlier position: appeasing European partners in the hope that redressing the country’s image would attract a new wave of foreign investment that would put Hungary back on the path of economic development. The decision to walk the well-known path was not based on a refound faith in the neoliberal modernization project (which Hungarian economists have recently begun to re-examine and criticize). It was rather dictated by an unfortunate and unpromising necessity: the lack of new ideas.

Voters, although they may not be able to identify substantive differences in the approach advocated by Fidesz and the fractured left, nonetheless feel a marked difference between the assertiveness and self-confident plans of the prime minister and the insecurity and lack of ideas of left-wing contenders. And there is a good chance that this fundamental discrepancy will impact their behavior at the upcoming European election. Although few pollsters have so far published prognoses, the general expectation is that the governing party will take at least 10-11 of the 21 seats allocated to Hungary in the European Parliament. The far-right Jobbik party is also widely expected to outperform the Socialist Party and to obtain at least 4 seats. (The remaining seats will be distributed amongst the Socialist Party, Together-2014 and LMP, with the two latter more likely than not to obtain one seat each.) Jobbik’s likely score (expected to be close to 20 percent) corresponds roughly to the ratio of Hungarian citizens who are of the opinion that EU accession has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on Hungary and Hungarians[5]. This appears commonsensical in light of the fact that Jobbik is the party that holds the most negative view on accession and the EU (although I note that instead of continuing to advocate for Hungary’s withdrawal from the EU it now ‘only’ calls for a renegotiation of the accession treaty). However, when it comes to the political preferences of the one third of citizens who see the country’s accession favourably, we find that a sizable segment of this heterogeneous constituency is likely to support Fidesz, not the ‘pro-European’ left.

In a recent interview economist Zoltán Pogátsa (who published a book on the Greek crisis[6]) claimed that Greece and Hungary are the two countries where public opinion has most dramatically shifted against the neoliberal consensus in the last years. What I find notable is that whereas in Greece this shift has manifested itself on the political level in the form of support for a political party (Syriza) that seeks to transform the EU into a community of ‘real solidarity’, in Hungary a similar shift has generated support for a party (Fidesz) that opposes such a transformation and tacitly supports the resuscitation of economic neoliberalism in Europe.

This perverse coalition of disillusioned Europeaners led by a conservative nationalist leader is likely to stay in place until the project of European solidarity is taken up by a credible left-wing contender. Until then the critique of multispeed Europe is likely to be represented and exploited by Jobbik. The only good news is that the far-right’s ability to galvanize public support for its anti-European politics will remain limited. The great majority of Hungarians do not want to leave the EU because they are aware that even if accession failed to deliver an increase in real wages and living standards their families would be worse off if they could not study or work freely in Western Europe.

To conclude I would like to return to the image that Western audiences have constructed on the East which I began the article with. One of my intentions has been to show that the frequently deployed labels of ‘(ultra)nationalism’ and ‘Euroscepticism’ block the possibility of understanding Eastern experiences related to the accession, including hurtful feelings of abandonment and disillusionment. Instead of opening up space for the sharing of different views and shades of experience labelling creates a black-or-white situation in which those caught in the grey zone find themselves muted and compelled to make a difficult choice between siding with one camp or the other. This is not equal to saying that Western Europeans should hide their feelings or repress their own voice(s) on the difficult matter of accession. The debate on why ‘reunification’ could not take place should include ‘Western’ arguments centred on corruption, the unhealthy nexus between business and politics, etc. But to heal the rift that continues to divide the continent we must learn to forego ready-made conclusions and learn to better listen to the other side.



[1] Arató, Krisztina: Sobering After a "Grim Wedding" - a Realistic Evaluation of Hungary's Accession to the European Union. In: Euroscepticism and European Integration. Edited by Krisztina Arató and Peter Kaniok. Centar za Politoloska Istrazivanja, Znastveni Forum, Zagreb, 2009. pp. 119-138
[2] See:
[3] One of the reasons Poles think that their interests are better taken into account may reside in their political elite’s ability to obtain a number of derogations during the accession talks. This was Poland’s first successful move in its bid to establish itself as a mid-sized European power.
[4] The governments led by Mire Topolánek (2006-2009) and Petr Nečas (2010-2013) followed an attenuated version of the strong anti-integrationist stance represented by president Václav Klaus (2003-2013). The departure of Klaus and the entry of the cabinet led by social democrat Bohuslav Sobotka put the Czech Republic on a new, markedly ‘pro-European’ path.
[5] In a poll conducted by Tárki in August 2013 32 percent of respondents viewed the country’s EU accession favorably, 22percent unfavourably with 39 percent formulating a mixed view on the issue. Views on membership have been largely stable in the last years, but the ratio of citizens with negative or mixed views has somewhat increased.
[6] Pogátsa, Zoltán: The Political Economy of the Greek Crisis. Riga: Sit Lux Academic Publishers, 2014.