Hungary and the European Union: Ante Portas?

TitleHungary and the European Union: Ante Portas?
Publication TypeElőadás / Presentation
AuthorsHegedűs, István
Full Text

Abstract: In 2004, Hungarians might send their deputies to the European Parliament after a "big bang" enlargement of the European Union. The road to Strasbourg and Brussels has become smoother as a consequence of the general elections in April 2002, when citizens voted the extreme right-wing party out of the national parliament. Some risky factors in the political line of Viktor Orbán's right wing government have become history: after the victory of the socialist and the liberal party their new coalition will quickly reaffirm the Visegrád cooperation and improve contacts with every neighbouring state. In contrast to the conservative perception, which has triumphed Hungary's accession to the European Union as a starting point of the reunifications of all Hungarians inside and beyond the borders, a more pragmatic approach might characterise the government's manoeuvres in the European arena. As for the moment, there will be no Schüssel-Stoiber-Berlusconi-Orbán special core in the heart of Europe. Still, in spite of the strong public support for the entry into the EU, deeper analyses shows a lack of trust concerning the negotiations, little knowledge about the European institutions and a shaky, provincial identity of the average Hungarian as well as strong "europessimistic" attitudes in the mass media.

Preliminary version

Paper prepared for the international conference organised by the Department of International Relations at Middle East Technical University, Ankara, 3-5 July 2002.

Presumably, many Hungarian politicians, and even social scientists, would start a presentation at an occasion like this international conference with an exhaustive analysis of our exactly thousand year long statehood and the myths about the origin of King St. Stephen's crown. Later, moreover, these lecturers would give you a detailed description with romantic pictures about the heroic fights of our nation against foreign conquerors, including the Turkish, pardon me, the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, I am looking back only to the recent past, namely the regime-change between 1988 and 1990, when the communist one-party rule collapsed in Hungary.
During this political transition from a soft, but 'existing' dictatorship to a democratic parliamentarian system (Bozóki 1993), almost all emerging political groups concluded that the demand for neutrality and independence of the country, as it had been claimed by the revolutionary masses and the government in 1956, was not an appropriate answer any more regarding the changing international conditions. The 'Euro-Atlantic' orientation of the political elite and the desire of the people to belong to the well-developed part of the European continent were formulated in the slogan 'Back to Europe' after forty years of Cold War. The process with the objective of Hungary's full membership in the institutions of the European integration started when a European Agreement with the European Community was signed at the end of 1991. Following the Maastricht Treaty, and a rough eurosceptical back-lash in some of the member states during the early nineties, not to forget the last wave of enlargement in 1995, and the intergovernmental conference (Duff 1997) resulted in the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997, accession negotiations were finally opened between Hungary, as well as other candidate countries, and the European Union in March 1998. At the culmination of this development, Hungary could join NATO in 1999 after a referendum in 1997, when 85 percent of the participants voted in favour of membership in the defence organisation.
During this period, however, the general pro-European Union attitudes of the population have become more fragile in Hungary. This gradual emotional change does not mean that citizens would vote against the EU. Still, more than a decade after the regime-change, both representatives of political parties and average people feel disappointed that the country still must be proud of its candidate status. Today, Hungarians can hardly believe in the messages of the European Council, whose last resolutions have strongly emphasised that the best applicants might and should participate in the next European elections in 2004.
According to the typical 'europessimistic' perception in Hungary, the 'real' intention of the European Union is to postpone enlargement, or, at least, 'to make fun of us'. In such a bitter mood and stereotyped conclusion there is not too much room for sophisticated arguments to explain why a long march is needed till membership. From this strict and inflexible perspective, it has little sense to analyse the historic dilemma the political elite of present member states had to face in the nineties - whether the further deepening of the integration or its widening eastward should have had a priority. Moreover, in case we are firmly convinced that European political discourse usually serves as an excuse for the delay of enlargement, it becomes senseless to observe and understand the decision-making processes inside the European institutions as well as on national levels, or to listen and contribute to current debates about the future of Europe.
During the rule of the last neo-conservative government between 1998 and 2002 in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's critical and ambiguous political statements concerning the European Union might have strengthened the 'yes, but' attitude of the citizens. The growing national pride was expressed in rhetorical emphases on Hungarian history and its specific traditions, moreover, in a new interpretation on the essence of EU membership, which was supposed to secure the spiritual association of all Hungarians inside and beyond the country's physical borders. Besides, the fight for more resources from the European budget at the accession negotiations constituted Hungarian interests according to the views of the ruling coalition. That is why, in the eyes of Orbán, the "status law", which has given special benefits to Hungarian minorities abroad, has deserved the deterioration of relations with neighbouring governments. Furthermore, since most of Central European countries have felt mutually suspicion about the other applicant, who might accept the 'dictates' of the European Union at the talks forcing all to follow this 'best students', the Visegrád co-operation did not conclude into common political positions of its members, but into mistrust and hard competition amongst individual candidate states. The atmosphere became peculiarly tense, when Orbán claimed the necessity of withdrawing the legal measures against ethnic Germans and Hungarians declared by Eduard Benes, the Czechoslovak president after the Second World War as a precondition of EU membership - in the case of the Czechs.
As for Hungary, the success of the EU project might have been jeopardised in case the extreme right wing party had joined the coalition after the elections in April this year. In fact, Hungarian Truth and Life Party could not reach the parliamentarian threshold. However, as The New York Times put it: "Maybe Hungary, not France, should be the focus of European experts who anxiously scan for the continent looking for signs of a resurgence of right-wing nationalism." (Bohlen 2002) - and the correspondent in Budapest did not mean István Csurka, but the leader and idol of 'anti-communist' demonstrators, Viktor Orbán. His party, Fidesz - Hungarian Civic party, despite of a never experienced 'life or death', 'us or them' negative campaign, which resulted in a new record of turnout in the history of the country after the regime-change, finally lost the elections with a tiny difference. The article probably mirrored not only the journalist's private opinion: George W. Bush could not find an opportunity to meet Orbán when the Prime Minister stayed in the United States in the spring - very likely because Orbán had not condemned political antisemitism and Csurka's anti-American statement after 11 September.
The result of the elections was not totally convincing: "the rejection of right-wing radicalism is the election's clearest message, although Fidesz's 2nd-round success makes this statement somewhat ambiguous." (Fowler 2002) Nevertheless, after the victory of the socialist-liberal opposition, the idea of a new conservative 'core Europe', led by four strong politicians, Stoiber, Schüssel, Berlusconi, and Orbán, cannot be fully implemented. The former Hungarian Prime Minister, however, refused to receive any relevant party and parliamentarian position after the defeat. He not only wants to become the charismatic leader of a united populist movement organised against the 'ex-communist' government in the domestic political arena, but intends to play a decisive role in the strategy-making of right wing forces in the bigger European scene.
As for the new coalition, it now calls itself the 'national middle' and has declared its wish to renegotiate the deal made on free sale of agricultural land for 'foreigners' with the EU. Today, the socialists seem to become the main protectors of national interests and have attacked the former compromise of a seven year long transition period, saying, the country would need a decade to secure competitiveness in this field. On the other hand, strengthening non-Hungarian ownership might be in the interest of current top managers, whilst the sector would urgently need significant capital investment and fast structural reforms, instead.
In the bidding war between the two big political groups, chances for deeper intellectual and rational debates have become very poor. During the negotiations with the European Union, public discourse has been mostly limited to the timing and, sometimes, the conditions of accession. This perspective might be evident in this life period of the country, when the leading elite wants to get rid of its traditional positions determined by a centre-periphery relation: "Hungary, first of all, is looking for the reparation of its middle and long-run economic problems amongst the advantages of catching up through integration" (Balázs 2001:74).
The consequence of this pragmatic and narrow approach, on the other hand, is the lack of interest in European matters in Hungary. The current dialogue on the future of Europe has not mobilised party representatives and policy analysers to influence and shape the development of the continent. There are no visions provoking sophisticated discussions about the desirable balance between supranationalism and intergovernmentalism or the importance of a European constitution in the media. In contrast to Romano Prodi's appeal, which declared: "Take the question of the sharing of responsibilities between the Union and Member States. It is a question of central importance, because one of the purposes of the debate on the future of Europe is to make Europe a place where its people feel at ease, where they play a political role at local, national and European level." (Prodi 2001)
There are only a few examples of Hungarian participation in the discussion, which should move the whole continent (Martonyi 2001). In general, the media cover the European debate from a convenient distance. Nevertheless, when Hungary and the representatives of the European Union have bargained on issues of sensitive policy areas at the accession negotiations, like in the case of the financial package proposal of the European Commission earlier this year, quality newspapers joined the chorus of politicians with different party affiliations who refused the 'unacceptable' offer. In the perception of editors and journalists, the role of the Hungarian media is to unmask the unfair methods and practices of the European institutions and to support the Hungarian government in its struggle for better political and economic conditions before the entry of the country to the EU. Needless to say, the desire to grasp the motivations and the political background of the negotiating partner - and the fifteen member governments acting both in domestic and European arenas - has been usually missing in this sort of interpretation. The mainstream media do not help Hungarian citizens in understanding democratic procedures and collective decisions in the European Union - despite the high probability that they all become European citizens in two years.
All in all, most Hungarians have positive views about the European integration and their country's forthcoming membership in this club. The degree of the support might be proved and measured at a referendum in 2003. Yet, analysers of Hungary's road to the European Union should be cautious with their conclusions. The presumably high percentage would express Hungarian citizens' cultural, and not political identification to Europe. In order to develop a European political identity - whilst preserving national identities - in the population of will-be member states, the democratic liberal elite of the European Union should not lose its confidence in this historic blue-print. But this is already another story.

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