Hungary and the European Union: Anniversary and elections

It was five years ago, on May 1, 2004, that Hungary along with nine other countries joined the European Union. Although the number of people voting at the Hungarian referendum to join the EU was modest, 85% of them voted in the affirmative. Since then enthusiasm has waned considerably. Only about 30% of Hungarians are happy with the country's EU membership. This is not at all surprising. In general Hungarians expect instant results, and not just small improvements but revolutionary changes. And when that doesn't happen they are deeply disappointed. Again, not just a little disappointed but fundamentally so.

Of course, Hungary is definitely better off inside the European Union than it would be outside of it. Just imagine what would have happened to Hungary, given its current economic woes, if the country had been entirely "independent." Left in the lurch.

A wonderful article by Marcus Mabry appeared in The New York Times on April 25, 2009. He was reporting on his first visit to Budapest since January 1989 when he was an exchange student in Hungary. Earlier he could see the remnants of former grandeur but there was also an "unmistakable sadness that hung over it." Now two decades later "Budapest had become a dream realized, full of world-class hotels, ubiquitous construction cranes, mansions and museums scrubbed clean…. The stores were full to bursting, with local products as well as global brands. Hungary, it struck me, was part of Europe again."

Yes, of course, Marcus Mabry is right, at least in terms of material well being. The only problem is that the natives don't see any of this. And some opposition politicians make sure that they focus only on the dark side of things. These politicians recite long lists of numbers that all prove that Hungary is the last, the very last in everything. Tibor Navracsics, head of the Fidesz caucus, just yesterday rattled off some very impressive numbers on the incredible strides countries in the region have made since joining the European Union. The GDPs of all the countries he mentioned have grown by thirty or forty percent. But then there was Hungary with an anemic nine percent! I haven't double checked these figures, but Fidesz is notorious for its inventions. For instance, we know that Estonia and Latvia were growing by leaps and bounds but then their GDP fell by 15 percent or so. Another speaker (Christian Democratic People's Party) complained that in his own region, close to the Austrian and Slovenian border, nothing but nothing has happened since 2004. Nothing was built, and Hungary is losing ground to its neighbors.

Although it is true that in the last three years or so Hungarian economic development has slowed, the situation is not as bleak as the opposition paints it. As Mátyás Eörsi (SZDSZ) noted in the course of the same parliamentary session, the situation cannot be described only in black and white. But he also noted something that perhaps Marcus Mabry couldn't quite see standing in front of the storefronts and the glittering façades–that although Hungary might be part of Europe physically, it is not so mentally. In other words, a large majority of Hungarians still don't act like "Europeans." Because as Gordon Bajnai said, again at the same parliamentary session, in western Europe the word "Europe" is only a geographic description. By contrast, in eastern Europe people talk about "behaving like a European." That is, in a civilized way. And I must say that as far as political discourse is concerned Hungary is not a "European" country.

Finally, I would like to mention the launch of the campaign for representation in the European Union parliament. As things stand MSZP will most likely do quite badly. Even five years ago Fidesz managed to send more members than MSZP, but this time everybody predicts a rout. Or rather it will be a rout if too many MSZP voters stay home. Whether the party will be able to inspire its followers to go to the polls I don't know. But Fidesz is taking nothing for granted; it is trying to ensure a high voter turnout among the party faithful and keeps striving to expand its base. Fidesz politicians stress that this election is important. Because it is not really about the European Union; it is a referendum on domestic politics. By voting for the Fidesz list voters will pass judgment on the Bajnai government. This emphasis on the domestic was so pronounced at the opening salvo of the Fidesz campaign that there was not one European Union flag anywhere to be found. But how many Hungarian flags behind the podium! Perhaps two dozen. Viktor Orbán, by the way, gave a speech that was perhaps his most antagonistic to date. He was yelling so hard that his voice kept cracking. He called his political opponents "petty thieves"; the crowd, in response, screamed: "To jail with them! To jail with them!" The guest speaker was Xavier Bertrand, secretary general of the French conservative party. I'm just hoping that he didn't know what Orbán was talking about.Orban Eu kampany The Fidesz slogan is "New Direction" and the recurring theme in Orbán's speech was "Enough." I assume that "Enough" is enough of the socialist government and "New Direction" is where a newly elected Fidesz government would lead the country. A rather odd theme for  European Union elections, but of course we know that this election has absolutely nothing to do with the EU. 

The launch of MSZP's campaign coincided with the celebration of May Day that is customarily held out in Népliget, a large park. The socialists have a picnic with good food and beer. I think that they themselves were surprised to see that the crowd was as large as it was. They admitted that a year ago there had been more people, but under the circumstances it wasn't a bad showing. By the way, I couldn't find out how many people went to the Fidesz campaign launch, but my feeling is that it was a smaller crowd than the party anticipated. Normally they come out with a very high estimate, but this time they decided not to say anything about the size of the crowd. At the socialists' gathering there were the party leaders and the prime minister, all casually clad in jeans. That included Ildikó Lendvai as well as Kinga Göncz, the former foreign minister who leads the socialist EU ticket. Behind the speakers was the EU flag as well as the flags of all the members states,Bjnai Eu-kampany just as it should be. Here we heard about the benefits of EU membership, and Kinga Göncz came up with an idea that should have occurred to Hungarian politicians (or perhaps even all members of the European Union's Parliament)– that the delegates should at regular intervals report to  their constitutents on the accomplishments of the parliament in Brussels. Also they should say what they themselves managed to accomplish for the good of the country. One thing is certain. The Hungarian public is woefully ignorant of European affairs and that is not entirely their fault. I am a very diligent follower of political events in Hungary, but there is hardly any news about the European Union in the media. Lately there have been some comparisons of the accomplishments of the socialist members versus those of Fidesz, but otherwise citizens of the European Union hear little about the politics of Brussels. It would be time to change this. Perhaps then there would be fewer Euroskeptics in the European Union.

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Hungary is not uniques in that EP elections focus primarily on domestic issues. I believe this to be the case in many if not most of the Union. Moreover, as a sign that the public does not take the EP too seriously, in EP elections again across the Union, fringe/radical parties on both the left and right generally do better than they do in regular domestic elections. These elections are seen (rightly or wrongly) as a great opportunity to vent.

Where it isn’t the case that population focus on domestic issues, it is normally Eurosceptics who tend to vote on European issues – hence the good performance of anti-European parties and lists in Austria, Denmark and the UK in European parliament elections over the years. There is a difficulty for European voters in that the stakes of the election are unclear because of the EU’s complex constitutional arrangements. While Parliament must approve the members of the Commission and may pass a motion of no-confidence in it, commissioners are nominated by member governments. The Commission President (the de-facto leader of the EU)is chosen as a consequence of protracted bargaining by the member governments, in which the European election results are taken into account. If the president was elected either by parliament, or directly by the people participation would increase (however, such a plan would be opposed fiercely by member governments, and by public opinion in the more Eurosceptic countries). But without this link between voting and government, one can’t really blame voters for seeing the elections as little more than a glorified opinion poll. Pro-European commentators frequently make the point that voter participation EU-wide – at 38% in 2004 – is… Read more »

“Maybe in this connection, they deserve to be told that in European terms FIDESZ is part of the European Peoples’ Party, which is committed strongly to the pursuit of the same free market neo-liberal policies that their voters believe they are voting against back home!”
I believe this sort of confusion has wreaked havoc in Hungary. There have been many hungarians and expats with blind allegiance to the Hungarian left, perhaps not realizing how un-“baloldali” they actually are.
(I would suggest the author of this usually informative blog is one such staunch supporter).
Perhaps another recent example is the MSzP readily and openly allying themselves with the Democrats, when much of their belief system would seem better suited to the Republicans.
I wonder if perhaps this problem more pronounced in Hungary; my logic being that a significant language barrier allows for more manipulation and misinterpretation of party politics within a continental or global context.


isti: “I believe this sort of confusion has wreaked havoc in Hungary. There have been many hungarians and expats with blind allegiance to the Hungarian left, perhaps not realizing how un-“baloldali” they actually are.”
I’ve said enough about the strange mismatch between the MSZP’s programme and the social democratic tradition it claims to represent. I would say this is not just an issue for the left. Only the MDF and the SZDSZ have programmes that are in line with those of the European parties they affiliate with. In fact, the mismatch is most striking in FIDESZ’s case – among other things the EPP in its election document (only available in six European languages and conveniently not Hungarian)calls for is the completion of the European-wide deregulation of the service, energy and transport sectors (difficult to square with the some of the promises made by FIDESZ, especially all those ones about “luxusprofit” and energy prices!). And most interestingly, it is suggesting closer coordination of national economic policies, so that member states aim for budget balances and reduction of their public debt. And what is more, given that Viktor Orbán himself is a Vice-President of this party, he can’t actually claim FIDESZ is semi-detached.