Sunday, 14 August 2011

EU must respond to Hungarian threat

I happen, by fortunate accident of birth, to be a Scot. I am also a European with an internationalist, rather than nationalist, outlook. I am an advocate of the European Union as an institution, although my sympathies do not necessarily extend to the bureaucratic way in which the EU conducts itself or its centralising ethic. However, I have an interest in European issues and make attempts to gain a level of understanding of such matters above what may be gleaned from the British media.

I have recently been considering the thought-provoking recommendations of Austrian journalist Hans Rauscher, a writer of considerable skill and reputation at Vienna’s left-liberal Der Standard. He recently insisted that Hungary should be ejected from the EU; describing the country as a “cuckoo in Europe’s nest” Rauscher puts forward an argument for EU action which, frankly, the rest of Europe deserves to hear. While the world’s media focuses on the struggle for power in Libya and human rights abuses in Syria, equally pertinent and not entirely dissimilar battles are being fought in Hungary – much closer to home but strangely outwith the glare of the global press.

I must advise you that as most of my information has been gleaned from German language newspapers and that my practical knowledge of the language is limited verging on the rudimentary, it is highly possible that I may do Rausher a disservice through inadequate translation. However, I feel I understand his principal points and believe they need to be at the very least considered more widely on a European stage.

Hungary joined the EU only seven years ago, upon a promise to uphold the shared values of democracy, the rule of law and respect for minorities. Whatever else the EU is, argues Rauscher, it is a community of values. This is enshrined within the Lisbon Treaty to which Hungary was content to be a signatory: “Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and the respect for human rights: these are the core values of the EU which are set out at the beginning of the Treaty of Lisbon. They are common to all Member States, and any European country wishing to become a member of the Union must respect them."

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in office for little over a year, seems set to dismantle – or at the very least erode – his own government’s commitment to such values. He has gone so far as to expressly declare them to be obsolete. With his comfortable majority and the apparent support of a sizeable Euro-sceptic section of public opinion, Orban has “declared war” on virtually everyone and “has quickly created an authoritarian pseudo-democracy with ultra-nationalist traits”. His vision for Hungary’s future appears based on a Putinesque system incompatible with Western social values. Already he has successfully altered Hungary’s electoral law to effectively ensure repeated re-election while last year’s media bill has subjected the press to significant governmental interference. The justiciary has been filled with personal and party supporters to ensure that any attempts to overturn the “legal coup” will be frustrated.

There is, however, further cause for concern about the motives behind, and the inevitable by-products of, Orban’s policy direction. Minorities feel vulnerable as anti-Semitism not only appears on the rise but is becoming a more frequent feature of mainstream news reporting. The ultra-nationalism behind Orban’s thinking has the potential to create significant diplomatic tensions between Hungary and her neighbours – most notably with Slovakia and Romania, whose territory covers the Carthusian Basin Orban claims as Hungarian by right. In providing Hungarian citizenship to every “ethnic Hungarian” living within the wider area of the Carthusian Basis, he has essentially attempted to undermine the arrangements laid out within the Treaty of Trianon to ensure the maintenance of peace in Eastern Europe. His actions have certainly succeeded in angering the Slovakians who have, concerningly, intimated that "this is the beginning of a war".

It has not been sufficient for Orban to control the press; he wishes to extend his “coup” to his political opponents who he hopes to jail under what will essentially be false pretences. He is currently planning to prosecute his three predecessors as Prime Minister for “economic management”: in short, he argues that overseeing an increase in national debt from a little over 50% to 80% constitutes a “political crime”. However, that statistic is actually better than many other European democracies and no worse than Britain’s record; critics of Orban believe he is using the economic crisis as a convenient excuse to “muzzle and jail its political opponents” in a Stalinist-type purge.

Orban himself, as might be expected from someone using his democratic mandate to crush democracy, is a mass of contradictions. He has a reputation for being an anti-communist, yet espouses pro-Chinese ideology. He advocates a future for Hungary’s industry on a Russo-Chinese model (surely doomed to failure) while simultaneously adopting policies damaging his country’s manufacturing base. And, while invoking the spirit of 1956, he leads a government which has drafted a new constitution – to come into effect on 1st January 2012 – in which the period between the Nazi invasion in March 1944 and the 1990 elections legally ceases to exist.

Hungary’s rejection of Western values is something that every member of the EU should be seriously uncomfortable with. Euroscepticism is inevitable in the current political climate, but what Orban is promoting goes beyond the typical dissatisfaction directed at European institutions. Giving a speech at a formerly-Hungarian town in Romania, Tusnádfürdö, the Prime Minister insisted that “we have lived our lives within their framework of the world’s values, now they have become less important. They are obsolete.” Orban has laid down a challenge to which the European Union must respond: can he continue, unchecked, to limit press freedoms, imprison political opponents, stir up ultra-nationalist tension and move Hungary towards a new value system incompatible with that of the EU? Or will he be reigned in before the powder keg is ignited?

Rauscher believes that the best course of action is for Hungary to be suspended from the EU. That might be the most obvious course of action, but I feel it may be ineffective and actually play into the hands of Viktor Orban's anti-European tactics while further pushing Hungary away from the values Rauscher holds in such high esteem. Considered action on the part of the EU is not only necessary but overdue (other than expressing a few concerns over press freedom the EU has been rather silent). Europe must now find the courage and the diplomatic wisdom to respond to the Hungarian government's anti-democratic tendencies and aggresive nationalism with some urgency if a new threat to Eastern European peace is to be thwarted.

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