"We are being punished by the Brussels sanctions", in Budapest (Photo by FERENC ISZA / AFP)

The EU is not flat

Hungarian interests deserve recognition

Whenever you read about the EU and Eastern Europe these days, there is nearly always more to the story than meets the eye. The growing unpleasantness between Brussels and Hungary in the last couple of weeks, with the latter cast as villain by politicians and commentators alike, is a case in point.

The trouble began early last week, over an EU scheme to show solidarity with Ukraine. This involved Brussels borrowing €18 bn in order to make it available in soft loans over the course of 2023 to cover Ukraine’s short-term needs. The plan required EU unanimity: the Hungarian government, however, immediately disliked the idea that its credit should be pledged in order to contribute to any new loan to be taken out by Brussels. 

As if this were not enough, matters got worse when last Monday Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto scandalised the Brussels nomenklatura with a government-inspired speech doubting the effectiveness of EU sanctions, accused the EU of an “emotionally charged, ideological debate which left little room for common sense and rationality, and making it fairly clear that Hungary could not be relied on to support a further extension of anti-Russian measures.

Brussels distrusts borders and nations as suspicious institutions

The reaction to all this from Brussels and the liberal establishment was explosive. Budapest was said to have betrayed the EU’s backing for Ukraine and to have instead acted as a backer of Putin, “pushing the Russian narrative. Many also suggested that it was weaponising the humanitarian needs of Ukrainians to blackmail the EU into dropping ongoing proceedings against it, which allege failure to deal with rule of law issues such as LGBT rights, judicial appointments and corruption, and abandoning a plan to withhold EU funds totalling up to €30 bn pending resolution of the problem. The German parliament called for the central EU bodies to take a very hard line on these matters. Not to be outdone, senior politicians in the Czech Republic (which currently holds the EU presidency) called openly for the EU to continue to starve Hungary of European funds over the issue in order to convince its voters of the necessity to oust Viktor Orban’s government at the next election.

At first sight, one can see what these people are getting at. Budapest’s intransigence on sanctions does hamper EU ambitions to present a united front to Putin; its lack of zeal for the Ukrainian cause, compared with (say) Poland, worries even many of its supporters. It is also true that Hungary does not have the most squeaky-clean politics in Europe, nor yet the most incorrupt (though it is far from the bottom in either case). 

To swallow the EU and liberal line, portraying Budapest as a mean, cynical and petulant backer of autocracy which needs to be quickly brought into line, involves a serious lack of understanding of Budapest’s position, however.

For one thing, there are the practicalities. Russia is a near neighbour to Hungary: it is also, for the foreseeable future, the only practical source of energy to keep the Hungarian lights on. Its ill-disciplined troops are currently ravaging a country with which Hungary shares an 85-mile frontier. Hungary has to get on with it as best it can.

More to the point, the 700 or so miles that separate Brussels and Budapest mark a profound difference in political philosophy. Hungary’s politics are noteworthy. Its population of ten million or so form an unusually homogeneous group united by language, geography and a fairly conservative morality, with a strong sense of their own history and ties to countries outside Europe (not only Slavic but Turkic-speaking ones). The attraction of Fidesz is that it seeks openly to build on these features, and to promote what it and its voters see as the common institutions that support the society they have always lived in. 

Here lies the problem. The Brussels mindset could not be more different. It sees politics as an application of abstract values such as human rights and equality and culture and morality, as matters of spontaneous private individual commitment; it distrusts borders, nations as suspicious institutions preferably limited to providing an element of tribal loyalty (e.g. sport) and building blocks for convenient administration by an enlightened supranational elite. 

Brussels will have only itself to blame if it further alienates Hungary

In opposing its efforts to control what they regard as matters of their own internal politics and national life, Fidesz and its Hungarian supporters are not condoning corruption or engaging in crass nationalism or authoritarian politics. Most Hungarians are remarkably unbossy and easy-going; few have any time for Putin’s brand of putrid bullying nationalism (indeed, they reckon much of modern history from their own unsuccessful 1956 revolt against exactly such behaviour). Their reaction is rather one of exasperation at an elite which they see as unable or unwilling to understand Hungarian politics, except as an aberration from its own liberal assumptions and requiring stern measures to suppress it.

They have reason to be unhappy. They know perfectly well that Brussels officialdom detests Fidesz, not to mention its brother parties in states such as Poland, as awkward nationalistic barriers to its ambition to micromanage the EU. They suggest, with some reason, that Brussels comes down harder on states like Hungary and Poland for infractions of EU law: there are distinct, and probably justified, suspicions that it is using the threat to withhold EU funds as a means to extract ever more concessions from Budapest. A number of Hungarian intellectuals and government figures have no difficulty in saying that EU law has been carefully manipulated in the last fifteen or so years to make life more difficult for EU-sceptics. 

Put bluntly, Hungary feels pressured (and not only, incidentally, by the EU: whether from devilment or otherwise Joe Biden last year pointedly sent out as US ambassador to Budapest an activist human rights lawyer who has riled Fidesz by getting too close for diplomatic comfort to prominent opposition figures). If this is right, who can blame it for a little reverse pressure placed on the EU?

Brussels can of course hold its ground. If it does, it will have only itself to blame if it further alienates Hungary and makes it feel that its real friends lie elsewhere, whether in Warsaw, Ankara or — much more worryingly — Beijing. If Brussels won’t help, others will be only too happy to do so.

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