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Europe’s Other Periphery

With the media’s attention fixated on the eurozone crisis, you’d be forgiven if you missed the alarming nationalist populism of Hungary’s government, led by former 1989 ‘revolution’ leader Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party.

Orban’s second term as Prime Minister of Hungary has elicited scorn in Brussels and Budapest. His government has re-instated the Status Laws, which confer Hungarian citizenship on any Magyar nationals living in neighboring countries. This is the latest attempt to re-invigorate the Hungarian nation. In the World War Two era, ‘nation’ and ‘state’ were less congruous in the Carpathian basin than almost anywhere in Europe. The well-known Treaty of Trianon greatly diminished Hungary’s territory and failed to include within its boundaries several ethnic Hungarian communities, inciting ethnic unrest among its minorities specifically. Today, Hungarian politics have become, once again, marred by bellicose rhetoric towards its sizeable Slovak minority. This may be political grandstanding to neutralize the radical nationalist third party in Hungary, Jobbik; in any case, it’s disconcerting.

On January of 2012, Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, launched legal proceedings to contest the most recent set of laws passed as part of Hungary’s new Constitution. Critics claim these laws seriously undermine freedom of the press, data privacy, and judicial independence. It is unlikely that Hungary would have been admitted into the EU in 2004 were it governed under the Constitution it has just adopted.

Donald Tusk, the centre-right Prime Minister of Poland, has publicly stated that he will not accept the EU intervening in the domestic politics of Hungary, a sovereign state. The Czech Republic, too, remains the most openly euro-skeptic member of the EU. A fault-line in Europe is growing between those members that spearheaded the first stage of European collaboration with the European Coal and Steel Community, and those members of the Eastern bloc, who, after forty-five years of subjugation to the Soviet hegemon, are more reluctant to sacrifice their sovereignty.

Although this story is less immediately threatening to the stability of the European economy, it is an acute reminder that if integration is the precondition for solving the current fiscal problems, the political and economic structures of Europe could be undone by forces of nationalism that have deep roots in parts of the continent.  It would be a tragic irony if the nationalist tensions the EU was meant to assuage resurface as integration accelerates.

Recall that admission into the EU was one of the strong “pull” factors in the dismantling of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. Its structure of free trade, labour mobility, and political stability was seen as a means for East European states to, as the Czech writer Milan Kunder put it, “return to Europe.” To this end, these countries had to draft laws and Constitutions that were in line with the requirements set by Brussels.

The Greek and Hungarian cases are not analogous, but neither situation portends well for the European project. Both countries gained admission to the EU as symbolic ‘stations’ in the ineluctable march towards liberal democracy in Europe. In fact, today’s economic turmoil is a direct result of the introduction of the euro and adoption of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. The initiative began as an effort to integrate a newly unified Germany more deeply into the European structure in order to allay British and French concerns over a potentially destabilizing German powerhouse. Needless to say, if Germany today further relinquishes its role as economic hegemon, Europe might return to a period of instability unseen in decades.

Was Greece in a fiscal position to gain admittance to the EU just 6 years after its transition from military dictatorship in 1981? Had Hungary likewise developed a civic, liberal political order strong enough to withstand its historically rooted irredentism, by the time of its admission in 2004? Will it?

These questions are important seeing as the EU is the most successful international organization of the modern era. Greece and Hungary are only the most vivid examples of European-wide trends: the rise of the radical right as embodied by Marine Le Pen’s National Front, for example, and the precarious public finances of Italy demonstrate that the original six members are equally prone to economic dislocation and political populism.

Harvard economist Dani Rodrik illustrates the trilemma facing Europe today – it must forgo one of a) integrated economies, b) the sovereign nation-state, or c) mass politics, if the EU is going to move forward and realize its purported objectives.  The current crisis in Europe can either destroy the Union, empower national and European technocratic governments to set the political agenda, or move towards greater integration.

The growing consensus is that, in the wake of the Greek bailout, Europe will move towards greater integration, with more control funnelled to democratically elected leaders in Brussels, thus further sacrificing the primacy of the nation-state.

The political trends in Hungary – as in the east, more generally – suggest that this consensus is far from shared amongst the constitutive members of the Union itself.

–  Christophe Cinqmars-Viau

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