Monday, January 17, 2005

Back from Mitteleuropa

My colleague tells me that he has entertained our readers with tales of my comings and goings but I suspect that is an exaggeration. Nobody was entertained at all.

The original purpose of the trip was to take part in a debate during a conference organized by Euromoney plc on the next ten years for Central and Eastern Europe, now that the countries have joined the great European project. More of the conference later on, but it is worth noting that the theme as outlined in the various section headings was not quite as upbeat as one would have expected it all to be. The grey dawn of reality is beginning to seep in.

This, however, is my first report from one of the new member states, one that I know well and have seen at various stages of its development, Hungary. It is, of course, good to know that that quintessentially Central European country is now back where it belongs and is not languishing in that artificial political section: Eastern Europe.

Hungarians and Austrians have resumed their mutual visiting habits and the trains between the two countries are full. Border checks have for some time been friendly and perfunctory (though, for some reason, my passport was examined at great length by the Hungarian guard on my way in). All this has happened long before the EU membership, for what Hungary and the other East European countries wanted was to be back in Europe. They were back in Europe the day they opened their borders (Hungary signalling the end of the Soviet empire by doing so in no uncertain terms in 1989), removed controls from property ownership, media and the formation of political parties and organizations.

All that happened a while ago, but the EU in its wisdom decided that only one relationship was possible and these countries had to become members, whether it was the right thing for them or not. To this end a promising idea, the Central European Free Trade Area (CEFRA) was destroyed before it could achieve anything and new border controls are being put up between the new members and the countries further east, whose development will be stifled in this way.

The main problem, as we have written before on numerous occasions and as I mentioned during my debate with a Research Fellow of the Centre for European Reform (the main perestroika europhile organization in this country), is that the EU, despite all that noisy talk about common foreign and security policy, has no real idea of a policy because there is no such animal as a common European interest.

This becomes even clearer as one goes further east. For the agenda of the former communist countries is very different from that of the core members. It is not an accident that they have shown themselves to be more pro-American than pro-French. They are not Atlanticist – how could they be, stuck in the middle of the continent – but they are pro-western. What is not yet clear to the people, including the more political classes (more easily defined in Central European circumstances than, say, in Britain) that the EU is not necessarily pro-western, in the sense, that it has eschewed many of the ideas that we call western or genuinely European and has set itself to undermine the western alliance.

Curiously enough, now that Hungary is part of the EU, its media seems to have become a great deal more inward looking, as have the political debates and discussions. It is as if a certain stage had been reached and it no longer mattered that this was a small inward looking country, obsessed with its own small and large problems. (Though I have to add that the main obsessions do not seem to be quite so petty as some of the ones in this country – Big Brother and I am a Celebrity … did not appear to be discussed with the same amount of gusto and detailed attention.)

The political divide in Hungary, I was told and I suspect this applies to the other new members as well, has not changed for a couple of centuries. On the one side are those who are nationalistic, often truly xenophobic, obsessed with past history, inward looking, suspicious of outsiders and of modern ideas. Sadly, FIDESZ, the main opposition party that had started with high hopes of becoming a more liberal, libertarian, British-style right-wing, conservative party, appears to have abandoned that idea and now appeals to the cruder nationalism of many people. While the leader of the party Viktor Orbán tries to give the impression in the West that, by and large, the original ideals are still there, his reputation inside the country is the opposite.

On the other side are lined up those who are pro-European, pro-Western, more open-minded in their political and economic thinking. For the moment, this trend of thinking is represented by the present Socialist government and those who had supported entry into the European Union. The referendum in Hungary had a very low turn-out, largely because despite misgiving, people did not vote “no”. That would have been a vote for the old-style communists or nationalists, the old agenda.

There are two problems here. One is that this political motif will not fit in well with the EU’s, whose divisions and definitions are very different. The other is that the East Europeans are bound to realize that membership of the EU is a dead end if what you believe in is an open, liberal, pro-Western structure.

I understand the CIA has given the EU 15 years. The CIA has been wrong before a few times (though it was not as wrong on Iraq as some people pretend). At present I give the project 5 years, though the death throes may take longer.

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