“There is life outside the European Union, too,” 1 Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán famously said during his first premiership back in 1999, when a newspaper reporter asked him whether Hungary would be able to join the EU in 2002. At that time Orbán’s statement stirred a feverish political debate, causing the opposition to question his true willingness to foster Hungary’s quick integration into the EU, and his pro-European stance altogether.
Contrary to what this quote implied, and to his credit, right before losing the next elections to the socialists in 2002, the first Orbán government ended its mandate with an almost flawless record of pro-European policies. They practically finished the country’s accession talks and Hungary was considered to be the preeminent country of the Visegrad group.
Since then, however just or unjust, the unfortunate above-mentioned sentence has been turned into a political weapon against the current PM numerous times whenever his opponents wanted to showcase his double-edged approach to the common European idea. Double-edged, because in the same interview (although less frequently quoted) Orbán went on to say, “we would like to urge the integration process because it would boost our economy.”
For him and generally speaking for most central Europeans, especially the region’s elite, the big EU enlargement project was first and foremost an economic one. A huge business opportunity granting easier access to export markets, the security of a common currency and of course, lavish EU-funding for big infrastructural projects that otherwise would not have been financed. And let us not forget the corruption opportunities accession offered on the sidelines. EU enlargement was very much an economic project for western Europe, too; they were eager to integrate the patchwork of central European nations into the union, and found that breaking down new member states’ customs was easier than considering sometimes conflicting value systems.
Since the societies and the elite members of the new member countries derived legitimacy for EU integration from the promise of economic success, accession was not questioned until the financial crisis hit in 2008; and the so-called “common” European values, everyone seemed to like when written down in treaties, seemed universal, until they were tested in high-stake, real-life situations (like the refugee or the euro crisis).
The EU’s debates with Hungary and now Poland show that values like the “rule of law,” “democratic checks and balances,” and “press freedom” can have a completely different meaning in Warsaw or Budapest than it does a couple of hours away in Berlin. In a memorable verbal clash during a press conference in Budapest last year when Angela Merkel expressed her unease about the word “illiberal” being applied to “democracy,” Orbán immediately replied, “not all democracies have to be liberal,” adding that, “those who say democracy is necessarily liberal are trying to put one school of thought above others, and we cannot grant that.” 2
First the euro, and now the refugee crisis are real tests of a Europe-wide solidarity, and once again, we can see how different this notion is interpreted in the east and in the west. This is the first time since the new members’ EU accession, that they have been asked to show what they’ve learned about solidarity, and so far they have failed the test (even with the billions EU funds flowing into their budgets in its name).
Instead of helping out their fellow EU members with the unexpected flow of people, their answer has been xenophobia, nationalism, isolationism and of course, fences. All this, in the name of values, because as Orbán clearly expressed in Hungary’s case – money is not an issue here. Hungary, like the other V4 countries, is ready to pay what it needs to in order to assure that no refugee is relocated onto its soil. “We should repeat this as many times as necessary to have the amount of money that we need to handle the crisis,” Orbán said. 3And it seems all V4 countries can afford whatever it takes to do the same.
Of course, the West has also mistaken values important to the countries guarding EU borders. When Viktor Orbán began demanding border security solutions in early 2015, his words were not properly heard or understood, although in his own way, he was speaking about values like security. Now, countries like Germany and Austria must introduce measures for which Orbán was criticized for earlier.
This clash of values is intensifying and 2016 can easily be a make or break year for the eastern members of the EU, as influential intellectuals in the West are openly speaking about the need to leave them behind, allowing them to loosely remain in the EU (mainly by maintaining the customs-free zone), and then work towards integrating a closer federal Europe. 4 Unfortunately, for a growing number of populist politicians in the East, this increasingly seems to be more of a viable option: stop focusing on those uncomfortable values and instead on the mutual trade and business benefits. This might allow countries to reinvigorate a dream of a common Europe.
For centuries, the question of being in or outside Europe has always been more of a geopolitical determination than a choice for these countries. During Soviet rule, these societies considered themselves “victims of history,” for being excluded from a community, they were convinced, that shared their same values. It is enough to see the long and sad record of European history, with its wars, infighting and nationalistic quarrels, to know how tragic it would be to watch these countries leave the EU – now for the first time in history free of geopolitical determinations and out of their free will.
- Interview with PM Viktor Orbán, Világgazdaság, Wikiquote, December 17, 1999, https://hu.wikiquote.org/wiki/Orb%C3%A1n_Viktor (accessed January 21 2015). ↩
- “Merkel clashes with Orbán on meaning of ‘democracy,’” EUObserver, February 3, 2015, https://euobserver.com/beyond-brussels/127468 (accessed January 21, 2016). ↩
- “States should pay more into the EU budget to cope with refugee crisis: Orbán,” Reuters, September 23, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-hungary-orban-idUSKCN0RN1CD20150923 (accessed January 21, 2016). ↩
- “Der schlechte Polenwitz,” Spiegel Online, January 4, 2016, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/rechtsruck-in-polen-der-schlechte-polenwitz-kolumne-a-1070314.html (accessed January 21, 2016). / ↩