Hungary has been reprimanded by the European Commission on several occasions in recent weeks. Most recently, the Commission pronounced that Hungary should forgo €495 million in EU funds for meeting its budget-deficit targets via measures that it regarded unsustainable. Other member states, including the Spanish government, missed their targets altogether but escaped punishment.
Why has Hungary been singled out? Perhaps because of the tensions within the EU between ever closer political union and the notion of national sovereignty.
Many of the founders of the European project viewed nationalism as the cause of the world wars, and a hostility to nationalism has made some of Europe’s current political elite suspicious of the nation state. That suspicion is at times openly expressed and targeted at Hungary.
Hungary, though, believes it is possible to be a proud defender of the nation state and of the right to decide one’s own affairs, and, at the same time, to be an enthusiastic participant in Europe’s institutional and political life when it is in its interests to be so.
National identity is distinct from belligerent nationalism. Indeed, national sentiment is the pre-condition of our independence. Without national sentiment, it is difficult to maintain the democratic process and the rule of law: both depend upon people recognising their togetherness and their duties to each other. In particular, after the collapse of communism, the peoples of central Europe have needed a chance to redefine their identities.
That is why, in 2010, Hungarians voted for a centre-right government and gave it a mandate to produce a new constitution establishing Hungary’s identity and independence.
There is a threat of belligerent nationalism in Hungary, expressed in parliament through the Jobbik Party. But, in Fidesz, Hungary has a governing party that can combine national identity with an allegiance to a liberal jurisdiction and a rule of law that offers constitutional protection to all ethnic, religious and linguistic groups.
We therefore make no apologies for our strong attachment to national sentiment. But, at the same time, we will remain a dedicated and active member of the EU, and for the following very good reasons.
First and foremost, we have no geopolitical alternative. We experienced decades of subjugation. So, when asked whether Hungary should remain part of an integrated Europe, the question we implicitly ask ourselves is: “would it be better once again to be part of the Russian sphere of political, economic and cultural influence?”
As a result, there is no real cleavage in Hungarian politics over EU membership. Only Jobbik has begun to articulate an anti-EU position. In fact, support for membership is one of very few issues that have consistently enjoyed genuine cross-party support.
Secondly, membership serves Hungary’s national interests. Within Hungary, it is widely acknowledged that the tragic consequences for central Europe of the world wars can be fully and finally resolved only within a common European political framework.
Thirdly, EU funds remain crucial to our economic development. Hungary’s farmers, builders and researchers rely heavily on the EU’s support. EU-funded projects contribute to the modernisation of our public administration, and speed up the inclusion into society of minorities and marginalised groups. These are reasons why this government stresses the need to accelerate implementation of EU-backed projects.
Fourth, the advantages of being part of the decision-making process are immeasurable. During the communist era, Hungary had the misfortune of being decided for; now, we have a say in international decisions.
We are a proud people. We believe that, just as Europe is an asset to us, so we are an asset to Europe. In many fields of artistic and intellectual endeavour we have made a disproportionately large contribution.
Hence our indignation when European institutions retail some of the left’s lies and exaggerations. We are not happy with the increasing tendency towards standardisation within the EU. Nor are we happy with the double standards exemplified by European commissioners who criticise our democratic practices while remaining far removed from European voters themselves.
But our calculation is clear: we have our frustrations, but we remain committed to the values and goals of an integrated Europe.
Tibor Navracsics is Hungary’s deputy prime minister.