Myths of history, Euro-scepticism and fundamental rights

If we want to develop effective co-operation within and among the member states of the EU, history should be kept at a distance. Living in the past is not feasible, and this is equally true for Euro-scepticism, the application of human rights as well as the fight against racism and extremism.   

Tamas Dezso Ziegler Izolda Takacs
15 May 2012

Fifteen years ago, when one of the authors visited London for the first time as a teenage boy from Hungary, he was taken aback when he came across several people making racist jokes: his first impression of the UK was rather negative. However, he later came to realize that even though some undesirable signs of social exclusion may be present, as in most European societies, the scaffold which held the country together was great i.e. tolerance in everyday life. The UK has succeeded in creating one of the world’s most diverse, pluralistic and colourful societies. Some extremists may indeed harbour racism and a genuine desire for exclusion, and populist politicians often blame immigration for a country’s problems. But the most extreme opinions are hardly allowed to surface, and are generally rejected by mainstream mass media. The current authors believe that by and large the British population is aware of how important this is and how this contributes to making their society free and open-minded.

Yet we still have our doubts when it comes to Britain’s traditional political attitude to the EU. Is this really the most effective way to represent the country’s interests? Does the UK have a deep enough feeling that the peoples of Europe belong together: that irrespective of our past and future, we are all in the same boat? The UK has not joined the Schengen area, and has secured opt-outs from Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) regulation in the EU. This means that Britain is able to choose which EU laws apply in several important areas as well as some remarkably inconsequential ones: short term (but not long term!) visas, co-operation in criminal investigations and in matters of private law (e.g. in the mutual recognition and enforcement of civil judgments, in choosing the law applicable to divorces, contracts, torts, etc.). Moreover, the UK opted out of the Charter of Fundamental Rights as well.

It is unclear if being the odd one out stems from some genuine reason such as serving the national interest or if the UK is needlessly keeping its distance from Europe for the sake of it. The UK is also firmly outside the Eurozone, the most powerful vehicle for European integration going forward (even if its practical management leaves a lot to be desired, as the current crisis has shown). Most recently, PM David Cameron refused to sign an agreement that aimed to force EU countries to be more fiscally responsible and avoid going bankrupt as a result of populist policies. In fact it is rather evident that all countries have a right to choose their foreign policy and that despite this, we, the people of Europe are always growing closer and closer to each other.

Yet there is a continuous flow of articles in leading UK journals that are sceptical of the EU and of the common currency – sometimes in the most potty way. It is as if the UK was standing on the side-lines, waiting for their team to lose. For quite a while, this ‘simple’ form of Euro-scepticism was also present in far-right wing Hungarian politics, banished to extremist newspapers together with anti-Semitism, racism, and chauvinism. But recently, it has entered mainstream politics in Hungary. In the UK, it seems that many journalists believe the days of EU and the Euro are numbered, without offering any deeper analysis to substantiate this. Yet despite its problems, the EU in its current form has been around for well over 20 years and the Euro for 10 to 13 years. We believe that it is a great mistake to think this system will collapse: it will not collapse while member states are interested in co-operating, and in most parts of continental Europe this seems evident – although perhaps not for those who are expecting the end of the world. The EEC and the EU have weathered several crises in more than 50 years of history, and they still very much exist.    

Don’t get us wrong: clearly, the workings of the EU deserve constructive criticism. The democracy deficit remains high, decisions are made by commissions out of the public’s sight, there is no directly elected president or commission, we pay a lot of money to useless EU bureaucrats, the legal system is fragmented and unwieldy for everyday people, etc. But not believing in transnational co-operation is a mistake. Beyond this, as the legal situation stands, the EU cannot be blamed for immigration issues since it is still the UK’s right to grant long term visas for third country nationals. In this regard, British history is a barrier that is extremely hard to overcome. In the EU, a single country, even one as important and powerful as the UK, should not be allowed to overrule the other twenty-six. To outsiders it may well seem as though the Queen and the British government is behaving as if they still ruled the world, – despite almost all their former territories having gained independence over the course of time. However, as Nietzsche once said:

“We wish to serve history only insofar as it serves the living. But there is a way of valuing history through which life atrophies and degenerates.”[1]

The EU was created in the wake of economic duress. And in our opinion a similar duress has appeared to require the centralization of domestic fiscal policies, a common foreign policy and well functioning fundamental rights policies as well.


The roots of Euro-scepticism and extremism in Hungary

These days, everybody is wondering how a country can be silently sliding towards autocracy in the way Hungary is?[2] Some newspapers say that the country’s politicians have gone crazy. But this is not the case. What is happening today has been in the air for two hundred years, perhaps a thousand. It’s in people’s blood.

Let’s go back in history in order to understand the current situation. Although Hungarians would never admit it, their country has really only been independent for a few hundred years of its long history: for an initial period starting in 1000 AD and again for about 30 years between 1919 and 1940. For a long time, the Ottoman Empire ruled the territory (apart from Transylvania, which remained formally independent): later, Hungary belonged to the Habsburg Empire, one of the biggest at the time. In that arrangement, Hungary was assigned ‘watchdog’ status: in practice governed from Vienna, and used to exercising control over neighbouring nations, granting them rights only as absolutely necessary.

Hungary gained somewhat greater autonomy in 1867, the year to which Hungarians date their independence, even though it wasn’t quite that: in fact, a new state, the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy was created with key areas of power (finance, military, foreign policy) remaining in the hands of the Habsburg emperor.[3] This is how Hungary was when the First World War broke out, initially leading to territorial gains, only for the Monarchy to be cut into pieces after it suffered defeat. It is quite likely that western European tourists don’t understand why many Hungarians today drive around with an anachronistic sticker depicting Greater Hungary, which officially never existed: the contours include Croatia and Transylvania (in fact an independent territory for the last five hundred years when not belonging to the Habsburgs). With the reassignment of Transylvania after 1918-19, 3.5 million Hungarians were switched to Romania. However, if we check the population composition, we find that – apart from an area in central Transylvania – Romanians were the majority. Therefore Transylvania has not in recent times been part of an independent Hungarian state: this is a myth, although a commonly accepted one, with any Hungarian who does not subscribe to it being all too easily condemned as ‘foreign hearted’. The Trianon Treaty, which demarcated the severe territorial losses following the First World War is itself another taboo, considered the greatest tragedy to befall Hungary, not just on account of the countless Hungarians forced to dwell outside the borders of their country, but also as the epitome of the historic failure of an effort to create a ‘pure’ nation state in this part of the world.  

Hungarians have also staged revolts and revolutions, first against the Habsburgs in 1848 and a century later against the Communists and Russians in 1956. Both of these attempts were beaten back using foreign armies. In the end, the Russians would stay for over 50 years, until 1989. A brief foray into  Hungarian history reveals that each effort to gain some freedom was drowned in bloodshed.

In 1848, the Austrians and the Russians joined forces to defeat the uprising. In the authors’ opinion, the revolution of 1848 also carried a hidden message − besides being revolutionary in spirit and ideas, it was not only an effort to throw off the yoke, but also a rejection of a regime that embraced cosmopolitan notions, multiculturalism and the mass presence of ‘foreigners’.

In 1956, the Russians were again on the side of oppressors. In the opinion of many Hungarians, the west left Hungary to its own devices at a crucial time, in the hands of the Soviet army and at the mercy of Communist terror. This was then used as a justification for making ‘foreigners’ scapegoats for mistakes made by Hungarians. According to Ákos Kertész, a Hungarian author who recently left Hungary, Hungarians have never had to look in the mirror and face up to their own mistakes and flaws.[4] Thus the noble uprising of 1956 against foreign oppression ended up strengthening emotions against any foreigners in our society.

Besides the myth of a ‘Great Hungary’ and of ‘evil foreigners’, there is a third consideration that must be mentioned. Since the country was governed by others, several of Hungary’s ‘great achievements’ were due to other nations. Nobody can deny that Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe; together with Prague, these are the jewels of eastern Europe. Yet many of the architects who created Budapest as we know it were Austrians or even Brits.

The situation is the same for other parts of civilian life. Look at biographies of some of the most notable artists and check their ethnic origin: some of them didn't even speak Hungarian; many others spoke several languages. This meant that the country’s individuals belonged to two distinct groups: a foreigner-friendly, urban cosmopolitan camp and a nationalist one. 300 years ago, the population was split exactly the same way between the so-called “Labanc” (Austrian and Austro-friendly thinkers) and the “Kuruc” (armed Hungarian anti-Habsburg ‘rebels’). They spoke a totally different language.

In short, we are talking about a nation that has never through its history learnt how to behave independently and freely without fear, frustration and external control. Freely without aggression against other nations and freely without being afraid of somebody coming and taking it all away. This attitude is also present in people’s souls: one might even say,in their blood. Consider the 600 thousand Hungarians killed during the Holocaust, including 95% of the orthodox Jewish population, or families that lost everything they had to the communist regime. The family of one of the authors was once well-to-do until everything they had was taken away. Some family members died in the Holocaust, others died fighting in Russia and yet others were imprisoned by Russians and taken out of Hungary. We could say that all this was in the past, that it does not matter anymore. Perhaps that is true, but it is difficult to forget and to focus on the future.

On top of all the historic upheaval, imagine a country where basic moral values change every 20 to 30 years. If we look at the twentieth century, we find Austrian values, a short bout of socialism with a campaign of nationalization in 1919, followed by a centralized nationalistic, but somewhat more democratic right-wing regime for twenty years, then Nazism, a short period of democracy, then a harsh Communist dictatorship with red terror, gradually relieved by a lighter (more market-oriented) regime, and finally democracy which again has recently become distorted, perhaps along the path to autocracy.

In summary, we are not surprised that PM Viktor Orbán is leading the country to autocracy, breaching human rights and picking a fight with the EU and the IMF. It’s unlikely that western media have given readers accurate coverage of the fact that hundreds of thousands marched behind Orbán on a national holiday, but this is precisely what we would expect from Hungarians. When a country has not learned how to use democracy for the common benefit of its citizens and for the common good of other nations, democracy can very hard to cope with.

The United States is quite a young country. Still, it has a Constitution enacted in 1787 and – apart from reforms – nobody has seriously considered replacing it or changing it fundamentally. If a unilateral decision for this were made, without consulting with constitutional experts and without involving the population itself, it would surely lead to a massive outcry; it’s hard to imagine this turn of events. In the meantime, polls in Hungary suggest that having done exactly that, the governing party is still by far the most popular – because it represents local social ‘values’ – even having enacted several hundred pieces of highly dubious legislation.

At this point, it is not surprising to see growing far-right activism, anti-Semitism and racism either. It has all been in the air in a nation where the Holocaust is considered by many to have been the problem of the Jews. (Everybody else was occupied with their own problems, and pretending that the crimes were committed only by German Nazis.) And now we have our own Nazis who do not like to be called that name, or even ‘anti-Semitic’. They simply don’t like Jews and would rather see Roma leave the country. We have a far-right wing party in Parliament that received about 17% of the votes that regularly spews anti-Semitic rhetoric. We have several groups that call themselves “Kuruc” and blame Jews for economic problems. History is repeating itself, when instead we should be moving on, not playing a futile game with the ghosts of the past.

 It is somewhat of an irony that one of the most respected Hungarian statesmen, Count István Széchenyi expressed the same sentiment in the nineteenth century:

“Many of us mourn the good old times, while forgetting about the present so they cannot shape it wisely… However, if it weree not for the antique charm, nothing could make the times of our ancestors more desirable than the days of our own lifetime…There's no greater torment than reminiscing about the good old days while wallowing in self-inflicted misery… And what is passed we should not try to bring back to life.”[5]

(Translation by the authors) 


The future cannot be lived in the past – neither in the UK, nor in Hungary

In our opinion, the future of a state cannot be based solely on emotional foundations. For economic problems, economic measures must take centre stage. Exaggerated emotions should be consigned to where they belong: to museums.

As regards the UK, it has to be highlighted that its former colonies are independent, far away, and won’t help in a crisis: therefore we are dealing with a country with a functioning economy and about 60 million inhabitants: quite large, but not large enough to compete with a common European market or to be able to prosper outside the EU. This is generally accepted. Their choice is whether to sell Cadbury chocolate in a market of 60 million or one of 500 million people. On the issue of Schengen, the question is as follows: would joining the Schengen Treaty really affect the status of the nation state? In fact, it wouldn’t: the current security measure of asking for ID at border controls is no safeguard against criminals entering the country.

And what about the case of immigration, a far deeper issue? The UK’s diversity is certainly a strength. However, if the country is unable to handle the problems stemming from immigration, restrictions could be effected – not against EU citizens, but certainly against third country nationals. Yet it appears that a suitable workforce is required by the economy. Nobody forced the UK to open its labour market immediately upon the accession of 10 new member states in 2004; some member states restricted the free movement of labour right up until 2011 – but the UK’s decision was to admit all. A cheaper workforce may boost the economy, and it very much seems as though immigrants from eastern Europe have done that. In fact, most developed nations have benefited from cheap foreign workers and – in certain instances – raw materials. Consequently, we are also responsible for them.

Last but not least, we have the problem of the Euro. On one hand, there is the question of why when it is feasible for Germany to have the Euro, it isn’t feasible for the UK as well? And on a related note: it looks certain that EU member states’ fiscal policies will be centralized, and the EU shall have more power in this area. Would such centralization be against UK interests? Answering these questions is a job for the UK, not us. But first, these questions have to be correctly posed.

With regard to Hungary, the problems appear more profound. It was amusing to read that when PM Orbán started to fight back against the EU and the IMF, some British newspapers, including The Times welcomed this attitude.[6] Even back then, these articles seemed hilarious and smacked of demagogy. Columnists declared this a new struggle for freedom against international capitalism. Today, these journalists criticize Orbán’s government for the very same thing: not being co-operative. In fact, his is a strongly nationalistic and anti-democratic government, which plans to govern the country with an under-performing economy, using nationalizations and high taxation to survive. Moreover, as racism and anti-Semitism spread, ghosts of the past emerge from the cellar and skeletons fall out of the closet. We seem to be continuously moving back in time. The incessant breaches of human rights and international conventions are only a consequence of moving further away from European values. In summary, we believe Orbán’s way is a dead end that leads nowhere – apart from out of the EU.

Finally, the EU should also quickly start to rethink some basic questions. Firstly, as Alexandre Lámfalussy, the ‘father of Euro’ highlighted: the system behind the Eurozone has to be built up.[7] It is obvious that strict control of fiscal policies is required – this also has the benefit of protecting citizens from dishonest governments. For example, Hungary’s former left-wing government was at one point spending a lot of money on hand-outs to secure popular support; as a result, the country was lucky to avoid defaulting. Similarly, EU countries should also consider reforming the architecture of the Union. The democracy deficit needs to be cured once and for all. In order to achieve closer co-operation, the EU must also get closer to the man on the street.



[1] Friedrich Nietzsche: On the Use and Abuse of History for Life. NuVision Publications, 2007 p 7.

[2] For a comprehensive analysis see Hungary’s Rush Toward Autocracy. Washington Post, 10 January 2012; Paul Krugman: Hungary – The Unconstitutional Constitution. Social Europe Journal, http://www.social-europe.eu, also published in the New York Times; Also our series of articles on LSE EUROPP on Hungarian democracy on http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2012/05/15/hungary-distorted-democracy/.

[3] The related act was the “Gesetzartikel XII vom Jahre 1867 über die gemeinsamen Angelegenheiten der Monarchie”, for its text see “Quellensammlung zur österreichischen und deutschen Rechtsgeschichte”.  Böhlau Verlag, Wien-Köln-Weimar 1993 431 et seq.  Also available on Google books. For a summary, see http://motherearthtravel.com/history/hungary/history-7.htm

[4] There was a huge scandal about the renowned author’s statement that Hungarians are “genetically subservient” because they “do not feel the slightest remorse for the gravest of historical crimes, they shift their responsibility to others and always put the blame on others.” Because of this statement the 80 years old author’s honorary Budapest citizenship (a grant received by the city because of his excellency) was recalled, he was beaten by extremists and later sought asylum in Canada. See JTA’s report Writer Ákos Kertész seeking political asylum in Canada, http://www.jta.org/news/article/2012/03/05/3091973/writer-akos-kertesz-seeks-political-asylum

[5] István Széchenyi: Hitel (1828-1829). Budapest, Neumann Kht., 2002, also available at: http://mek.niif.hu/06100/06132/html/index.htm

[6] Adam LeBor: Bully for “bully” Orbán’s decision to stand up to the IMF and EU brutes. The Times, http://www.politics.hu/20100726/bully-for-bully-orbans-decision-to-stand-up-to-the-imf-and-eu-brutes/

[7] Diane Coyle: Emu Depends On Strong Political Links – The Monday Interview; Alexandre Lamfalussy. The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/emu-depends-on-strong-political-links-1283054.html

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