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Vol 2, No 16
25 April 2000
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Csardas Identity Crises
The problems of establishing identities
Gusztáv Kosztolányi

Communist and EU identity

The establishment of an EU identity is fraught with problems on both a conceptual and a practical level. In order to understand these difficulties more fully, we have to gain a clearer insight into the way identity is constructed in our societies and how certain assumptions are deemed to be so self-evident as to become invisible.

Identity is a means of drawing distinctions between ourselves and others, those who belong to our communities and those who do not. Each one of us is unique, and this unrepeatable pattern is given recognition in the notion of dignity and the inviolability of the person. When we walk down the street, we do not devote any time or energy to listing the myriad of ways in which we differ from others, though we might occasionally notice some feature that attracts our attention, say, a woman attired in the latest designer outfit, or a down and out huddled in a doorway begging. We might register it if someone speaks an unfamiliar language, or if a tourist is in obvious distress, consulting a map and completely lost, but we never call the basic proposition of difference into question because it seems so blindingly obvious.

The reason why it seems so obvious is that it is natural. We expect it. Even our closest relatives are distinct individuals, their temperament does not exactly match ours, nor do their tastes and preferences, even though they were brought up in the same environment by the same parents. We are embodied individuals, but we do not exist in isolation. Society is ever-present, surrounding us. It is within society that we gain a clearer definition of ourselves, it is in our interactions with others that we learn who we are and what limitations are placed upon us.

Within society, we share common sets of classifications with others, the most fundamental of which we are not even aware of, because they appear natural to us, every bit as natural as the physical boundaries of our own being that separate us from our fellow human beings. They provide us with a cognitive framework for understanding and interpreting what happens to us, they allow us to make sense of reality, they are an instruction manual for communicating and are so deeply embedded within our perceptions of reality that, as I say, we are not conscious of them. Since we take them for granted, we do not doubt them, since we use them day in, day out to process information, to reach decisions, to assess what response is appropriate in a given situation, we have no need to ponder their origins, to call them into question, as we are too busy using them. All of this reinforces the impression that the classifications are not only correct, but also part of the natural order of things.

Identity is one such classification. It provides us with a means of relating to others, enabling us to determine how best to approach them. Again, this operates on a number of levels. For example, in a hierarchy, we are called upon to show greater deference to a superior: it does not pay to be over-familiar with the boss. Certain conventions of conduct apply depending on whether our interlocutor is a woman or a man: it would seem odd if after dinner, the male host were to offer his male guest help in slipping into his jacket on leaving the restaurant. These subtle variations in behaviour are cultural in origin, rooted in social meaning.

The material qualities of identity

Identity has different qualities. There are certain elements of personal identity, which are so solid and tangible as to appear incontestable. They are so obvious, in other words, as to be taken for granted. Their plausibility rests on an analogy with a natural phenomenon, in other words, they are felt to correspond to something in nature. It is possible to distinguish between four basic qualities of identity, material, functional, affective and circumstantial. The distinction between them is based on their relative stability, how self-evident (and therefore invisible) they are and the degree of volition involved in sustaining them.

Material identity is, as the term suggests, the most stable and resilient as well as the most taken for granted. It is a permanent state of being and, as such, its reality is rarely open to dispute. Material identity is the identity acquired by each individual by birth and through early acculturation. It includes physical identity (gender, skin colour) and cultural identity (linguistic, religious and the principles of classification themselves). It may also include class identity in societies where class structure is rigid and class is openly assigned priority as a boundary marker, limiting access to opportunity. This creates a distinct, class-based set of classifications, restricting the intellectual horizons as well as the horizons of opportunity. Caste identity has a similar effect, though it is far more reluctant to admit exceptions.

Although all of these forms of identity may be altered, traces of them always remain. They can never be completely effaced from an individual's mind. In terms of volition, these identities rate very low, as they originate from the outside, they are imposed on the individual from the beginnings of conscious awareness, and go on to mould that conscious awareness as time proceeds.

Functional identity encompasses all the functions an individual fulfils in relation to others. Its root is in social participation, whether on the small scale, such as within the intimate sphere of the family, or within a wider setting, such as affiliation to a particular political party. Administrative identity (for example that of taxpayer, unemployed person, person requiring a residence permit, in short every conceivable permutation involving contact between an individual and the state and its representatives), legal (covering citizenship and nationality and all other identities conferring obligations as well as rights), religious, professional and economic identities are functional in nature. Whereas these identities are in principle more open to negotiation and change than their material counterparts, access to them is not exclusively a result of the alacrity and skill of the individual. Given, however, that functions may be more easily renounced or acquired than material identities, their volition rating is correspondingly higher.

Circumstantial and affective identities

Affective identity results from an act of will on the part of the individual. It is a matter of personal choice, although there will always be a finite number of options to choose from. These identities are subject to mood and whim, to peer pressure and the dictates of fashion, to setbacks and reversals of fortune. This makes them intrinsically less sturdy than material identities, though, paradoxically enough, they may be more precious to the individual. They are the focus of the individual's affections, the locus of his emotional bonds. For this reason, their hold on the individual is strong: they can inspire feelings of well being and pride, impart a sense of shared destiny and community.

Circumstantial identities are even more ephemeral, lasting only for the duration of the shared experience. Where individuals are flung together by chance, the differences between them that apply under normal circumstances disappear under the pressure of the more immediate and urgent shared experience. For example, when passers-by witness an accident, or when an unexpected calamity, such as a flood or an earthquake strikes. The community is united in grief or engaged in the struggle to survive. Another example is where individuals deliberately congregate to celebrate common convictions - say at an outdoor political rally or evangelising crusade, or to attend a concert or sporting event as a team supporter. Individual identity is cast aside, the participants merge into a group, each indistinguishable from the next in a heaving mass. On dispersal, or on restoration of normality, durable traces will be left on some individuals, whilst others will be relatively unaffected.

Identity has a chameleon-like quality to it: as individuals we move from one context to the next, interacting in a giddying variety of social situations, yet we mostly blend in with ease, rarely calling into question our basic assumptions about ourselves. Material identities are most intimately bounded to the self, they are in-corporated, they cannot be altered without radically changing the self. They are part of our intellectual and perceptual furniture, for the most part completely taken for granted.

Nationalism and identity

The principle of classification applied under Nationalism is that of identity. National identity draws the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion and subordinates all of reality, past, present and future, to its hidden assumptions. Its persuasiveness is a result of a deft combination of a material (character, mother tongue and temperament), a functional (nationality and citizenship as administrative identity) and an affective component (this latter is usually referred to as patriotism). Whether expressed as ethnicity or a national soul, national identity is depicted as a spiritual equivalent of genetic characteristics.

It is an essence, representing an absolute, qualitative otherness. Although elements may be added or subtracted, emphasised or neglected for reasons of political expediency - certain features are more relevant within a given situation than others - the core remains the same. It is transmitted from generation to generation, withstanding the assaults of time and ideology. A myriad of definitions may be given to it, and this flexibility endows it with incredible tenacity as a concept. Its social origins are obscured by construing it as a given, a natural phenomenon, an inexplicable mystery of being and substance.

The structure of our entire society is founded on this concept. We are surrounded by symbolic reminders of the national community to which we belong: we have national currencies, passports, anthems and flags. Our newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, school textbooks all confirm and reinforce the reality of our collective existence as a nation in a subtle process of inculcation that convinces us of the truth of the message: we are different and we are united in that difference as a distinct community with a distinct place in the world and a distinct destiny analogous to the distinct individuality we possess and which distinguishes us as embodied individuals from other embodied individuals.

We feel stirrings of pride at the achievements of our sportsmen and women, our anthems tug at our heartstrings. This is the most eloquent testimony to the persuasive power of our shared classifications and systems of perception.

A further aspect of the resilience of the national as a form of social organisation is that beyond offering a cohesive notion of overriding solidarity it does not tell us what we are permitted to think. Once we accept the basic premise that we all belong to a single, national community we are allowed to think what we like, we may hold any political opinions we like and we may lead any lifestyle we like. The state will not interfere with expression of opinion under normal circumstances. It will not tell us we must wear certain clothes, consume certain foods, vote for a particular party. It provides for dissent, and this acts as an important safety valve for releasing social tension.

There is scope for difference within the broad framework provided by the nation state, respecting what has been dubbed by cultural theorists Wildavsky, Ellis and Thompson as the requisite variety condition. Where restrictions are too severe, tensions become unbearable and, sooner or later, an irresistible process of decay sets in. National identity, based on notions of kinship, has a primordial quality that enables it to transcend potential sources of conflict such as religious affiliation or class differences by focusing on what holds the community together rather than on what might drive it apart.

National identity also plays an important part in conferring legitimacy upon the institutions of government and administration. The authority of the state is justified by the notion of common identity giving rise to common interest. In the broader international context, the state articulates and defends the best interests of its subjects against conflicting interests of other nations. No other institution is deemed to be in a position to understand these interests fully, because no other institution derives its mandate from the home community, no other institution sees from the inside rather than the outside.

The state styles itself as the guardian and perpetuator of the essence of the collectivity (through education) and as a benign custodian of national resources. Foreign rule becomes synonymous with oppressive domination: usurpers from abroad cannot be in tune with the nation as they are incapable of understanding its needs and defending its heritage and traditions are not their primary motivation. National identity is therefore seen as vulnerable, in spite of its materiality, within the cut and thrust of bargaining between nations.

One of the undeniable advantages enjoyed by a nation state in defending its system of classification is that it can project its system of classification back in time. The origins of the nation state stretch back so far as to be concealed in the mists of time, the system of governance forms part of a venerated and venerable tradition, a spontaneous response to the needs and wants of the national community rather than an artificial construct imported from abroad or imposed from above. Although historians may dispute the exact date of the genesis of the state, the nation as a concept is viewed as the driving force behind a slow process of evolution that has lead directly to the model prevailing currently. The nation state is not, in other words, looked upon as the artificial construct it undeniably is, but is taken for granted as the most natural expression of the will of the national community.

Competing identities, such as Communist identity in Hungary or EU identity throughout Europe, encounter a number of difficulties to which national identities are immune.

Communist identity

First, let us take a look at Communist identity. Like Nationalism, Communism uses a principle of classification based on an irreducible dichotomy based on exploiters and exploited, who fall into standard, stereotypical categories such as worker and capitalist and progressive and reactionary. This dichotomy has a moral dimension, synonymous with the absolute distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and injustice and reason and superstition. A material difference between Communist and non-Communist is therefore supposed, though its substance is undermined by the explicitly political origins of the Communist doctrine.

There is no middle ground, no leeway for ambiguity or shades of grey in this act of reductivism, which is particularly susceptible to contradiction in an everyday reality where corruption was rife, where the Party elite enjoyed both manifold and manifest advantages over the rank and file. Communism is a political identity, seeking its legitimation in the moral superiority it professes. Proclaiming itself as the only system which guarantees an equitable distribution of wealth and resources, it undertakes to provide the maximum benefit to the maximum number of citizens, it claims to have a monopoly on truth and wisdom, dismissing all other world views as false consciousness.

Once in power, Communism sets about eliminating the disparities of wealth, rank and privilege that formerly gave rise to disparities (whilst at the same time creating new inequalities of its own, as I mentioned already). By stripping former oppressors of their property, assets, titles, influence and reputations, it empties its own categories of meaning. It cannot make sense to speak of exploitative landowners where all land is collectivised under state control. In implementing its egalitarian vision, Communism abolishes the need for itself.

Constant threats, such as conspiracies to overthrow the dictatorship of the proletariat, rumours of opposition and backsliding into the iniquitous exploitative habits of the past within the polity and Imperialist encroachments from outside the polity are therefore manufactured to justify the Party's continued right to rule. In order to maintain momentum, a rhetoric of perpetual postponement is employed, with ever more ambitious targets for output set to harness energy, concentrating comrades' minds on a glorious common project of benefit to all.

Authoritarian Communist rule does not respect the requisite variety condition, as it eradicates the distinction between the public and the private sphere so that something as apparently harmless and trivial as wearing jeans is condemned as an act of defiance that threatens the very existence of the State. The State determines which forms of thought and expression are legitimate and which are not and strictly regulates content.

Despite its attempts to posit absolute differences between categories of individuals, Communist identity lacks the material component of national identity. Communists may be nobler in spirit or more enlightened than their fellow men, but loyalty to the Party is based on a conscious choice, an act of volition rather than an ineluctable, in-born difference. This was indirectly proven by the spectacle of the show trials, which stressed that even the purest and most loyal could be corrupted.

Within Communist society, individuals are defined according to the work they perform, the productive function they fulfil. It is their contribution to society as a whole that acts as the measure of both their self-esteem and their solidarity.

Brotherhood and materialism

A further problem in establishing and subsequently maintaining a Communist identity is that Communism has no natural metaphors to draw on. Appeals to materialism and the pathos of brotherhood (of a symbolic nature, founded on shared principles rather than kinship ties) and liberation coexist with vitriolic condemnation of the sworn enemies of Communism, but these concepts have no point of reference outside the social world. Building, the most commonly used metaphor, is replete with positive connotations, symbolising new beginnings, imposing order on chaos, re-emerging from the devastation and ruin of war, clearing away the debris of the past and investing in the future.

By contrast, the vocabulary of pollution, contamination and pathology was reserved for the enemies of the State and the People, with the Communist collectivity likened to a healthy, but vulnerable body.

In Hungary, an additional problem for the Communist leadership was that of remoteness. What I mean by this is that Communism had to be seen to be home-grown, to be a matter of the People's free will rather than an oppressive import from abroad. That efforts to indoctrinate ordinary Hungarians in this belief failed is illustrated clearly by the events of 1956 and the change in tactics in their wake.

The legacy of Communism in Hungary is still apparent, even ten years after its collapse. It instilled a deep suspicion of the state and its institutions by divorcing form from content. An example of this flagrant discrepancy was the use of the prescribed greeting "freedom" in the days when thought-control was at its most rigid and penalties for dissidence most severe. The gulf between propaganda and everyday experience, between the law as enacted and the law as practised became increasingly apparent. Attentiveness to the hidden content of official messages was vital to survival in a system where shifts in meaning had to be inferred. At the same time, authority existed to be circumvented, the rules of an inflexible and paranoid bureaucracy bent (covertly) and informal networks of contacts relied upon in an atmosphere pervaded by mutual mistrust (informants were everywhere).

"Market" values were completely eradicated, even in the realm of interpersonal relations, with personal initiative completely stifled. Private enterprise was, by definition, outlawed and competition between individuals made illegal except within the Party-approved framework of work contests and Stakhanovism with awards for diligence within the reach of any worthy citizen. Status and approval were visibly subject to Party approval and loyalty had its bonuses. Work itself, rather than the acquisition of wealth, was the accepted avenue of self-fulfilment.

Uncle State

The State, personified humorously in the form of "Uncle State," took care of every aspect of life, lulling its subjects into passive dependency, in which they knew they always had a safety net as long as they did not think independently. Self-reliance and taking responsibility for one's own welfare were not promoted as virtues. A minimum level of income was guaranteed, disparities tightly regulated and, although the procedures for purchasing goods such as cars, televisions and telephones were painfully slow and cumbersome, they were available to all.

There is one respect in which the EU does not face such huge challenges in the establishment of an identity as Communism: it respects the requisite variety condition. Within the Member States, freedom of thought and expression is guaranteed and many different lifestyles exist side by side without interference or molestation from the governments.

Nevertheless, the fledgling EU identity is vulnerable to many of the doubts and pressures felt by Communism. It too lacks a material component. If we travel to other parts of the world where the cultural differences are as significant as the linguistic ones, we still feel that the difference is between Hungarian or German rather than European and non-European. We recognise the similarities between ourselves and our immediate neighbours, but focus on the differences. The national identity is experienced as authentic, compared with a "fake" composite neatly depicted in the twelve yellow stars against a blue background. It is difficult to summon up loyalty to a diffuse entity composed of faceless individuals.

As was the case with Communism, EU identity can be traced back to a specific political moment, and it also maintains that its ideal of economic organisation is both the epitome of rationality and the sole course to happiness, with self-fulfilment attained through consumption. EU co-operation is all too manifestly the product of political will amongst a tiny ruling elite and this brings us immediately to one of its fundamental paradoxes. National governments have a vested interest in retaining as much sovereignty as possible, in spite of the drastic reduction in their room for manoeuvre brought about by globalisation and the communications revolution. Put bluntly, they have to prove that they are necessary, that they possess a knowledge of national peculiarities and interests far in excess of their institutional rivals within the EU.

In the struggle to convince their subjects that their role is still relevant, they present the EU and its institutions in an undifferentiated and often overtly hostile manner. Thus "Brussels" is a piece of shorthand that compresses a vast spectrum of negative associations. Some of the associations may be characterised as follows: Brussels is a transnational bureaucracy composed of pampered and petty-minded civil servants blinded to the merits of cherished national traditions by the drive towards homogenisation and harmonisation. Incapable of seeing beyond the contents of their own paragraphs, they are remote and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary citizens. The EU is foreign and distant, whereas national governments are by definition closer to home. Brussels lacks democratic legitimation and is driven by the imperative of squeezing everyone into a mould of conformity rather than preserving valuable differences.

That these assertions are myths does not deter the would-be opinion-makers from propagating them, in the greater interests of bolstering their own position. In reality, EU identity seeks to strike a delicate balance between respect for and conscious encouragement of the diverse national identities of its Member States, with all the differences of language and tradition they incorporate, and the need to create a level playing field for competition in order to increase prosperity for all its members. EU identity is therefore layered on top of national (material) identity, which it neither wishes to suppress or to deny.

EU identity is open to the charge of concentrating exclusively on the economic. Indeed, the question of what it actually consists of may be asked quite legitimately. Is it nothing more than the body of legislation that must be accepted and implemented by all aspirants before they are granted the hallowed status of membership? Directives on food or toy safety, however laudable, are hardly the stuff patriotism is made of. This is why the real contribution made by the EU to the welfare of its citizens is overlooked (when the respective governments are not elbowing their way into the limelight to take credit for anything positive seen to emanate from Brussels).

Very recently, a move has been made to complement the economic legislation with less mundane values in the form of deliberations on a Charter of Fundamental Rights. This highlights the existence of a not insubstantial set of values, common to all countries steeped in the Enlightenment tradition and the heritage of the French Revolution. In raising its profile on the global scene, the EU is beginning to articulate its own distinct, collective identity.

The stark contrast between the reluctance to deepen co-operation further and the general climate of scepticism prevailing amongst the existing Member States and the enthusiasm shown by aspirant Member States in Central Europe is not so much a matter of naivety on the part of the latter as the result of the history of the last four decades.

The Official Hungarian Depiction of the EU:

It is one of the ironies of history that the candidate countries have less of a problem in accepting the EU as a community of values than the existing Member States. Seen from the outside, the EU is a success story to be emulated, a beacon of stability, prosperity and democracy, a model for co-operation and the peaceful settlement of disputes in a spirit of compromise.

Mr. János Martonyi, Foreign Minister, drew attention to the inevitability of EU orientation:

It is unequivocally true for Central Europe that there is no realistic alternative to joining in with the process of integration that is taking place in western Europe and, given that this is the case, accession to the European Community not only represents the realisation of a wish dating back over hundreds of years, but also signifies the success of the process of modernisation, the resolution of the political dilemmas concerning security and at the same time the complete integration of these countries into the global economy.

For Hungary, accession to the EU represents the ultimate recognition of having returned to the fold after four decades of enforced exclusion, moving from the periphery to the centre, an opportunity to reap the rewards of having made the sacrifices necessary to fit Hungary for integration. Self-determination, freedom and the right to cultivate the unique national heritage and identity without fear of persecution or reprisal combine with the strength inherent in co-operation and solidarity between partners in a bond of mutual respect.

The European Union is Hungary's salvation, the best defence against the depredations of greedy multinationals in the fierce world of global competition:

From the example of Central Europe we know that the nation state as a traditional political actor is not merely incapable of asserting society's interests, but is occasionally also incapable of even stating them in its co-operation with global powers. We must endeavour to persuade the EU-state to look upon the representation of these interests as its primary task [...]. Recent history has only rarely given us an opportunity [...] to be allowed to become members of a larger unit whilst preserving our national identity. It may well be true that the nation state renounces certain elements of its sovereignty, but, on this basis, it can more effectively concentrate on education, health care and protecting public safety.

(Bála Pomogáts)

Hungary does not exist in isolation, but is linked by a thousand threads to other countries, regions and international organisations. It is obvious that a foreign citizen visiting Hungary will only find the country attractive if there is public safety with the requisite infrastructure and democratic laws. In representing a not inconsiderable source of income to Hungary, tourism is good for the country, but more than just tourists come here. Businessmen, investors and, unfortunately, criminals also make their way to Hungary. Multinational companies are conquering the country across the most diverse areas spanning from industrial and agricultural production through commercial distribution to telecommunications. We have to look the realities squarely in the eye: although there are many advantages to this for the Hungarian side, the fundamental aim of international capital is not to make Hungary flourish, but to make profits either directly or indirectly (for example by getting hold of markets). In order to do this, foreign capital requires a relatively cheap and a relatively well qualified workforce and the imported goods or the goods they manufacture here squeeze the home-grown producers out of the domestic (as well as the foreign) market.

(Attila Farkas)

If I have understood the contributions correctly, the authors see the dangers rather than the opportunities in the process of globalisation. The remorseless invasion of multinationals leads them to fear for the country's economy and independence; they want to protect humanity's traditional communities and human values from the technologicalisation of life; they see chaos threatening the world, the globalisation of production "devours societies;" in the long term only "survival can be the aim;" at best only a radical "paradigm shift" can save humanity and, within humanity, Hungary.

(Elemér Hankiss)

Membership of the European Union is a rational choice firmly in the national interest: renouncing a certain degree of sovereignty and independent room for manoeuvre is a small price to pay for the benefits of safeguarding Hungarian identity and giving the country a say in decisions it would otherwise be excluded from and which will affect it even if it remains outside. Instead of being a passive and insignificant satellite buffeted by the winds of fortune, Hungary as an EU member will be in a position to face the challenges of the future with confidence, taking charge of its fate. Isolation, stagnation and irreversible decline are presented as the alternatives. Not much to choose from, and this goes some way towards explaining why one of the constants in the changing political landscape, one of the few issues that even comes close to a consensus in the turbulent world of Hungarian politics is keeping the country on track towards the EU.

Sometimes, whilst listening to the pro-Europe flourishes of rhetoric, I am tempted to believe that the EU is regarded as a panacea. Anxieties that have a very real grip on the minds of Euro sceptics in established Member States pale into insignificance when viewed from a Central European perspective. As I have mentioned, EU membership is not considered to be incompatible with preserving our national character:

I recommend that we characterise our historical, linguistic and cultural situation by using the expression "Island Hungary." In part, this designation originates from our country's position in Central Europe as an island-like part of NATO's European "continent" [...] This situation is currently more favourable [than it was in the past]: our island-like position has remained linguistically and culturally, but we have an abundance of relationships that link us with our neighbours, and it is hardly open to doubt that our island-like existence will continue to be typical in the long term. Although the value of this is already apparent, it will become more apparent if we also join the European Union on an organisational level as well, since within the EU national, linguistic and, more generally, local peculiarities will once again come to the fore. We must make use of these peculiarities as an endowment. For this reason, Island Hungary does not signify isolation, but politico-cultural uniqueness with all the opportunities this implies.

(Balázs Mezei)

The prospect of EU membership has already had a positive effect on the region, in that the candidate countries have realised that rivalry and sterile diatribes are not going to convince their future partners of their suitability to join. The Copenhagen criteria, containing a number of fundamental preconditions on democracy and minority rights, have acted as a force for real change. Implementing the body of Community legislation, known in EU jargon as the acquis communautaire, is not enough. A change in philosophy and approach to citizen's rights and freedoms is required. This takes time, but the beginnings of improvement can be observed throughout Central Europe.

Opposition to the EU does exist. There are doubts about whether accession will bring about improvements to the standard of living of ordinary Hungarians, fears about the Hungarian government selling the country down the river, placing it at the mercy of uncaring, alien, money-grubbing businessmen, swapping overt tyranny for tyranny with a false mask of concern. Echoing the lamentations of Euroscepticism amongst the fifteen, this negative image is focused on. A prime example of an anti-EU speech in the Hungarian Parliament was held by István Csurka, leader of the Hungarian Justice and Life Party, situated at the extreme right wing of the political spectrum. I quote:

The important point is to look at the whole [the EU] from a historical point of view, in a historical framework, since we already have one foot in the camp and, according to certain individuals, will soon have both feet in. We have to ask ourselves [...] what we are entering into. Are we really going to be joining this EU, the EU that hovers before us as an ideal? Of course, it only hovers in front of a very small number of us, because, unlike what has been said here today, the vast majority of the Hungarian people do not know anything at all about this entire project. They here about it, read about it, it is permanently being shoved down their throats, but they do not know anything about its substance.


It is a historical fact, an economic fact that the stronger centre permanently subjects the economically, financially - not always militarily - and culturally weaker areas of the periphery, the margins to its domination. This has always been the case from the days of the Roman Empire and it continues to be the case today. The centre - it is not a foregone conclusion that Brussels itself is the centre, but the whole of the EU taken together - spreads itself out over the periphery with all its formidable might. It does not oppress in the old sense of the word, but it certainly exploits the periphery economically. So it is just so much by way of empty platitudes simply to talk about how the European Union, the Association Agreements and even sticking together in a community in general has been advantageous to us - yes, in a certain sense even it has brought us advantages. However, failing to notice just how much has changed for the worse for us since this has been the order of the day, just how much has happened in this country, which is not in the Hungarian interest, is impossible, it is political blindness, and things cannot be allowed to continue in this way!


Let's not delude ourselves that we will be acceding to the EU in 2002 - we won't! Because the other side does not want this either, it isn't ready for accession! What would admitting this country in 2002 actually mean? That legal harmonisation would take place? A noble undertaking, let it happen! Of course we should only take on board the conditions that are compatible with Hungarian legislation and serve the needs of our daily lives. But that's nothing! What kind of country is this? Is this people going to go out into Europe? Settle down there? Are Hungarian lawyers going to sally forth to Brussels and set up shop there? No, they [foreigners from the EU] just come here and it is just here that they take away our jobs and our opportunities!

How is it even conceivable that once we have joined the EU we would seal off the Schengen frontiers around us? How would we receive our Hungarian brothers here? Of course it is possible to stress some sort of solution or other, but once we are in, we will be told that this is how things are to be done, full stop, end of story. Nobody will take into account then, as indeed nobody takes into account now, what interests we have as Hungarians! It's true, isn't it? In the name of European harmonisation we cannot make any statements of substance after a world crisis such as the Kosovo war about what happened to our brothers in the Vojvodina? To 500,000 Hungarians? Isn't it precisely Europe that is preventing this? Because it neither takes account of nor does it show any sensitivity to the issue of these Hungarians also being embraced [into its midst]? This is simply impossible!

Here we encounter a number of fears worth examining.

The Timetable of Enlargement

Firstly, Csurka's words contain a clear message to Brussels about the timetable of Enlargement. If put off too long, impatience and frustration amongst the supporters of accession will assume ever greater proportions. Membership will become like the mythical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, forever receding out of reach. If, after the many sacrifices, the notorious austerity package named after the then Minister of Finance, Bokros, the endless process of adapting legislation, after every effort to court the EU's favour, no reward is offered, then it will be extremely difficult to keep up momentum. The countries of Central Europe might easily begin to doubt the EU's commitment and, by extension, whether accession is worth all the trouble. This is more than a matter of government prestige, and the understandable wish on the part of whoever happens to be in power at the time to be recorded in history as the leader of vision, who turned around the country's fate.


Secondly, we are confronted with the very delicate issue of minorities. Having lost two thirds of its territory through the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary is in the unenviable position of sharing a mother tongue and many cultural and historical links to Hungarian minorities of varying size amongst its neighbours. The treaties of good neighbourly relations, the so-called Basic Treaties, signed in the 1990s represented a laudable attempt to regulate such problems within a mutually acceptable framework.

There is a great deal of frontier traffic with students, relatives of families in Hungary and work commuters crossing the border every day. If Hungary were to join the EU before, say, Romania, and Romanian citizens were to be subject to a visa requirement in order to enter EU territory, life would be made very complicated indeed. It is clearly not in either Hungary's or Romania's interests for this to happen, and a great deal of time and effort has gone into agonising over a solution.

In a united Europe, however, the problem of minorities would eventually be resolved by the absence of internal frontiers. National differences will gradually lose their meaning and the sting be taken out of relations. This is why I believe that ultimately the move towards Europe will prove beneficial and the fears voiced by Csurka are unfounded.

Hopes, fears and values that Hungarians and Central Europeans in general identify with:

In assessing the current mood in Hungary, which in many respects is emblematic of the climate in Central Europe as a whole, I would like to contrast the appraisal of two writers, István Krómer and László Lengyel, of the current state of affairs in Hungary. Krómer published an article with the highly evocative title "Dashed Hopes," in Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation on 13 March 2000), the daily that most closely reflects the views of the government coalition, whilst Lengyel's article "The Change of System and what comes after it" appeared in Népszabadság (People's Freedom on 25 March 2000), the former Communist mouthpiece, now allied to the Socialist opposition.

Krómer provides a detailed analysis of the discontents and disappointments of the ten years that have elapsed since the collapse of Communism and the so-called "change of system" in Hungary, outlining the harsh realities of life ordinary Hungarians are confronted with:

Ten years ago, the act of breaking loose from the straitjacket of the Yalta world order, the hope of the withdrawal of the Red Army that had suppressed the country's sovereignty and ruthlessly quelled the 1956 battle for freedom, the experience of freedom of expression and of organisation that had not been felt for years and the prospect of joining the community of free nations, filled many of us with a sense of euphoria. We believed that what lay in store for us would be similar to what happened when the Red Army withdrew from Austria and our neighbours were able to connect up into the circulatory system of the prosperous free world in one fell swoop. Yet ever since we have continuously been about five years away from joining the European Union, and this paradoxical situation in itself also symbolises the last decade: our hopes have to a large extent been dashed.

According to Krómer, although the institutions of Parliamentary democracy have taken shape and function on a formal level, the vast majority of the nation shows deep uncertainty, or at best indifference towards them. This ambivalence derives in part from the cynical exercise of government under Communism, which has instilled a deep suspicion in society at large concerning the motives of those in power. The most firmly engrained lesson of Communism was that laws are not worth the paper they are written on.

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe boasted constitutions that, had they actually been implemented and enforced, would have been the envy even of the most highly developed democracies. Every day, the state-controlled media broadcast emotive declarations, reminding citizens of the evils of the past and the debt of gratitude they owed to their Soviet liberators and the home-grown Communist elite, who helped them to throw off the yoke of Capitalist oppression. All this in the midst of show trials, arbitrary arrests and chronic mistrust of everyone except the most immediate family.

Whereas the economy itself, Krómer continues, has been swift in transforming, modernising and adapting to the requirements of cut-throat competition, most
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ordinary citizens feel disempowered, regarding themselves as the losers of the process. They do not see any tangible proof of the benefits in their daily lives. In spite of Hungary having joined NATO, most people do not feel more secure, in fact they often feel quite the opposite when they think of how unsafe the streets are, or how insecure their livelihoods are.

In a situation where society is becoming increasingly polarised between the tiny elite able to take full advantage of all the opportunities afforded by increased openness and mobility and the majority struggling to make ends meet to the extent that the number of evictions due to arrears in paying gas and electricity bills, where the average wage is a pitiful HUF 45,000 [USD 164] a month and the value of benefits is gradually being eroded these sentiments are understandable.

Another paradox Krómer pinpoints is that although all restrictions on cultural production and intellectual life have been lifted, fewer people read or go to the theatre than ten years ago, most of the small village cinemas have been forced out of business and the cultural centres, so much a feature of community life in the past are in a state of chronic decline, starved of resources.

The Utopia that Hungarians had hoped to create has proven to be something of a will o' the wisp. Krómer lists the aims of transition, which shone so brightly in everyone's minds, I quote:

a market economy based on fair competition and kept in balance with a system of social institutions, where the sure guarantee of success was not based on privileges, but on talent, effort and hard work; a democratic state in which the rule of law prevailed founded on the free expression of views and the equality of political parties and where the interests of the different groups in society could find expression in open and honest debates and could converge into a collective national interest; a state in which the rule of law prevailed [ein Staat der Rechtsstaatlichkeit], in which each individual was equal before the law and in which abuses and corruption would be given due punishment.

Reality has sadly not lived up to these expectations, though Hungary and Central Europe are well underway.

One of the main sources of tension may be attributed to the imbalance arising from the need to adapt to the demands of full-scale market economy and preparation for EU membership, whereby aspirant Member States have been forced to make concessions in allowing unimpeded access to markets without this being reciprocated by the EU. This has lead to the erosion of the domestic market share of Hungarian firms and a loss of jobs. To an extent, many Hungarians are made to feel like second class citizens in their own country. It is this type of problem that fully-fledged EU membership is expected to remedy.

In Hungary, one of the most successful countries in the region in terms of attracting foreign capital and foreign direct investment, multinationals have proven to be a mixed blessing. As Krómer points out:

the multinationals have focused on safe markets, which has meant that the banking system, including indirectly government securities and the stock exchange, insurance companies, the commercial media, telecommunications, the food processing industry and trade and energy services have all ended up - and quite conspicuously so - in foreign hands. These multinationals have enjoyed the undeniable advantage of a state commitment to bail them out, thereby removing the merest hint of risk, and they have also secured a guaranteed level of profit at the expense of Hungarian consumers.

The tax breaks granted to foreign multinationals starves the state of valuable revenue that could be spent on improving the condition of roads, railways, crumbling hospitals and schools and on remedying the worst environmental problems. As a result, a disproportionate share of the burden has to be shouldered by SMEs, already struggling to survive.

Krómer also paints a bleak picture of the new scourges of shoddy mass culture (silány tömegkultúra), with a cult of violence exemplified in the staple diet of action films consumed so eagerly by youth, stultifying computer games, drugs and the constant bombardment of advertising stirring appetites that cannot be satisfied.

Instead of entering the traditional vocations such as teaching, research or medicine, the brightest and most ambitious youngsters are being attracted to the multinationals or to the financial sector, where the financial rewards are far greater. As far as Krómer is concerned, this bodes ill for Hungary's future. Clearly, in his evaluation, there is a moral dimension, which cannot be ignored. He calls upon his readers to ponder the issue of taking responsibility and ensuring that developments take a turn for the better.

We Hungarians are famous for our pessimism, and Lengyel's expert summary of the tasks that lie ahead makes no attempt to conceal the need for further hard graft:

The change of system has been concluded. In this transformation, Hungary has been forced to carry out the tasks involving a radical change of system, which are indispensable to the process of catching up and which have been prescribed by the globalised world. In the past decade, Hungary has been pursuing a policy of bringing these efforts to completion. In this century, following the two World Wars and the collapse of the Soviet system alike this policy has meant that the country in the process of opening up to outside influences and of modernising has been engaged in an attempt to take on board and follow the social, economic and political patterns of the world's centre [as contrasted with its periphery] as well as its model of civilisation.

Hungary committed itself to following the course of Westernisation, Europeanisation, globalisation, opening up, fitting in with a global world, of embracing market values and of becoming a democratic state based on the rule of law when it embraced the policy of coming up with results. Although from time to time society and the political elite have faltered in performance terms, contrary to what has been going on in the majority of Eastern European countries, the main trend of the last ten years has nevertheless continued to be towards Westernisation and completing the task in hand.

He traces the subtle moves towards a more market-oriented economic policy under Communist rule in order to demonstrate that political change follows in the wake of economic change, listing the demise of the unreconstructed command economy in 1968, the creation of indirect steering of the economy, of the degree of relative independence enjoyed by companies and of the spread of what was labelled "consumer Socialism." Theses were complemented by further reforms under Kádár in the early 1980s, such as authorising small private entrepreneurs to set up business and Hungary's entry into international monetary institutions, such as the IMF and the World Bank, all of which gradually eroded the credibility of ideological orthodoxy.

Lengyel catalogues the areas in which further remedial action is necessary, highlighting in particular the lack of preparedness to take advantage of the communications and IT revolution.

One of the major differences between Hungarian and any previous rounds of accession according to Lengyel is to be found in the relationship to a new globalised international context:

In Hungary the transnational giants of the global world arrived on the scene before the European Union. As a result, it was not official Europe that opened up the Hungarian markets, but the international company sphere that encompasses the entire world. The experiences accumulated decades ago cannot really be used for coexistence with the globalised world [...].

It is an economic, though at least as much a social question as well as to whether this coexistence calls national sovereignty into question, the sovereignty of states at both central and local level, which does not really exist in the world of the turn of the millennium. It is a paradox that we became independent and sovereign at the moment when this sovereignty is inevitably becoming restricted within the context of globalisation [...]. We live in a globalised world, where certain gigantic or not quite so gigantic companies enter and leave the country and where financial and IT systems settle on or leave the country's territory. The question here is whether an economy is able to co-operate with them on a long-term basis, to admit them or not.

Really this is one of the most important questions of the future. To an extent it is also about when they will become domestic, national, an accustomed part of everyday life, natural. When, in other words, it emerges that there is no difference between the domestic and the foreign, that there really is no frontier, that we have been travelling into and out of the country without noticing that we have been crossing the border. In such a situation, the national and local governments will pursue economic policy in a quite different manner and the disagreements and conflicts will be quite different as well.

He too feels compelled to address the issue of what he labels an unprecedented "asymmetry" in standards of living and lifestyles. The inequalities have reached such extremes as to consign the poor to a separate realm of existence, as if, to use his brilliant phrase, they were living "behind a consumer Iron Curtain."

The change of value systems in some respects did not involve such a radical turnaround as you might think. Under the peculiarly Hungarian brand of Communism born of the leadership's fear of 1956, emphasis was placed on the materialistic. Consumerism, with its notion of self-fulfilment through acquiring ever newer and ever more expensive products, comforts us in our mortality and is not a million miles removed from the sense of satisfaction in finally enjoying the fruits of one's labour in the old regime.

Váci utca, the main pedestrian precinct in downtown Pest, is becoming ever less distinguishable from its Western counterparts. It is chic and many of the names on the shop fronts are instantly recognisable to the tourist. As the glittering shopping malls and banks proliferate, I often wonder who their customers are. Our former bustling markets are being closed down despite the protests of the stall holders, Lehel utca being a case in point.

What is most disturbing to us is to watch the increasing numbers of homeless and alcoholics, those who cannot cope with the harsh realities of the new Hungary. The nostalgia for Communist rule that conveniently forgets the authoritarian downside whilst fondly recalling that the numbers who fell through the safety net were negligible has to be understood against this backdrop. We are afraid that even accession to the EU will not help in solving problems on such a scale.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 21 April 2000

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