Hungary: a 'hooligan revolution'?
Why EU bureaucrats have been so snobbish and hostile
towards the demonstrators in Budapest.
Much of the Western media coverage of the rioting in Budapest has
denounced the rioters in snobbish and hostile terms. The riots have
been referred to as a ‘Goulash revolution’, to indicate
that they are not as nice or respectable as those Orange and Velvet
revolutions. Newspapers have uncritically quoted Hungarian politicians
denouncing the ‘vulgarism’ of the apparently ‘far-right
football hooligans’ who make up the rioters’ numbers.
One influential left-leaning blog in Britain said the rioters are
the ‘hooligan fans of the Ferencvaros football club who like
straight-armed salutes almost as much as amphetamines’: they
are ‘scum’, ‘lumpen thugs’, and this ‘ain’t
no Velvet or Orange revolution – it is the tracksuit revolution’.
Even before these riots broke out, the leadership of the European
Union was worried about developments in East Europe. ‘They
are not quite like us’ – that is the verdict of many
Brussels-based politicians and bureaucrats. Many argue that post-communist
countries such as Hungary, Slovakia or Poland are not ‘genuine’
democracies, since they still refuse to ‘come to terms with
their past’. As evidence, EU bureaucrats point to this summer’s
parliamentary elections in Slovakia, which resulted in a social
democratic coalition government that embraces the ultra-right Slovakian
National Party. And they aren’t happy with Poland’s
prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, either. They claim that his Law
and Justice Party wants to take Poland back to the past. During
Kaczynski’s visit to Brussels in August, questions were raised
about his government’s commitment to basic EU values.
It is reported this morning that Romania and Bulgaria – which
are set to become members of the EU next year – will only
be allowed in if they shape up. The Times (London) reports, ‘The
two countries will be told that they can become full members of
the EU from 1 January but with threats of sanctions if a series
of goals are not met’. They risk losing up to a quarter of
their farm subsidies if they do not reform and embrace EU values.
One reason why sections of the European press and the Brussels
political oligarchy have been so hostile to the demonstrators in
Budapest is because they seem so out of touch with these ‘EU
values’. After all, in Brussels, Hungary’s prime minister
Ferenc Gyurcsany is considered to be one of the most reliable and
on-message leaders in East Europe; his spindoctors even received
training from Britain’s New Labour party. Gyurcsany was heard
admitting that he ‘lied morning, evening and night’
to the electorate about the healthy state of the Hungarian economy.
As far as the EU bureaucracy is concerned, he may be a liar, but
he is ‘our liar’. Sections of the West European media
went so far as to praise Gyurcsany for his brutal honesty when he
admitted that he and his party had told the electorate a string
of lies. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described his unguarded
comments as a ‘sweat and tears speech’. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen,
president of the Party of European Socialists, was quick to rush
to Gyurcsany’s defence, arguing that he is the ‘best
man to make the reforms that Hungary needs’.
The media’s description of the Budapest demonstrators as
right-wing mobs and shellsuit rioters indicates that the people
on the streets were regarded as a threat to EU values. Like large
sections of the electorate in Poland and Slovakia, they pose a quandary
for the EU bureaucracy. The EU needs East Europe, which is why it
has been prepared to promote its expansion eastward. But at the
same time, the political behaviour of the publics in East European
appears to be far more unpredictable and fluid than their counterparts
in the West. It is not simply the populist and nationalist influences
in the new Eastern member states that the EU is worried about. In
recent years, Brussels has also been concerned about Washington’s
courting of the New Europe, and the resonance that America has in
this part of the world.
As it happens, the EU has been quite effective in forcing East
European leaders to fall into line. When Slovakian prime minister
Robert Fico visited Brussels, he was instructed to clamp down on
political extremism and restrain the anti-Hungarian rhetoric coming
out of Bratislava. Similarly, during his recent pilgrimage to Brussels,
Kaczynski was compelled to assume the mantle of an enthusiastic
liberal. He insisted that his government was not xenophobic or anti-Semitic
or homophobic, and indicated that he had no intention of bringing
back the death penalty. After a polite but firm lecture from Jose
Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, East European
leaders dutifully toe the line. That is why, on balance, the EU
remains committed to continuing its expansion eastwards.
Outwardly, it seems that the division between old and new member
states is reflected in contrasting political cultures. Many of the
values promoted by the West European political elites – diversity,
multiculturalism, environmentalism – have little resonance
among the people of the new member states. In the twenty-first century,
these values have been institutionalised as the defining feature
of the EU’s political identity – which is why the lack
of enthusiasm for gay rights among Polish politicians has produced
such strains with Brussels.
However, it would be wrong to depict the public political culture
of the West as fundamentally at odds with that of the East. Significant
sections of the public in Western Europe are also estranged from
the EU’s worldview. Far-right and populist parties are not
confined to Slovakia or Poland. Earlier this month, the far-right
National Democratic Party made significant electoral gains in Mecklenburg,
West Pomerania. Right-wing nationalist parties flourish in Belgium
and even in France. More importantly, there are powerful anti-EU
currents influencing public life throughout Western Europe. The
rejection of the proposed EU constitution last year by the electorates
of Holland and France can be seen as a rejection of the political
culture espoused by Brussels. Brussels has yet to recover from these
Indeed, the reaction of the EU oligarchy to the Dutch and French
electorates’ rejection of the constitution was very similar
to its response to those who dared demonstrate against its man in
Budapest. The demonstrators were condemned as a rent-a crowd of
nationalist thugs or as right-wing trash. More or less the same
sentiment was directed against those Dutch and French people ‘stupid
enough’ to vote against the constitution. The EU’s condescending
attitude towards people who vote the ‘wrong way’ transcends
the East-West divide. Barroso claimed that his eurosceptic opponents
of the constitution had crossed the ‘border from democracy
to demagoguery’. He said a ‘populist trend’ is
seeking to ‘undermine the Europe we are trying to build’
by ‘simplifying important and complex subjects’.
After the French and Dutch rejections, the British Liberal Democrat
MEP Andrew Duff commented that ‘the experience begs the question
of whether it was ever appropriate to submit the EU constitution
to a lottery of uncoordinated national plebiscites’. His characterisation
of the constitution’s opponents was neither liberal nor democratic.
‘The rejectionists are an odd bunch of racists, xenophobes,
nationalists, communists, disappointed centre-left and the generally
pissed-off’, he told Parliament Magazine. The kind of people
who are outraged when they hear their prime minister publicly acknowledge
that he deceived them?
If that’s how they talk about the electorate of old member
states, is it any surprise that they are less than flattering about
far more outspoken sections of the public in the new member states?
Indeed, one of the reasons why the EU bureaucracy is so sensitive
to the slightest manifestation of East European populism is precisely
because it has the potential for expressing values that also exist
in the West – but in a far more systematic form. The EU feels
much more comfortable dealing with nationalist and populist politicians
in Bratislava, who are easily discredited because of their connections
with far-right xenophobes, than with populist movements in Old Europe.
They rightly understand that it is far easier to deal with the lunatic
ravings of unstable Slovakian politicians than to counteract the
widespread anti-EU sentiment that prevails throughout the community.
The expansion of the EU has intensified the pressure on this institution
to learn how to account for itself – and it doesn’t
seem to be doing a very good job.
published on spiked, 25 September 2006