Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

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 blows.

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.

First published on spiked, 25 September 2006