Another new Hungarian economic plan that will hit the dust
This time the plan is named after Sándor Wekerle (1848-1921) who was Hungary’s prime minister and finance minister three times. Whenever I hear his name two things come to mind. First, that he was the first Hungarian prime minister who was not titled, and second, that he was the brave man who forced through the Civil Marriage Bill of 1894. Mind you, he immediately lost his job afterward thanks to the opposition of the powerful Hungarian Catholic Church.
An interesting footnote to this Civil Marriage Bill. It made a civil marriage ceremony compulsory for couples who could hold a church ceremony only after showing the certificate to the church authorities. This was the bill that Viktor Orbán during his premiership between 1998 and 2002 wanted to abolish. It seems that Wekerle’s sins have been forgotten by the Hungarian prime minister if he is willing to name one of his many plans after him.
What is the Wekerle Plan? “It is an outline for the growth of the Hungarian economy within the Carpathian Basin.” The Plan recalls that the European Union is keen on closer integration and therefore the countries of the Carpathian Basin minus Austria and Ukraine east of the Carpathian Mountains should at least match the development of integration that has taken place over the years in Western Europe. The Wekerle Plan is no less than “a document of the Hungarian government’s economic strategy for the whole region.” As one irreverent commentator said, this is the plan for “the export of Matolcsy’s fairy tale to the other countries of the Carpathian Basin.”
But I fear that it is much more than that. It seems to me a government attempt to subsidize Hungarian small and medium-sized companies to invest in the neighboring countries where a fair number of ethnic Hungarians live. Such a business expansion would naturally bring added benefits to the political goals of the Orbán government. “The tripe that was expanding beyond the pot” suddenly makes good (or at least better) sense. I’m just wondering what the neighbors will think of this grandiose plan that seems to be for the most part in the sole political and economic interests of Hungary. As far as I can figure out, the Hungarian government prepared this document without ever consulting with any of the other governments in question.
In order to accomplish the goal outlined in the Wekerle Plan “the Hungarian government considers the Hungarian communities in the neighboring countries as strategic allies.” It is, however, very possible that Romania and Slovakia, where the Hungarian minorities are substantial, might find this strategic alliance threatening.
Although the document goes on for 24 pages, the essence of the plan is that “the New Széchenyi Plan will be extended to the whole Carpathian Basin.” And since the document freely admits that the bulk of the money will be coming from the European Union, one must assume that the subsidies from the convergence program will be used to enable Hungarian economic penetration into these countries, thus strengthening the Hungarian areas in Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine’s territories south of the Carpathians, and parts of Serbia’s Voivodina region. According to the plan, “by 2020 the countries within the Carpathians should be an economic area whose integration is as well developed as in Western Europe.”
I was pleased to hear that the “Wekerle Plan is an organic part of the Hungarian Growth Plan and of the Great Reform Book that shows the Hungarian path to sustainable growth and employment.” Well, I heard something about the Hungarian Growth Plan about a year ago that came to naught, but I must admit that the Great Reform Book is entirely new to me. What could that be? Poor Mao had only his little red book; Orbán’s book, presumably tricolored, is “great.”
The plan outlines five areas of cooperation: the automotive and engineering industries, green economy, food industry, tourism and healthcare, and creative industries and info-communication technologies. The plan concentrates on small and mid-size companies. These firms must be “internationalized,” meaning they should be introduced to international competition. This would be made easier by their expansion into the neighboring countries where there are Hungarians and therefore the language barrier is not such a problem. There will be all sorts of benefits from the Wekerle strategy for Hungary: more exports to the neighboring countries and a greater economic influence in the countries of penetration.
For all this one needs cheap financing. Financial institutions must be set up; they will get funding from the European Union (New Széchenyi Plan) and the Hungarian government. For example, the plan specifically mentions the Magyar Export-Import Bank (Eximbank). But the Hungarian government is also contemplating establishing think-tanks specifically for the study of issues related to Hungarian economic expansion beyond the borders. For example, a brand new Kelet-Közép-európai Növekedéskutató Intézet (East-Central European Research Institute for Economic Growth) will be established. Another institute specifically mentioned is the Kelet-Közép-európai Közlekedéstudományi Intézet (East-Central European Research Institute for the Study of Infrastructure).
An important aspect of the Wekerle Plan is the creation of a unified labor force that would be able to move freely from country to country within the region. The training of the labor force should be “uniform in all the countries involved.” Is Hungary supposed to export the Orbán government’s zany educational ideas for skilled workers? That is, minimal intellectual content provided for trade schools that might not be enough to fulfill the needs of today’s computer-directed economy. And what about the rather low mobility of the Hungarian workforce? Would a Hungarian company whose headquarters are in Hungary be able to convince its some of its workers to move to Slovakia, Romania or Ukraine? Although here and there one can hear about Hungarians living close to the Romanian border being employed in factories on the Romanian side, I have the feeling that this is rare occurrence. On the other hand, one hears a lot about Slovaks working in German-owned automobile plants. Lately most Hungarians are moving to Germany or England, and not necessarily because they don’t have a job. They are fed up with the Hungarian situation that they consider hopeless.
It seems to me that the Hungarian government, after failing to create the north-south axis that Viktor Orbán envisioned among the countries from the Baltic to the Adriatic, has lowered its sights to the Carpathian Basin. But any reference to this particular geographical area raises suspicions. What is behind this plan?
One could look upon the scheme as an attempt to extend political influence over the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries. As the Slovak and Romanian examples show, however, the Hungarians there are an independent-minded lot and don’t want to take orders from Budapest. But if the political maneuver didn’t work, perhaps through economic penetration the Orbán government could have more influence on the Hungarian localities.
The other possibility is that Hungarian government through economic penetration is trying to extend its political influence in the region. In brief, through the back door of economic expansion the Orbán govenment is trying to accomplish its long-standing nationalistic agenda. All that on European Union and Hungarian taxpayers’ money.
My feeling is that nothing will come of it, but I hope that the European Union’s politicians will keep an eye on the situation. And if they don’t, I’ll bet that the governments of the neighboring countries will.