Frigyes Karinthy

Hungary and the European Union

Anyone who thinks that Fidesz politicians–and here I think mostly of Viktor Orbán and his bosom buddy László Kövér–have been using unacceptable language about the European Union only lately is wrong. Among my notes I found a few choice words from the not so recent past. László Kövér, for example, described European politics as “gang warfare” and members of the European Union as “ignominious dregs.” Lajos Kósa compared José Manuel Barroso to “an absolutely undistinguished coach of a football team in the second tier of the national championship. Just read Karinthy. It is about Barroso.” [Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938) was a writer of satirical pieces that are great favorites in Hungary.] As for the seriousness of the Commission, “its work can be compared to that of  a provincial fishing club.” All these quotes are from March 2012 when the Hungarian government pretended that it actually wanted to have a deal with the IMF and claimed that it was only the European Commission that stood in the way of an agreement.

A year later, in February 2013, it was time for a different tactic. Herman Van Rompuy was visiting Hungary and Viktor Orbán went out of his way to be ingratiating. He begged the European Union to be understanding toward poor Hungary, a country that had been cut off from the world for forty years and had suffered under communism. In February he still had to worry about the excessive deficit procedure and had to convince the officials in Brussels that his unorthodox handling of the economy would bear fruit. He assured Van Rompuy that economic growth would be much more robust than predicted and proudly pointed to a very low deficit. (Since then it has become obvious that economic growth is still practically nonexistent. Moreover, in the first five months of the year the deficit was 3.8%.) Orbán said that the success of the European Union is vital for Hungary, and therefore he promised support for the proposed banking union. (He hasn’t had to deliver on his promise yet.)

After February Viktor Orbán’s attitude changed. Orbán decided to return to his old game of  biting the hand that feeds him. Because, let’s face it, without the EU subsidies the economic situation of the country would be even more disastrous than it is now.

I just read a short article that appeared on the Internet site fn.24. It gives exact figures on the subsidies Hungary has received from the convergence program that is designed to help the less developed countries catch up with the richer countries in the West. The numbers are truly staggering.

In five years Hungary paid into the common EU treasury about 5 billlion euros, about 0.9-1.0 billion every year. But in 2007 it received 2.4, in 2008 2.0, in 2009 3.6, in 2010 3.6, and in 2011 2.4 billion euros. The difference in Hungary’s favor amounted to 9.3 billion euros. That means that every Hungarian citizen, including babes-in-arms, received 280,000 forints from the European Union between 2007 and 2011.

Tons of money by pfala / Flickr

Tons of money by pfala / Flickr.com

Fn24’s reporters tried to find out how much the honorable members of Hungary’s parliament know about the size of these subsidies. They didn’t manage to get any answer that even came close. In fact, most of the parliamentarians had no clue at all. They didn’t even dare to guess.

Now let’s see what is happening in foreign investment. You may recall that József Szájer had the temerity to lie straight into the face of his fellow MEPs when he claimed that Hungary has never received as much foreign investment as it did this past year. The truth is just the opposite. Ever since 2007 fewer and fewer foreign companies have been investing in Hungary. In 2007 foreign investment was still quite high: 4.4 billion euros. A year later it shrank to 3.1 billion and in 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis, it dropped dramatically to 1.3 billion. By 2011, two years into the Orbán administration, it is still only 1.1 billion euros. In the last three years EU subsidies were about triple the amount of direct foreign investments.

Meanwhile one can hear the most incredible claims belittling the amount of money Hungary is receiving from the European Union. The latest example comes from Bence Rétvári, a Christian Democrat and undersecretary in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, in an interview with Olga Kálmán of ATV. Actually, it is worth watching this exchange if for no other reason than to get a glimpse of this unctuous fellow who is in many ways a prototype of the young Christian Democrats who received high positions in the administration. In vain did Kálmán insist that Hungary received a great deal more money than it contributed to the common purse. Rétvári wouldn’t buy it. According to him, as a result of Hungary’s membership in the EU it loses sizable revenues that it was able to collect before. I assume he means export and import duties, but I have no idea what that would have amounted to in five years.

Hungarian politicians’ harsh words on the European Union and all the disadvantages Hungary’s membership entail reminded the author of the article I relied on for the figures of EU subsidies of The Life of Brian (1979). Specifically the perhaps most famous scene when the members of the Judaean People’s Front try to incite the people to revolt against the Romans. I recommend it for a hearty laugh.

Indeed, the advantages so outweigh the alleged disadvantages, and not just in economic terms, that EU membership really shouldn’t be a topic of discussion. But then, Hungary’s membership in the European Union might prevent Viktor Orbán from introducing outright dictatorship. And I guess that’s a colossal disadvantage.