(MIS)UNDERSTANDING CENTRAL EUROPE

Occasionally small states can play a role out of all proportion to their size.

If you want a non-Hungarian illustration, look at what Latvia has been doing. They’ve pulled themselves out of a far worse economic mess than what we have had in Hungary – a 17% deficit – a classic Münchhausen act! It’s been spectacular, and an example for all of Europe. And my sense of it is that we in Hungary are doing something similar, something along these lines, under the present government. A far reaching reform programme, which may very well go down in history – it depends on the historians – as an all-European model of transformation.

It’s happening at great speed, obviously for political reasons. Anybody who follows politics knows that a reform programme has to be implemented fast, effectively within the first twelve to fifteen months of a government coming into power. After that it becomes increasingly difficult to launch serious reform. Minor reform I think is always possible.

The second point I would like to take up is one made by State Secretary Zoltán Kovács, about the demonization of Hungary – and I agree. I’ve already made reference earlier to the sense that I have, six and a half years after I was elected first to the European Parliament, that we are still new members. We are not still fully, one hundred percent like the old members. The EU-15 continue to constitute a sort of corpus separatum, not formally, but informally. This is a reality.

Let me give you one – non-Hungarian – illustration. To the best of my knowledge, to this day no Member of the European Parliament from former East Germany has ever been chair of a committee of the European Parliament.

A coincidence? There are many strange coincidences in the world. It just illustrates that something of a distinction continues to remain.

It seems to me that this demonization, these negative stereotypes, which continue to be reproduced, go back a long time, they have a long historic tradition, and they are part of the established images that the Western media, to some degree Western opinion rely on in their interpretation of what happens in this part of Europe.

Sometimes the negative image is Hungary. Sometimes it is Poland – think of the way in which the Kaczyński government was treated, especially in the German media, but to some extent in the British and French media as well.

It wasn’t exactly reviled, but I think it was disdained, or if you prefer street language, it was dissed. The idea of treating things with disrespect was there. Latvia is an extremely popular target at the moment in the British press – I haven’t seen attacks on Latvia in the French and German press.

Strangely, I think that the Czechs have been largely exempt from this – though not completely. They get a certain amount of stick because of the treatment of the Roma minority. And one of the things that surprises me is that the previous Slovak government which included this extraordinarily unpleasant party, the Slovenska Narodna Strana, the Slovak National Party in its government, just got away with it. “Yes, it is slightly inconvenient, but on the whole we look the other way.”

If ever there was a racist party in government in Europe, that was it! Not a thousand miles from Le Pen, for example. Though that somehow doesn’t lend a negative image to France. Now, this creates inconsistencies, of which we Central Europeans are aware. I’m not sure that the western media which constructs these pictures is aware of how differently they treat more or less identical phenomena – certainly parallel phenomena.

The third point I will repeat, because it is highly relevant. That we in Central Europe are regarded as “alien”. We’re not exotic enough. If you go further away to the East, that’s when the East becomes “exotic.” Here we are sort of like the rest, and yet we’re not like the rest, because here we come up against the point that basically we should be conforming to what the West – which is not here –  tells us we should be like, but actually we’re not. We’re sort of sufficiently different to be an irritant, if nothing else. And this is something which comes up over and over again. Because at the end of the day, the West, Europe, whatever that means these days, considers itself to be the “moral legislator of the world,” to quote the poet Shelley. In the technical literature, Zygmunt Baumann’s book Legislators and Interpreters remains the best analysis of this. So my question is – a rhetorical question, obviously – does the West actually need an intra-European negative polarity, a country which it can always, in someway or another, regard as an undesirable example and say, “things may be bad, but they are so much worse over there.”

Now I think that is a reality. That is a part of the European reality, and it is why we in Hungary – although it is not just a Hungarian problem – are constantly coming up against this on the whole negative image. Sometimes it is positive, but on the whole it tends to be a negative one. Basically because the West likes to export its own problems, its own feelings of uneasiness. And there are plenty of reasons to feel uneasy – globalisation, rapid change, coping with migrants, and so on. It wants to exports its own uneasiness and sense of guilt in order to say, “things are bad here but look how much worse they are there” – and it doesn’t really matter which country it is that constitues the target.

At this particular time Hungary plays a very particular role. Partly because there’s a centre-right government in power, and much of the media – and I’m sorry to use a technical term – has a left-wing epistemology, a left-wing set of assumptions about what the world is like, how the world should be. And in that sense, centre-right governments are in some way not only inconvenient but also discordant – even although at this time the majority of governments in the European Union are from the centre-right! But there is something in the entire Enlightenment legacy which says that really the left is the proper representative of whatever is good, and honest, and virtuous and so on. And I think these moral categories are the right ones of understanding of this phenomenon.

On the whole there is this tendency on the part of the larger states in western Europe to ‘dump’ on the smaller ones. It’s not just Central Europe. Think of the way in which the British media treated Portugal over the McCann case. The Portuguese are treated as ‘somehow dubious,’ ‘not really proper.’ Very similar parallels can be found with other small states.

The point I am making here is that the media, in what they do, are exercising power. It is a cultural power, for which in a sense they should be responsible, but the existence of which they deny by saying “we’re only reflecting public opinion,” or alternatively “we’re giving the public what the public wants.” Well, it isn’t exactly quite like that. There is power in what the media do, and that power, in a way, is free. They are free-riders on society, they can say things for which it is very difficult to hold them to account, because they are always saying “ah but media freedom, media freedom…” Yes, there is such a thing as media freedom, it can be threatened, but at the same time, that freedom goes with a certain responsibility, which I’m not sure the media discharge invariably with maximum responsibility.

The last point I want to make is about Hungary itself, and where we can take this earlier proposition of mine that we are in the midst of a really major reform process. Maybe we should start to think seriously about developing Hungarian soft power. We’ve been very bad at this, and I think this is something we should think about more deeply. I’ve got a check-list here. Things like Hungarian wellness tourism – practically anywhere in Hungary you bore a hole, thermal waters bubble up, its quite extraordinary, it’s unique. This is something we can build on. And obviously many people come here because they like this. I happen not to like thermal waters particularly – although perhaps by admitting this I may lose my Hungarian passport! To be Hungarian, you have to like thermal waters – I fear, I don’t.

Organic foods – we could be doing a great deal more than we’re doing at the moment to develop this area. There are all sorts of areas where actually Hungary produces quite useful and interesting foodstuffs. We don’t do enough of this, and it would require a much better system of small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) which the last government scandalously neglected.

It may sound a bit absurd, but I believe that Hungarian dentistry could really be a part of Hungarian soft power. Large numbers of people come to Hungary because the dentistry here is good and cheap. Try to get serious dental work done in Britain and see how much you pay. In Hungary it costs maybe one tenth of that. There is also high culture. We are constantly saying “we have this great literature, but no-one pays a bit of attention to it,” though this is not actually true. I was reading a recent edition of the Times Literary Supplement, and found a very long review of a book of short stories by Gyula Krúdy translated into English – now hats off to anybody who can translate Krúdy! Krúdy is the most complex of Hungarian writers in the twentieth century, and the review is very positive. It was written by George Szirtes, who is of course of Hungarian origin, and can judge both the original and the translation. We Hungarians always complain that we have this wonderful literature and no-one really appreciates it – but please name one great Estonian novelist? We do not know other small cultures’ literatures either! Actually, the person in question is called Tammsaare, and all his works are available in Hungarian. Nobody reads them. I think they are also available in German. Not as far as I am aware in English.

We also have quite an impressive amount of cultural power in music. There are a number of major Hungarian performers who are a part of the world’s heritage. In my view the most outstanding composer alive in the world today is the Latvian Peteris Vasks, whose music I happen to know and like, but very few of you I suspect have ever heard it.

Finally, a couple of words on high politics. I think we are doing far more under this government than under the previous one. There is a Central European cooperation coming to being. In September there was an informal meeting of six central European foreign Ministers in the European Parliament, I was there, and what fascinated me was that they found a common language, not just in the philological sense of speaking English, but they found a capacity to talk to one another and agree on a fairly wide range of problems. And this will be continued. It was a joint effort. I would add that Hungary at the moment has the best relations with Romania it has had since I don’t know when. We really have a very positive relationship with Romania. And this does not go down as news for the international press!

Every year in the 1990’s when I was teaching in London, I would ask my students: “why is it that the Western press predicts a war between Hungary and Romania which hasn’t yet happened?” Well, I never got an answer. Students avoided this question like the plague. But western journalists kept on saying this, though it wasn’t true. It never could have been true. But they fly in from somewhere or another – the New York Times was especially outstanding at this – but when we actually now have a very positive relationship with Romania, it doesn’t form part of the story. I would also say that we now have a much better relationship with Slovakia than under the Fico government – its not perfect, but its better than it was – but again, this is not part of the story that is told. And what is the western press saying about the fairly substantial political support that we are giving within the EU to both Croatia and Serbia, but also to some degree to the whole of the western Balkans? Again, it seems to me that there are areas where Hungary is doing very positive things, which simply don’t get through.

It is partly our fault, I am sure we could be doing a great deal more, but also partly the lack of a willingness to receive this information, on the part of the western media. That’s what I would like to see, and I hope that under the Hungarian presidency the international press will also pay attention to all that Hungary is doing positively.

(The closing address of George Schöpflin, MEP to the ‘Image of Hungary’ conference, sponsored by the online news portal Mandiner and the European People’s Party, Budapest 17 December 2010.)

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