As the European Union consolidates its expansion into Eastern Europe, its Western European core is forced to confront the consequences of its past as a competitive nation-state system.
The modern European state system was grafted onto Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I. Crafted from the dual and conflicting motives of maximizing national self-determination and punishing the vanquished, the new states were plagued by the presence of ethnic minorities with irredentist and often revanchist aims. Often systematically disadvantaged by the majorities in the new states, the minorities had all the more reason to hold themselves hostile and apart.
Grievances persisted and frequently deepened during the four decades of Communist rule after World War II. With the fall of the Soviet bloc, Eastern European states continued to face the issues posed by aggrieved minorities, but now in an environment in which the minorities could be more open, forthright and assertive in pursuing aspirations for separation, union with their ethnic homelands or autonomy. Except in the former Yugoslavia, the minorities question has not been answered by military force. That eventuality has been prevented elsewhere by the overriding vital interest of all the Eastern European states in integrating into the E.U., which requires that members do not systematically discriminate against or exploit minorities. Nonetheless, the legacy of the past still poses some obstacles to the creation of a post-industrial and harmonious multi-national Europe united by market democracy and a Western lifestyle.
The persistence of the minorities problem in Eastern Europe is illustrated by the referendum that was held in Hungary on December 5 on whether to grant dual citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living outside their homeland. Of all the successor states to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary suffered the most in the redrawing of boundaries, losing two-thirds of its territory and 60 percent of its population to Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia in the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. Today, 2.5 million ethnic Hungarians live in neighboring states, 1.4 million of them in Romania, 560,000 in Slovakia, 300,000 in Serbia and 150,000 in Ukraine. Especially in Romania, Serbia and Ukraine, which are not E.U. members as Slovakia and Hungary are, ethnic Hungarians suffer prejudice and disadvantages, and are less prosperous than their kin in Hungary.
Ever since the World War I settlement, Hungarian nationalism inside and outside the homeland has had as its foundation the recovery of the full Hungarian nation, either through the territorial restoration of “Greater Hungary,” by force if necessary, or by securing political and cultural autonomy for ethnic Hungarians in neighboring states. Given the constraints imposed by the E.U., the option of Greater Hungary is off the table. The project of a “nation above borders” remains alive and actuated the referendum.
The Referendum: Nationalism Versus Europeanism
The referendum was not initiated within the Hungarian political system, but by the World Federation of Hungarians, an N.G.O. dedicated to the protection of the Hungarian diaspora and the nation-above-borders idea. The Federation was able to obtain the signatures of the 200,000 voters in Hungary necessary for putting its proposal on the ballot. The proposal required the Hungarian parliament to pass a law “offering preferential naturalization — on request — that grants Hungarian citizenship to persons who claim Hungarian ethnicity, do not reside in Hungary, are not Hungarian citizens, and certify Hungarian ethnicity.”
The ethnic Hungarian populations in Hungary’s neighboring states — who could not vote in the referendum — were in favor of the proposal, as were the organizations that represent them. The advantages of citizenship for the members of those populations go beyond satisfying nationalist sentiment. They would become citizens of the E.U. and with it have enhanced economic prospects, gain a sense of security in their “host” states and a presumptive protector of their interests in Budapest, and be able to migrate freely to Hungary.
The climate of opinion and balance of interests was different inside Hungary. There, the only advantage seemed to be the satisfaction of nationalist sentiment — “healing the trauma of Trianon.” Working against the proposal was the opposition to dual citizenship of Hungary’s neighboring states — especially Romania — and a possible influx of ethnic Hungarians into the homeland that would make for costly burdens on Hungary’s social services and safety net. It is not surprising that Hungarian Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany opposed the naturalization proposition, urging people not to vote, since, in order to pass, the proposal needed a majority that included 25 percent of registered voters. When the center-right Civic Union had held the reins of government, it had deflected similar initiatives, as any but an ultra-nationalist administration would be expected to do.
In the campaign preceding the poll, the issue became divisively politicized when the Civic Union, led by Viktor Orban, placed itself on the side of the proposal. Analysts saw this as a political move to exploit nationalism and create embarrassment for the ruling party. Orban ratcheted up his rhetoric, stating that the referendum would determine “for our descendants…what kind of Hungarians we were.”
Gyurcsany retaliated against nationalism with Europeanism, accusing Orban of fomenting “nationalist populism” and offering in its place a vision of Hungary as an “island of modernism” that needed to abandon the past and proceed toward a future of full integration into the European community. He also estimated that 800,000 ethnic Hungarians might migrate to Hungary if the proposition passed, leading to an additional $2.9 billion in welfare expenditures each year that would preclude upgrading the country’s health services.