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EU Enlargement Thursday, 12 March, 1998, 09:32 GMT
Europe as 'fig-leaf'
Budapest Parliament
The Parliament building in Budapest
Hungary is amongst the countries hoping to join the first wave of enlargement. Budapest correspondent Nick Thorpe has detected a deep desire to belong to a European community once again.

There are not many political riddles in Hungary any more, but one that has survived goes like this - how many years until we join the European Union? The answer, every year, is 'seven'.

Two emotions dominate most Hungarians' attitudes to Europe. One is a sense of disappointment that the European Union failed to adapt in order to make room for new members after 1989. The second is a rather touching faith in the existence of European values, which will take some of the roughest edges off the jungle capitalism which has flourished in Hungary since the return of the free market.

Gyula Horn, Prime Minister of Hungary
Gyula Horn, Prime Minister of Hungary
There are different levels of debate. At its worst, the debate centres on numbers alone. Jacques Chirac, in a speech to the Hungarian Parliament, gave the magic number 2000. The British foreign secretary, Robin Cook, speaking in the same chamber, said 2002. The most pessimistic among Hungarian economists continue to obey the 'seven year rule' and speak of some time after 2005.

The next level of debate starts from an awareness that the European Union must decide on its own shape before new members can be admitted, and there is precious little prospective members can do to influence that process, but sit patiently in the waiting room, adjusting their make-up.

Attitudes differ between town and country

Hungarian farmers, big and small, are watching the internal EU debate more closely than urban dwellers. Some 1.5 to 2 million Hungarians, up to 20% of the population, own small plots of land, many of them claimed back from the cooperatives and state farms.

To prevent speculation during the land privatisation and compensation process, the re-sale of land was frozen, preventing the emergence of a land market to this day. The small plots are not profitable, everyone working on the land is in a state of uncertainty about the future, and the smallholders fear that when some future government does free up the land market, most of the land will end up in the hands of 100 or so giant companies.

While Hungarian towns, on the whole, get richer, the countryside is getting poorer all the time. One of the dreams of the Hungarian farmer is that the subsidy system of the Common Agricultural Policy will somehow stay in place after enlargement, and that EU membership will prove to be a boon to the rural community in Hungary, as it was in Ireland.

Some agricultural products - durum wheat, tomatoes, morello cherries, and paprika are some of the most frequently mentioned - are already of extremely high quality. A shift from mass products, to quality products, is regarded by Hungarians as their best, or only hope, as part of a common European market.

A chance to rediscover justice and fair-play

In November 1997, almost 50% of Hungarians turned out to vote in a referendum on NATO membership. Of these, 85% voted in favour, and 15% against. But the figures disguise another disappointment. That Hungary was asked to join a military organisation, before a social and economic one.

This brings us, finally, to the concept of "Europe as fig-leaf". A casual visitor to Hungary, returning after ten years, is amazed by the good road surfaces, the gleaming petrol stations with 24 hour shops, the hyper-markets, the perfectly functioning telephones. But when he digs beneath the surface he finds that the petrol stations are a cover for laundered money.

That former regional and national Communist party leaders have acquired, by fair means or foul, a large slice of the nation's property. And that for all the lip-service paid to "democratic values" the state is still regarded as the biggest thief of all, a model for all the little thefts the people commit against one another, and against the state, in order, they argue, to survive.

Among honest people there is a longing to belong fully to a European community again. A community where, they hope, such things do not happen. As in 1989, or for that matter, 1956, values like fairness and justice take precedence over the 'right' to buy foreign goods.

Europe Today - a news programme from the BBC World Service about Europe for Europe

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