A few years ago, my wife and I were walking along the bank of the Danube River in Budapest. Across the river is an absolutely breathtaking view of the Hungarian Parliament, an enormous gothic structure that dominates the waterfront. We saw a young woman sitting by herself near the bank, and we asked her to take a picture of us. I will never forget her answer.
She said, “No.”
Despite traveling to cities all across America and Europe, that has never happened to us anywhere. Ever.
It wasn’t the only bad experience we had in Budapest. While eating in a restaurant near Parliament, my wife overheard a child singing loudly about how America was not normal. And an older Irish lady on the subway told us about how, when she was lost, a Hungarian gave her wrong directions - on purpose.
Were we just random victims of bad luck and grumpy people? Possibly. Or is there something deeper going on, something of greater consequence? Sadly, the answer appears to be the latter. Indeed, the Magyars may have a real problem getting along with other people.
For instance, their lingering racism toward ethnic Roma - who usually live in utter poverty - is nothing new. However, the far right-wing Jobbik party recently took things to a new level when they formed a group of uniformed vigilantes to combat “gypsy crime.” They even refer to the paramilitary force as “gendarmes,” which, during World War II, referred to the people who helped deport Jews to concentration camps.
Also, there appears to be a movement to purify the Hungarian culture of foreign influence. Leadership at Budapest’s “New Theater” insists on performing only Hungarian plays, and it has banned the performance of “foreign garbage,” a term that carries a xenophobic undertone.
Now, it appears that this intolerance for dealing with other people is starting to harm relations with the European Union.
Just how bad is the problem? Bad enough that the former United States Ambassador to Hungary warned that the country is in danger of being ejected from the European Union. That seems a bit drastic and therefore unlikely, mostly because the EU is not known for drastic action. But such a strong warning coming from an ambassador should be taken seriously. What has Hungary done to put itself in this position?
It started when Viktor Orban’s conservative, nationalist Fidesz party came to power in 2010. Shortly afterward, they began an assault on the freedom of the press, threatening to issue fines for any coverage that was deemed unbalanced. About a year later, the government shut down Klubradio, a popular opposition radio station.
However, the final straw came when Orban tried to influence the Hungarian central bank, in direct violation of EU treaties that insist on the complete independence of central banks from political manipulation. Hungary is in need of financial assistance, but the EU and IMF refused to assist unless Orban’s government retreated. It now appears as if they have.
While an immediate confrontation appears to have been averted, this situation reveals yet another fissure in a political union that is becoming increasingly unstable. As tumultuous as 2011 was for Europe, it is quite possible that 2012 will be far worse. Europe has enough problems to deal with, but Hungary’s petulant intransigence is just making things worse.
Rising nationalism is becoming a problem throughout all of Europe, but it is particularly worrisome in Hungary. Its eagerness to pick fights with anyone perceived to be an outsider is quickly turning Hungary into a pariah within the European Union. For its own sake, as well as that of Europe, it needs to quickly relinquish its embrace of embittered nationalism. Otherwise, it risks financial ruin and political isolation.
Hungarians need to learn to play nicely with others quickly. Because if they don’t, they’ll be the only ones left in the sandbox.
(AP Photo: FILE - In this Jan. 11, 2012 file picture Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, center, talks to guests participating in the foundation of the new National Public Administration University in the Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary.)