Irish Yes would help Hungary into EU haven of stability


One of the big issues in the next Nice Treaty campaign will be the contention of the Yes side that we have a moral duty to facilitate the entry of former communist countries to the European Union. Last time, we heard a great deal about the oppression these nations had suffered and the need for Irish voters to give them the same shot at prosperity, via EU membership, that we had, writes Deaglun De Breadun

In the end, the electorate didn't pay a blind bit of notice. Most of them stayed at home and the majority voted against Nice because of concerns about neutrality or the loss of "money, power, influence", in the words of the famous black-and-red poster.

Self-interest, enlightened or otherwise, is the main motivating factor in Irish politics. The harsh reality is that some voters would have trouble finding these countries on the map and there is little likelihood of sleep-loss on a mass scale about their prospects of joining the EU.

On a recent visit to Hungary I expected to come under attack for Ireland's alleged "dog-in-the-manger" approach to European enlargement. But although the EU is a hot topic in Budapest, there was no browbeating and no reproachful glances.

When Ireland's role was mentioned, it was usually with a note of concern that foreigners must not be seen trying to influence our sovereign decision this autumn. But there are worries among the pro-EU elements that delay could jeopardise their long-cherished aim of rejoining the European mainstream.

With its majority Catholic population, long history of struggle against foreign domination and widespread diaspora, Hungary has a great deal in common with Ireland, except of course that we are in the EU while they are still knocking on the door.

Knocking pretty hard too. There is 70 per cent support in opinion polls for membership but the uncertainty is making some of their Euro-enthusiasts nervous. Hungary may be an independent state but it is susceptible to trends in the central European region and there are concerns that public opinion in neighbouring countries might "fall off the wagon".

After a long and troubled history, many Hungarians are looking to the EU as a haven of stability, a giant market for their products and a restraining influence on reactionary trends in their own society as well as the external world.

Culturally and geographically, the Hungarians are already at the heart of Europe. Budapest is a smaller Paris on the Danube: given its attractions, one would have expected more tourists but it seems people opt for Prague and Vienna with the Hungarian capital as a third choice.

There are touches you could only find in Central Europe. In the parliament there are numbered ashtrays where members used to leave their cigars when they went into the chamber to take part in a debate. The hope was that you could get back in time to finish your smoke, but many a good Havana was burnt to nothing due to the exigencies of politics.

There is still a civilised and leisurely air about the city despite the quickening pace of economic development and the massive inflow of foreign investment since the collapse of the communist administration.

Even in the Iron Curtain days, Hungary endured a less intense regime than other countries. "Goulash communism" was a reaction to the stark events of 1956 when the harshness of the system provoked a mass uprising that was suppressed by Soviet tanks, leaving 25,000 people dead and 200,000 fleeing into exile. That was then, this is now. Hungary has moved on, although a protest placard outside the parliament points out that the Socialists who head the newly-elected government are the heirs of the former communist rulers.

Hungary must also have its own referendum on membership, although the poll figures don't give the Yes side much cause for concern. The position of the Roma community has been a significant human rights issue for the EU as it evaluates Hungary's readiness for membership.Hungary has the highest gypsy population of any EU candidate country, with estimates varying from 500,000 to 800,000 out of a total population of 10 million. Government programmes have been set up to improve their lot but there appears to be a deep-rooted prejudice against them. I was told of a butcher who hired a Roma apprentice but had to contend with a petition from customers who did not like a brown-skinned person handling their meat. Come to think of it, when did I last see a Traveller working in an Irish butcher's shop?

Hungary is even turning its past to advantage. I met a computer expert who became adept at fixing hardware in the communist days because a new machine was out of the question. Now his skills are attracting business from all over the world. The country's proud scientific and technological tradition is reconnecting with the international mainstream.

To some extent, Hungary's fate will be in our hands when we go to the polls a second time about Nice. Even those sophisticated central Europeans will find it hard to conceal their disappointment if we say No again. The reality, however unpalatable, is that, for the most part, the Irish will vote for what they think is good for them and let Hungary look after itself.

Deaglán de Bréadún is Foreign Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times.