Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban Image Credit: Reuters

Europe is an old continent dripping with history. But that history is vital in understanding the psyche of today’s leaders — and no more so than in Hungary.

A century ago this month, the map of Europe changed radically. The Treaties of Versailles put in place a new order in Europe, redrawing the boundaries and imposing changes that would ensure that never again would Europe face ruin by another Great War.

And we all know how that turned out. Less than two decades later the nations of Europe were at war again, the entire world dragged in to a conflict that still shapes our lives today.

But in Hungary, they still look back to June 1920 with deep regret.

The victorious Allied Powers carved up the Austro-Hungarian empire under a treaty signed at the Trianon Palace outside Paris — to this day Hungarians refer to it as a “dictat”, “trauma” or “tragedy” — dismembering the Habsburg’s former territories into two smaller separate nations of largely present-day Austria and Hungary. ‘Greater Hungary’ was erased, two-thirds of its territory went to Czechoslovakia, Austria, Yugoslavia, Ukraine and Romania — which received all of Transylvania. More than three million Hungarians found themselves living in foreign countries, their imperial history was made irrelevant and for those that remained in what remain of Hungary, there was resentment.

Some European governments, mainly French officials, have argued that countries that challenge European democratic values — read Hungary — should not receive funding from the EU budget.


To this day, in some parts of the Hungarian countryside, roadside maps show the country not as it is now but as the much larger nation it once was. The same images of Greater Hungary dating from over 100 years ago can also be seen on car bumper stickers and T-shirts sold to tourists. And recently, Prime Minister Viktor Orban provocatively posted the old map on Facebook.

Every June 4, as they have done now for 100 years, nationalist Hungarians fly flags and remember what was. Since Orban came to power in 2010, June 4 has been turned into a national day of remembrance, he has provided financial aid to ethnic Hungarians who live in neighbouring countries, and granted dual citizenship and voting rights to more than a million of them. Yep, that’s one way to shore up support for his ruling Fidesz party in national elections.

When the centenary of the Trianon Agreement came around earlier this month, church bells peeled in Hungary and in ethnic-Hungarian regions, traffic and public transport came to a halt and a minute’s silence was observed.

And naturally, Orban’s posting of the old map went over like a lead balloon in places like Croatia and Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Slovakia.

While no one outside Hungary is suggesting redrawing that map of Europe now — even more complicated by the splitting up of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia into more constituent nations — it goes some way in explaining his psyche and why he remains intent on taking on the European Union and its institutions.

Nation’s spiritual borders

“Given that the nation’s geographical borders have changed, no one can dispute our right to maintain our nation’s spiritual borders,” Hungarian president Janos Ader told a special session of parliament to mark the occasion. He described as “immeasurably unjust” a peace treaty that he said had been “concocted by unprepared politicians, political adventurers, self-appointed prophets, paid agents, biased and partly corrupted experts and journalists infected with a hatred of Hungary”.

A recent poll of Hungarians found 85 per cent there regard the treaty as the greatest tragedy in the nation’s history, and President Ader said it had “failed to bring about peace, did not contribute to the region’s development, nor did it help ease ethnic tension” in the region.

“What the great powers broke, we must fix. If we do so, the curse of Trianon will be broken,” he said. “We respect our neighbours but we ask them to also respect us and the Hungarians living in their countries. We have to work for each other, not against each other.”

Strain in ties with Ukraine

It’s small wonder then that Orban’s staunch defence of all things Hungarian everywhere are regarded as unwelcome meddling by governments across the region — not just in Brussels.

Ties with Ukraine are strained now over a language law that would reduce the amount of teaching its schools offer in minority languages, and calls by the Hungarian community in Transylvania for greater autonomy are a perennial source of friction with Romania.

But it is Brussels where Orban’s ultra-nationalist hype grates most with the pan-European type. For years now the European Commission — the cabinet-like structure that oversees the day-to-day running of the EU — the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the European Parliament have been at loggerheads with Orban over his undermining cornerstones of the EU. Respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities, are all fundamental tenets of EU membership.

In Orban’s Hungary? Not so much.

Last week Hungary said it “will not accept” an ECJ ruling that said refugees and asylum seekers in a transit zone on its border amounts to detention and that they should be released.

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In a separate recent decision too, the ECJ ruled Hungary is breaking EU law by restricting the financing of NGOs. The restrictions were seen as targeting billionaire philanthropist George Soros, and organisations like his Open Society Foundation that support Hungarian NGOs, and Budapest claims these organisations work against Hungary’s national interest.

But coronavirus may finally bring this long-running Brussels-Budapest bun fight to a head. And, as with most disputes, money is the issue.

The EU has put together a €750 billion (Dh3.08 trillion) coronavirus rescue package as part of an €1.85 trillion budget that needs to be decided and doled out.

Some European governments, mainly French officials, have argued that countries that challenge European democratic values — read Hungary — should not receive funding from the EU budget, a common basket that backs projects across the region.

And that is going over like a lead balloon in Budapest.