The European Union’s next crisis

The European Union has surprised people over the past year with its resilience. Much of 2012 was spent listening to commentators predicting the imminent break-up of the EU, with Greece the first to go, followed in short order by Portugal, Spain, and perhaps even Italy. That most of these commentators were British or American should not come as a surprise. Even Paul Krugman, who is generally pretty on top of things, seems to have misjudged this one. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, that the political will of European leadership to remain a union has been underestimated. Europe has muddled through—the crisis isn’t over, but it certainly appears to have diminished to more manageable proportions. As Warren Johnson once pointed out, there is an art and science to muddling, and the European Commission and the European Central Bank, which drive much of what passes for policy in the EU, seems to have perfected it. This is not to say that something dire might not still materialize—there may indeed be exits from the EU over time. But thus far the crisis that emerged could have been a whole lot worse than it actually has been.

However, the EU has a different sort of problem on its hands these days, one which may not lend itself to muddling, given what muddling failed to accomplish the last time this particular problem raised its ugly little head. The problem is anti-semitism, which seems to be running rampant in Hungary, so much so that a senior Hungarian legislator recently called to all Jews in the country to “register.” Much of this swill emanates from the far right Jobbik party. The politician in question, Marton Gyongyosi, now says he was “misunderstood”—he was referring to Jews in the country as visitors. Well, he would say that, I imagine. The response has been muted at best, however—there were some lively demonstrations within Hungary, but little in the way of broad European condemnation. This isn’t that surprising on the face of it—it’s rare to see criticism of another country’s internal political shenanigans. But still.

Nor are Jews the only target—the Roma (gypsies) are perhaps even more of a target in places like Hungary, simply because they’re a bit more visible. But like the Roma, the historical precedents here are ample, and frightening. Recently, the Hungarian football team has been sanctioned by FIFA because of anti-semitic chants in the crowd at a match against Israel.

This should be seen in the context of a broad and rapid move to the far right by Hungary’s government over the past several years, one that has alarmed a number of observers in Europe. Not just Hungary—the economic crisis and resultant austerity measures have given a new lease on life to Europe’s far right in many countries—for reasons very similar to the economic fears that initially drove the tea party. Yes, anti-semitism pops up in Western Europe from time to time, usually in the form of vandalism of Jewish cemeteries (which never ever happens in the US, of course). The problem in Hungary is that while Jobbik is a minor party—well, it’s not exactly that minor, since it got about 17% of the vote in the 2010 elections—it’s part of the coalition government of the Fidesz party, which needs Jobbik to maintain power. And part of this process of maintaining power has been to increase the power of the executive, in what some observers see as a retreat from democracy. And Fidesz does not give much evidence of minding the approach that Jobbik has been taking. It has certainly not been critical of them in any serious way.

Whether or not this blows over remains to be seen. Poland had some similar issues a couple of years ago when the Kaczynski twins were running the country, and their supporters would often say inflammatory things. This passed, although one has to assume that it’s not gone completely—anti-semitism had a solid base in Poland, of course, and probably still does, as does much of eastern Europe to this day. But if it does not blow over, it’s hard to see how the EU can avoid being forced into considering a move that has not been used before, a pretty draconian one—but trying to discipline or even expelling a member state turns out to be extremely problematic. While countries can apparently leave the EU (and the euro) voluntarily, actual expulsion appears to be difficult, if not impossible—there is apparently no provision for expulsion in the Lisbon Treaty. So there is no current mechanism for actually being able to do this, no matter how crazy a particular government gets.

So one ends up wondering just what the EU can do if a member government starts showing ominous signs of fascism. Well, the issue in Poland sort of went away, as it did earlier in Austria—but Austrian surliness appears to be coming back. It may be that the only real policy option at the moment is to hope that this situation rights itself—but this can hardly be called a “policy.” Still, as Keno Versek at Deutsche Welle has noted, it’s a bit strange that while Hungary’s economic policies have come under withering criticism, its increasingly vocal anti-semitism seems to bring no censure from outside the country. History isn’t everything, but there are times when ignoring its lessons seems a bit foolhardy.

The above currency note is an example of Notgeld, currency that was often issued by savings banks and municipalities in Germany during the period of hyperinflation that Germans suffered at the end of the First World War and early 1920s. This particular note shows two highly caricatured Jewish men hanging from a tree.

2 replies »

  1. Wufnik–i cannot tell you how good this sort of stuff is. Insightful, wonderfully written. Just fine, fine stuff.