Eastward expansion of the EU “Germany has learned a lot”

György Konrád
György Konrád | Photo (detail): © Gezett

On 1 May 2004 Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, among others, joined the European Union. What impact has this eastward expansion had? An interview with the Hungarian author György Konrád.

Mr. Konrád, ten years after Hungary joined the European Union, two thirds of the electorate voted for parties that are critical of the EU, or even reject it, in the parliamentary elections there in early April 2014. Do the citizens regret EU accession?

I would not say that all the supporters of the governing Hungarian party Fidesz are against the EU. The Prime Minister Viktor Orbán claims that the EU is important for us, but that we have to exploit it as much as possible. In Hungary, power and capital are locked in a close embrace. What is emerging is a new statism – a new religious nationalism.

How come similar phenomena can or could be observed in many new EU states? There is a return to nationalism, to the concept of a “strong man at the helm”, be that in Hungary, Romania or Slovakia.

Different paths exist, but few can be characterised by these attributes. Look at Slovenia, Poland today, the Baltic States, the Czech Republic. Hungary was once at the head of developments. Maybe it is mere chance that the political and economic class was not mature enough to understand the task.

“EU politics is usually influenced by national interests”

For countries outside the European Union, the EU still seems to be attractive – for the Ukraine or Serbia, for example. Within the EU, there is widespread aversion. What’s going wrong here?

If a referendum were to be held today – and this was demanded by the extreme right-wing party Jobbik in Hungary – exiting the EU would be rejected. EU politics is usually influenced by national interests, not by European interests. There are very few European politicians who – like perhaps the German Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble – are really trying to think in a broader framework and who genuinely want communitarisation.

Many people in the countries who have recently acceded claim they have had no advantages from this. Salaries are stagnating, costs exploding.

I see this as being very relevant. Let us take the privatisation of state-owned property: companies and their production have been bought up. A lot of industries are going bankrupt. The decision-making power was in the hands of technocrats. The members of that class very quickly became millionaires.

How has cultural life been developing under these circumstances?

There is a strange continuity in culture. A really good composer, artist or writer will always be good, irrespective of who is in power. The different potentates always use some of the prestige built up over decades by some of those artists and scientists for themselves. Interestingly, the socialists made particular use of that, as they needed to legitimize themselves somehow, saying, we are the representatives of scientific socialism. The new ruling powers do not need the intellectual aristocracy.

“Berlin is a goal in life, Berlin has a myth of its own”

In your view, how has Germany changed as a result of the EU expansion to the east?

Germany has gained a lot of problems, has been caught up in big adventures and has learned a lot. It has become richer, and has attracted new workers, including well-educated workers.

One hundred years ago, German was the “lingua franca” of Central Europe. Today it is English. Is the German language still of importance?

German is the second foreign language in Central Europe. A young person today who only learns English is not well educated. Most of my friends are intellectual. Almost all their children are studying in Berlin, as it is very popular. Berlin is a goal in life. Berlin has a myth of its own. It is very important for a city to have its own myth.

Is the term Central Europe of any relevance today?

If a Pole and a Hungarian work together in a western country, they will help one another. They will understand one another more easily because they have a common pool of experience – even though a certain rivalry will always exist.

György Konrád was born in Hungary in 1933. He is the son of Jewish parents. He closely avoided being arrested by the National Socialists in 1944. His first novel “The Case Worker” („Der Besucher”) was published in 1969. In his essays he advocates a peaceful Central Europe which would overcome the borders between East and West. From 1997 to 2003 Konrád was President of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. He has been awarded, among others, the Charlemagne Prize and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.