BUDAPEST — Hungarians celebrated joining the European Union eight years ago by chopping through the barbed wire that separated them from Austria, eliminating a final vestige of the Iron Curtain. But after years of financial crisis, many here in Europe’s heart are questioning their westward ties.
As membership in the E.U. becomes ever more a dour pledge to cut spending while opening borders to economic competition, anti-E.U. politicians in many countries have surged in popularity, capitalizing on the anxieties of voters who see dimming hope for the future. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been at the front of the pack, passing electoral and economic revisions that critics say are far outside of European norms but that he says put his country’s interests first.
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Other countries could soon be following Hungary’s path in what has until now been a mostly one-way road toward tighter economic integration. Near-bankrupt Greece could be kicked off the euro, or even out of the E.U., if it fails to make enough progress in grappling with its problems. Even politicians who support the union as a whole are questioning the wisdom of the fiscal pact agreed to on Monday that binds together the 17 countries that have adopted the euro in a solemn vow of austerity and that will slowly draw in eight other countries, including Hungary, if they join the euro zone.
“The fiscal pact raises budgetary discipline to the status of a panacea for all the ills associated with the debt crisis,” Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament and a member of Germany’s Socialist party, said in a speech to European leaders Monday. “Alone and accompanied by austerity measures in many member states, it will not bring much-needed economic growth and jobs.”
Orban blames the rush of foreign money that came in after his country joined the E.U. for its later problems, a common complaint in other struggling countries, especially Greece, which after years of exuberance faced a painful reckoning. There, the E.U. and International Monetary Fund have little to show for billions of euros of bailout money and two years of austerity-driven attempts to restructure the country’s economy.
But Orban has a freer hand than his Greek peers because Hungary retains its own currency. In recent months, he has passed laws that would reduce the central bank’s independence in an attempt to make it submit to his policy goals. He also dismissed more than 100 long-
serving judges and revamped the country’s data-protection office to place it under his control. All three actions led the E.U. to launch proceedings against Hungary in January, saying that the changes had contravened European treaties.
Protests have split this country of 10 million since the beginning of January, underscoring deep divisions between Hungarians who see the E.U. as the only thing preventing their country’s slide toward authoritarianism and those who think it is the source of their troubles.
‘Building an empire’
The European Union has been “building an empire” with its ever-increasing demands on individual countries, said Gyorg Filip, who drives his battered taxi through Budapest’s sycamore-lined streets as a way of supplementing his $300-a-month retirement pension. On the side of the cab is a map of Hungary’s pre-World War I borders, when it was three times as large and engulfed much of Central Europe.