Hungary heading for fresh EU controversy with 'history carpet'
The Hungarian EU presidency is steering into a fresh controversy with the installation of a 'history carpet' featuring a map of the Habsburg empire in the Justus Lipsius building where ministers and leaders from all 27 member states meet during summits.
Intended to be a "historical timeline" of Hungarian symbols and images, the 202 square-metre long carpet rolled out on the floor of the Council of the European Union building is likely to spark fresh controversies about the nationalistic outlook of the government in Budapest, after the government adopted a new citizenship law for Hungarian minorities abroad.
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Speaking to EUobserver, Marton Hajdu, spokesman of the newly inaugurated Hungarian EU presidency forcefully denied any connection with present policies and said it would be "unfair" to assume that.
"The carpet is basically a timeline of cultural, historical and scientific symbols or images of Hungary: kings, ancient artefacts, excerpts from the encyclopaedia, the map of the region in 1848 - the year of the 'Spring of nations', when revolutions took place all across Europe," he explained.
But to MEPs from countries in the region, the very choice of the map - depicting Slovakia and parts of Romania and Serbia as part of the Habsburg empire - is indicative of the nostalgic sentiments and even irredentist impulses of the current government.
While agreeing with the Hungarian spokesman that the map relates to 1848, when Hungary rose against the Habsburg empire, along with other nations, Austrian Green MEP Ulrike Lunacek also pointed out that at the end of that process, 19 years later, the Austro-Hungarian co-regency was formed, putting Budapest on an equal footing with Vienna and granting it the same imperial authority over other nations.
The map is an illustration of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's "intention to overcome the Treaty of Trianon" at the end of the first World War, when Hungary was forced to give up Slovakia and parts of Romania and Serbia, she said. To this aim, Ms Lunacek believes, the centre-right government in Budapest recently enacted the new law granting citizenship to thousands of ethnic Hungarians living in these neighbouring countries.
"It is a very backwards view of Mr Orban, not at all in the direction of a common European future. It is also a complete misinterpretation of EU's current challenges," Ms Lunacek said.
This would not be the first time an EU presidency installation sparked controversy: in January 2009, the "Entropa" artwork put up by the Czech presidency saw Bulgaria request that the depiction of its country - as a Turkish toilet - be covered by a cloth. Ms Lunacek argued that "at least the Czechs were funny. But the Orban government is not. It is very nationalistic and showing their historical importance."
Romanian Socialist MEP Ioan Mircea Pascu also noted that the Czechs had to alter the exhibit after other states complained about how they were labelled and said that overall "the importance given to 'Greater Hungary' is not the most inspired symbol for the Hungarian EU presidency."
"The EU stands for abolishing internal borders, not for regrets over their previous existence. Such gestures are likely to fuel nationalistic reactions within the EU, at a time when the union is most in need of solidarity," he told this website.
The new citizenship law, which came into force on 1 January, has sparked tensions between Budapest and Bratislava, with the latter passing a tit-for-tat bill stripping anyone of their Slovak citizenship if they applied for the Hungarian one.
Slovak opposition leader Robert Fico even dubbed the law a "security threat" and accused Hungary of attempting to revise history.
Slovakia is home to some 500,000 Hungarians, roughly a tenth of its population. In Romania, where some six percent of the 20-million strong population is Hungarian, the citizenship law was met with less anger, as Bucharest is pursuing its own citizenship policy with Romanians living in neighbouring Moldova.
However, Hungarian talk about expanding the law to grant voting rights to the minorities abroad have spooked even Joseph Daul, head of the centre-right European People's Party in the EU legislature, which also includes members of Mr Orban's party.
"Giving voting rights to the Hungarians abroad would be unacceptable, tantamount to not recognising the borders. The Slovaks and the Romanians will never accept that, and neither will the EPP," he said on Wednesday during a meeting with Brussels-based journalists.
"I remind that when you join the EU, the borders are fixed," he stressed, noting that among 27 member states, one country cannot do "whatever it wants."