MARTIN FLETCHERHungary frustrated as talks stall
July 26 2000
BUDAPEST - In his sunny office in a leafy residential street in Budapest, Miklos Vasarhelyi, Hungary's "Forrest Gump", recounts the story of his remarkable life.
Mr Vasarhelyi, 83, has witnessed all the key events in his country's turbulent 20th century. A keen enthusiast of Hungary's membership of the European Union, he gives a warning that the alternative to EU enlargement is the "Balkanisation" of Central Europe.
He wants to illustrate why Hungary is so eager to join the EU, but whether he lives to see that day looks increasingly doubtful. Faced with the momentous challenge of uniting Europe for the first time since the Holy Roman Empire, the West's wealthy nations are dithering.
In his lifetime Mr Vasarhelyi has experienced monarchy, dictatorship, fascism, communism, capitalism and democracy.
Mr Vasarhelyi, president of the Soros Foundation, was born as the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed in 1918 at the end of the First World War and grew up under the dictatorship of Admiral Miklos Horthy. He fought with the resistance when Hitler occupied Hungary in 1944. When Hungary rebelled against the Soviet invasion in 1956, Mr Vasarhelyi was imprisoned for his role as the rebel government's spokesman. In 1989 he organised the reburial and political rehabilitation of that Government's executed leader, Imre Nagy - an event that attracted vast crowds and heralded communism's collapse. Finally, in liberated Hungary, he was elected an MP.
Today he believes that only EU membership can lock Hungary and its neighbours securely into the West and guarantee their long-term stability. He said: "The future is never sure. It has to be assured. We must grab this opportunity." The alternative would be the gradual "Balkanisation" of the region.
George Krall, a Budapest shop owner, said: "[The EU] play badly with us to say: 'OK, two more years, four more years, five more years.' We feel like second-hand people. We are tired of waiting."
Hungarians insist that historically their country's place is at the heart of Europe, but they suspect that France and Germany are stalling the enlargement process until after their 2002 elections, that poorer EU members see the applicant countries merely as rivals for EU handouts and that Hungary will be made to wait at least until Poland meets membership criteria.
Hungary has done more to implement the painful economic and social reforms required for EU membership than any of its former communist allies. Three quarters of its exports now go to EU countries and multinational companies have flooded into the country.
Six years after it formally applied for EU membership, that goal keeps receding. The EU has promised to be ready to accept new members by 2003, but nobody believes it.
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister who led the anti-Soviet revolt in 1989, said: "In 1990 we [heard] Hungary may become an EU member around 1995; in 1995 it turned out we may be an EU member around 2000. Now in 2000 it comes out that we may join in 2005. We are well-trained and educated in disappointment."