Heaven and Hell in Hungary

The events of the past few weeks have convinced many that joining the EU was perhaps a big mistake

Prior to EU enlargement in Central and Eastern Europe, there was a joke often told in Hungary about heaven and hell in a united Europe. It went as follows:

A European Heaven: British police, French food, a German mechanic, an Italian lover, Swiss timing.

A European Hell: British food, a French mechanic, German police, Italian timing, a Swiss lover.

For some, this joke contains within it a grain of truth. Sadly, in Hungary the events of the past few weeks have convinced many that they are indeed living in a European hell, and much of this can be attributed to membership within the European Union (EU).

Statistics seem to back this up as support within Hungary for the EU declined another 2% over the past year. In fact, ever since accession to the EU support for a united Europe has been on the decline. Given the fact that only 45% of eligible voters actually voted during the referendum on EU membership, this fall in support of the EU and its institutions should be a cause for concern.

Yet government officials along with media pundits and an array of other EU cheerleaders merely pay lip service to such trends or fail to take notice of them altogether. This, in turn, further stokes the fires of resentment to the extent that a few failings of the EU has gradually metamorphosed into an outright rejection of a united Europe and all that it stands for.

In Hungary, if there is one word which can sum up the EU and what it stands for it's "garbage". Literally. Over the past few weeks the Hungarian headlines have been full of stories about rotten food imported from the EU and sold in Hungarian shops and supermarkets, including major chains such as Tesco and Auchan. A recent incident involved an Austrian company called MEGA foods. Their warehouse not only contained over 200 items which were expired or outright unfit for human consumption, but officials also found evidence of deliberate and systematic deception, whereby items had their expiration dates changed or simply covered over.

Unfortunately, such practices appear common. In a related scandal a few days later, it was revealed that a company removed the "country of origin" labels from items so as to conceal the true nature of their products. Workers at the company then explained that the stickers were removed so that the "competition" wouldn't know who their suppliers were.

The story of MEGA foods exemplifies the way in which Europe now operates in this age of globalisation and, in particular, how the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have become literal dumping grounds for garbage from the EU. MEGA foods operated in such a way that they either bought near expiration items for very cheap or were actually paid to take the items as waste. This waste was then imported into Hungary, repackaged, and then resold as "fresh" products at regular prices. These products were then offered at a discount through major supermarket chains such as Tesco and Auchan. As Hungarians are increasingly made to tighten their belts thanks to austerity measures linked to supposed "reforms", these discounts appeared to be a good deal.

Unfortunately, the food scandals which have recently erupted in Hungary is nothing new. During the past summer similar scandals occurred involving tonnes of rotten meat. Ironically, MEGA foods was implicated in some of these scandals as well. Again, this is another example of capitalism in the modern age; 50 years ago, during the Stalinist regime in Hungary people were executed under the auspices of subversion for such crimes; today, a fine is paid as the cost of doing business. It should come as little surprise, therefore, why some older people have a measure of nostalgia for the past.

There is no doubt that these problems are attributable to membership within the EU. Indeed, 99% of the rotten food in Hungary comes from outside the country. Prior to membership, Hungary had strict controls over the inspection of food being imported into the country. As a result, food scandals on the scale of today were unheard of. Nowadays, however, trucks carrying garbage across the borders pass freely without inspection as long as the originating country is another EU member state. This means what Germans and other affluent members of the EU don't want or regard as unfit for their own consumers are simply exported to the new member states of Central and Eastern Europe who, in turn, gobble up such garbage because it is "Made in Germany" or some other EU member state which used to be known for quality products.

Not only this, but as with the paprika scandal two years ago -- in where much of Hungary's emblematic product became tainted thanks to the introduction of an imported, inferior type of pepper -- countries such as Spain actually use their advantageous geographical position in order to import inferior produce from abroad, such as North Africa or South America, and then spread these products throughout the EU. Because of lax controls in such countries, bad products are able to enter the EU and then spread unimpeded, because other countries have to trust the importing member state.

This is the exact same tactic now used with cheap goods coming into Europe from Asia, notably China. With a foothold in a lax and corrupt EU member state, products which otherwise wouldn't be allowed into certain countries can now easily find their way on the store shelves. Considering that the initial concept of a European Union was to protect Europe from outside economic influence and to develop a common market, Europe today seems to be going in precisely the opposite direction.

At this point, it's easy to put the blame on the Hungarians and other Central and Eastern Europeans who import the garbage into their countries. Again, however, this is the gist of globalisation. Thanks to a decade and a half of preparation for membership to the EU, where most of the country's key industries, infrastructure, and shops were sold or destroyed for the sake of "competition" and conforming to EU norms (which, ironically, most of the original 15 member states have yet to fulfill), most of the importers of garbage to Central and Eastern Europe aren't from the region itself. Thus, it's hard to find fault with Hungarian consumers when the shops and importers are all foreign owned in the first place.

Yet the problem with garbage from Europe isn't limited to just food, but actual garbage. This past week it has been revealed that tonnes of garbage from Germany was imported into Hungary by private individuals who didn't have a permit to import waste. This once again raises the question of the region being used as a literal dumping ground. Moreover, it undermines the concept of open borders as within Europe it's now possible to move bales of garbage from one country to another – via several other countries -- without any form of control whatsoever.

In addition to all this, there is the problem of pollution. In Hungary, pollution from Austria is a big problem as Austrian industries deliberately locate themselves close to the Hungarian border so that either air pollution or waste dumped into a river then makes its way to the other side. Pollution in the Raba river, which over the past five years or so has been caused by Austrian companies, is a case in point. More recently, an incinerator was located close to the border where the dominant winds blow into Hungary.

Such tactics by companies and officials from across the border play into the propaganda spewed by countries such as Austria on how "clean and green" they are, when in reality they are just as dirty as all the rest. Meanwhile, official protests from Hungary have been lost in the maze of bureaucracy and nuances of diplomatic language. Yet for the people living near the border and along the affected waterways, all this simply reflects what Europe really stands for.

The end result of all this can already be seen on many levels, including the overall health of the population. In Hungary, diseases have become more rampant. Salmonella is twice the European average and there are frequent outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as hepatitis.

Of course, the increased prevalence of diseases can't be solely attributed to the dumping of bad food, the import of waste, and the increase in pollution from the EU. Still, these aspects of a globalised Europe don't help either. Not only this, but considering that the spread of mad cow disease a decade ago was exasperated in large part by the relative free flow of goods across borders, the present food scandals in Hungary should serve as a warning to eurocrats in Brussels. Unless these warnings are heeded, not only will the health of European consumers be increasingly at risk, but the very existence of a united Europe as well. (John Horvath)