The EU's draft budget has been seen in the Visegrad countries as a perversion of fundamental European principles. And yet, Boris Kalnoky believes, people in Central and Eastern Europe have remained remarkably calm.
At the height of the Greek mass protests against austerity measures due to the Eurozone crisis, I asked a young Greek woman why she was so outraged. It was 2011.
She said she was angry because she would lose her pension. I thought I had misheard her, because she was only 36 years old. But it was true: she received a monthly, four-figure orphan's pension because her father had died and she was not married and not working. She was also not intending to marry her partner, otherwise she would lose her pension. She expected me to show compassion and solidarity, and the EU to waive Greece's national debt without cutbacks.
Read more: What you need to know about the EU budget
But, coming from Hungary, I could not understand how people who had so much could complain so much. Or how a state that had no money could be so generous on credit. In my homeland and in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, we were earning an average of €500 ($598) a month, if we worked hard. And somehow the state still wasn't totally in debt.
During the discussions in Brussels about various rescue packages for Greece, the then-prime minister of Slovakia said that it was not possible to explain to the people in his country why they, who earned much less and received fewer social benefits than the Greeks, should contribute money.
First the values, then the money
The EU Commission now has something similar in mind. It wants to take money away from countries like Hungary, Slovakia or Poland that are relatively poor but have solid economies, to give to richer but more irresponsible countries like Greece, Italy or Spain. It is a perversion of European basic principles to think that economic convergence will also bring about a convergence in societal values. But it should now be reversed: first societal values, then the money.
Guy Verhofstadt, EU parliament's coordinator for Brexit, has insisted that EU money is tied to European values
Instead of supporting countries with the lowest GDP values as in the past, funds should, in future, be allocated in accordance with "rule of law standards" and "solidarity" in the refugee crisis. Guy Verhofstadt, head of the Liberals in the EU Parliament, got a bit out of control on Twitter, writing: "No money without respect for European values!” He has repeatedly named Hungarian Prime Minister Orban as one of those against whom the reform plan is obviously directed. Orban's response in his weekly radio interview, was: "Hold your horses! There will be no budget without Hungary's consent anyway."
Leverage against the successful
Poland, Hungary and the other former Eastern bloc countries have done enormous catching-up work since joining the EU. This is partly thanks to EU funds. But above all it is because, like Germany, they operate on a sound basis, at least under their current governments. In Hungary, national debt has fallen from 82 percent to 70 percent since 2010. Since 2004, the national product has grown from 50 percent of the EU average to just under 70 percent. Slovakia and especially the Czech Republic are even closer to the EU average. Since 2012, Central and Eastern European economies have been growing more dynamically than in the rest of the EU. At some point these countries will be net contributors to the union, not beggars anymore.
In this respect, the cohesion funds will lose importance in the medium term. In any case, nobody in the region wants to live permanently off the money from Germans and other net contributors, unlike those in the sunnier Mediterranean countries.
As far as money is concerned, the debate is being taken relatively calmly here. It is seen as the EU's attempt to alleviate the ongoing Eurozone crisis by helping the money burners in southern Europe with even more funds. And as an attempt to put pressure on countries like Hungary or Poland.
This is because, it is said, these countries violate EU values and jeopardize the EU's cohesion as a whole. Or, from a Hungarian or Polish point of view, because these countries dare repeatedly to ask the essential questions. Is it sensible to let so many migrants into Europe? Does it make sense to want to distribute them everywhere? Does it make sense to want increasingly to extort sovereignty from nation states?
Less EU money can also be an advantage
Hungary's left-wing liberal government, which was in power from 2002 to 2010, economically ruined the country, but it was always good at parroting European slogans: more solidarity, more Europe. The economic mismanagement at that time would probably be rewarded with generous structural aid, according to the rules that have now been proposed. The more economically sensible Orban administration, on the other hand, is likely to be punished by the withdrawal of funds.
But fine, things are not as bad as they seem and in the end a compromise will probably be reached that won't hurt anyone. Incidentally, like many Hungarians, I hope that the EU will withdraw the money from us as planned. It would drastically minimize the EU's influence, reduce the very real and problematic corruption, force the economy to become more innovative and efficient, and accelerate the overall emancipation process of Central Europeans within the EU. Sometimes less is more.
Boris Kalnoky, born in 1961, is a Hungarian correspondent based in Budapest for the daily newspaper Die Welt and other German-language media. He is the author of the book "Ahnenland" ("Ancestral Land”) (Droemer 2011), in which he follows in the footsteps of his ancestors, among others the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Foreign Minister Gustav Kalnoky.