Recent developments in Budapest and Bratislava could quickly end in blood and tears: in the secession of southern Slovakia (where the majority of the population are ethnic Hungarians) or the disappearance of the country's Hungarian minority. The amendment to the law on citizenship that Fidesz, the party of Hungary's newly elected prime minister, Viktor Orbán, hurried to present before the first session of the country's new parliament, is not in itself a cause for concern. It has a lot in common with standard legislation in most other European states. But viewed in the context of other projects that have already been announced, which aim to create a unified national space and encourage the full participation of Hungarians in nearby states in the political and economic life of the country, it amounts to a potentially explosive measure. This is not only a threat to the Hungarian-Slovak region but also a menace to the entire Carpathian Basin, and to the European Union.

Parallels with Georgia

What is at issue is an attempt to use, or rather abuse, the European Union to redraw current national boundaries so as to restore Budapest's sphere of influence which, according to Viktor Orbán's plans, should include 15 million Hungarians — five million more than the number of people currently residing in the state — in a context where interstate boundaries theoretically no longer exist within the framework of the Schengen area. The new Hungarian government is not advocating an end to interstate borders but rather acting to reinforce ethnic borders, which is much more advantageous policy for Budapest. By proposing to distribute Hungarian passports to citizens in other states and by offering them, or so it is alleged, the right to vote in Hungary, Orbán intends to link the region's Hungarian minorities to Budapest. The goal is to establish a new status quo: through the creation of a geographic space that will include Hungary, southern Slovakia, the Serbian province of Voivodina and part of Transylvania. The resulting space will remain under the de jure control of different national governments, but de facto it will be jointly managed by Hungary and the three states that currently own these territories: Slovakia, Serbia and Roumania.

There is no denying the parallel between this situation and the one that prevailed before the war in Georgia, and in particular with events at the end of the summer of 2008, when almost all of the inhabitants of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were suddenly issued with Russian passports. However, there are also a number of key differences. Relations between the Hungarian minorities and the states where they live are not marked by the high level of hostility that prevailed in Abkhazia and Ossetia. At the same time, the Hungarian army cannot reasonably be compared with the Russian army, or even the Romanian army.

Nationalism still has the upper hand

When evaluated from the point of view of a certain geopolitical concept of Hungary, the plans of Viktor Orbán and his government have all the trappings of a retreat presented as a victory. In the 1990s, Hungary still had ambitions to become the natural centre and the main economic and political force in the "Carpathian Bassin" — the pre-1918 term that was applied to the territory of the Kingdom of Hungary. Between the wars, Hungarian loyalists aspired to re-establish Hungary's leadership within the territory of the ancient kingdom, and to a certain extent to restore the borders of this territory, in as much as it constitutes a naturally contiguous geographic and economic area. However, modern-day Hungary, which in economic terms has fallen behind Slovakia, has very little to offer the citizens of neighbouring states. Now that Budapest has lost its economic attractiveness, it is attempting to play on ethnic and cultural affinities. In response to this approach, Slovakia has not displayed the self-confidence that you might expect from a state with a significant economic advantage, but has also resorted with harsh measures and ethnically based threats against its Hungarian minority.

Many commentators have emphasized the role of the European Union in defusing this difficult situation. They believe that the EU and NATO, both of which include Hungary and the majority of states on its borders, will act as a safeguard against a degeneration into ethnic strife and armed conflict. However, I am not convinced. The European Union, which has its roots in a certain idealistic notion of soft power and the assumption of a certain level of democracy and political elitism, has yet to transcend its original mandate as a community of nation states. It also lacks appropriate tools to neutralise the current Hungarian-Slovakian conflict, which has the potential to spread across the Balkans. The mechanisms for negotiation and coercion that Brussels can bring to bear have a limited operational effectiveness, which highlights the enduring weakness of the EU as a supranational community without any real power. Nationalism, or as Eurosceptics would put it, nation states, still have the upper hand with in the European Union, which is why disputes of this kind may still result in wholly unexpected consequences.