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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Central Issue for the EU

Fifty years ago Soviet tanks entered Budapest. The commemoration of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 should have been both a somber and a celebratory moment for Europe. Hungary is now free, democratic and a member of the European Union. But ask many Western European politicians about political events in Central Europe and you will find that the mood is one of concern rather than celebration.

The fact that Monday's ceremonies in Budapest degenerated into a running battle between anti-government protesters and police will only strengthen those anxieties.

For as Gyorgy Schopflin, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament, points out: "The political scene in Hungary is quite extraordinarily polarized." The opposition and the government staged separate ceremonies to commemorate the 1956 uprising. The Hungarian opposition accuses the government of being corrupt former communists who have never atoned for the Soviet era; the government tars the opposition as fascist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic. Western Europeans watch, confused and disconcerted.

Hungary's instability is by no means unique in Central Europe. The governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia -- the four biggest countries to join the EU in 2004 -- are unstable and fractious. Populist politicians are on the rise and their inflammatory statements are widely reported across Europe. Old conflicts and ideologies -- once assumed to be safely locked away in the attic of history -- are on display again. Some Western European politicians are beginning to whisper that liberal, democratic norms are under threat in Central Europe. They wonder aloud: What is to be done?

The Hungarian political situation captures the combination of the silly and the sinister that now threatens to define the image of Central Europe. The world's media delighted in a leaked tape from Ferenc Gyurcsany, the prime minister, in which he confessed to lying "morning, noon and night" to secure his re-election. But the violent demonstrations in Budapest last month that followed these revelations were less amusing. For a brief period, the Hungarian government looked like it might be felled by the riots -- which are not the sort of thing that is meant to happen inside the staid and stable EU.

The political situations in Poland and Slovakia have also provoked a mixture of mockery and hand-wringing elsewhere in Europe.

Poland currently has identical twins -- Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski -- as president and prime minister, respectively. One Warsaw-based journalist sighs that when he rings his editors he is greeted by the inquiry: "And how are things in Ruritania?" Meanwhile in Slovakia the leader of one of the governing parties, Jan Slota, has talked of dealing with gypsies with a "long whip in a small yard" and of flattening Budapest with a tank. Andrzej Lepper, who has just been reinstated as Poland's deputy prime minister, has spoken favorably of some of the world's most dubious leaders -- from Saddam Hussein to Alexander Lukashenko.

One senior EU diplomat says: "The kinds of things some of these Central European politicians say are far worse than anything Haider ever said." It is a provocative comparison since the success of J?rg Haider's far-right Freedom party in joining the Austrian government in 2000 prompted other EU governments temporarily to sever diplomatic ties with Austria.

So should Western European governments be "doing something" about Central Europe? If so, what can they do? Some in Brussels argue that, since the EU proclaims itself a "union of values," it should indeed be reacting more vigorously to events in Central Europe. But they lament that the EU has little leverage over Central European countries -- now that they have safely joined the Union. This is wrong on both counts. There are plenty of things the rest of the EU could do if there were a genuine threat to democracy in Central Europe. But, so far, events there fall well short of this description.

The rise of politicians such as Slota and Lepper, while distasteful and damaging to their own countries, does not reflect a big swing in the public mood. Nationalists and populists have been getting votes in Central Europe ever since communism fell in 1989. That they are now part of coalition governments in Poland and Slovakia reflects those countries' complicated party politics, rather than a serious radicalization of politics.

For the moment, most of the political offences committed in Central Europe have been more in the realm of rhetoric than reality. There has been no sign of Slota actually boarding a tank bound for Budapest. Members of Poland's ruling coalition have said offensive things about homosexuals and banned a gay march. But gay bars remain open in Warsaw -- President Kaczynski has even kindly invited the foreign press to visit them. Even Lepper has startled his colleagues at the EU's agriculture council by speaking cogently -- rather than wiping his boots on the tablecloth. (Mind you, since Lepper's main job is to accept a large check for Polish agriculture, it should not be too hard to behave well.)

Western Europe has evolved its own contemporary version of motherhood and apple pie -- gay rights and green politics. But breaching the standards for politically correct speech in Western Europe is one thing. A real threat to democratic institutions or human rights would be quite another, and it should not be too hard to distinguish between the two.

If such a threat were to emerge, the governments of the EU have tools they could use. All the Central European members will be big recipients of financial aid from the rest of the EU for many years to come. If the democratic nature of their institutions were ever thrown into doubt, the EU would have every right (legal and moral) to start withholding billions in financial aid. And -- in extremis -- the other EU governments could vote to remove the voting rights of a country that had genuinely strayed from the democratic straight and narrow.

Such powers, however, should be exercised with extreme caution. The values that the EU is pledged to defend are the same as those that animated the Hungarian uprising. Foremost among them is a nation's right to democratic self-government. For that reason, the older EU members would be right to think long and hard before throwing their weight around with the elected governments of Central Europe.

Gideon Rachman is a columnist for the Financial Times, where this comment was published.