Ugocsa Non Coronat: the Visegradation of the European Union

There is an apocryphal story about a meeting of the representatives of Hungarian noblemen in 1527. These representatives had gathered  to elect the new king Hungary, Ferdinand I, in a time of national crisis. The Ottoman empire had won a key battle at Mohacs and was threatening to conquer all of Hungary. Each nobleman a their vote for the new Habsburg king, until the representative of the smallest county in Hungary, Ugocsa (now in Ukraine) awaited his turn to raise his voice and say:

Ugocsa non Coronat.

In other words: Ugocsa does not crown. The representative from the smallest and poorest province felt confident in throwing a wrench in the proceedings in a time of national crisis based on the principle that was codified as the liberum veto in neighbouring Poland. The premise is that since all noblemen are equal, all decisions have to be unanimous. The Polish legislature, the Sejm, met 150 times between 1573 and 1763. A third of them failed to pass legislation.

A few hundred years later, Poland and Hungary, two of the smaller and poorer states within the 27 state European Union, have successfully used the threat of a veto of an essential pandemic budget to win key concessions from the European Union. Of course, that is only one of many examples of backroom deals in EU history. But given how Western commentators (including Politico)  seem to think that Poland and Hungary are punching above their weight, it is worth putting things into historical context.

Many in the West tend to assume that the “illiberal” tendencies of Poland and Hungary have to do with some sort of regression to an eastern despotic authoritarian history. The exact opposite is true. Unlike in the absolutist (pre-revolutionary) French, Spanish or Russian states, the aristocracies of the two countries were successful in imposing limits to the power of the king. The Hungarian Golden Bull of 1222 is similar in content and spirit as the English Magna Carta of 1215. But in Hungary and Poland, the balance of power between the king and the aristocracy shifted further towards the aristocracy. In Francis Fukuyama’s words, in his excellent book The Origins of Political Order:

In Poland and Hungary the estates were victorious over the monarch, creating weak central authorities dominated by rapacious elites. [The King] remained weak and unable to protect the interests of the peasantry from the noble class.

In other words, the Hungarian and Polish states have been historically places where the veto power of privileged social groups have prevented despotism, but also hindered collective action. The worst excesses of authoritarianism and absolutism were avoided. It is no coincidence that Hungary was known as the happiest barrack during communist times. But a weak central authority may be unable to deal with existential challenges. Poland was effectively divided up between her neighbours in the late 18th century.

How is this relevant to the European Union? It is possible that the cynical instincts required to come to power as a politician in Hungary or Poland, where the central authority has historically been weak and the local elites have a habit of putting their interests over those of the collective, are highly adaptive in corridors of Brussels. If that is the case, the 2004 enlargement has led less to the Westernisation of the East, as many hoped but rather the Easternisation of the European Union.

This should worry those who root for the European Union. It is no coincidence that Fukuyama uses Poland and Hungary as archetypical “failed” oligarchic states. Whether the same fate will befall the EU remains to be seen. But we do know what the protests of Ugocsa’s representative lead to. A bitter struggle between two contenders for the crown, Ferdinand I and John Zápolya, ensued. John Zápolya was also busy putting down a rebellious peasant volunteer army on behalf of the oligarchy, a peasant army which had originally been raised to crusade against the Ottomans. The result of this infighting was a pyrrhic victory for Ferdinand, for while he was eventually recognised king, the Ottomans used the power vacuum to take over most of Hungary. The occupation lasted 150 years.