"Virtual" Nationalism: The Dual Citizenship Debate in Hungary and the New EU Border
January 12, 2005
Staff-prepared summary of the EES discussion with Zsuzsa Csergo, Assistant Professor of Political Science, George Washington University

On December 5, 2004, a referendum was held in Hungary to determine the public's attitude toward what was becoming a highly politicized initiative in Parliament: preferential naturalization procedures for granting dual citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living abroad. The idea was to give Hungarians living abroad the opportunity to benefit from Hungarian social services and potentially the benefits associated with EU citizenship. But it was also interpreted as revealing the irredentist tendencies of the FIDESZ party.
Zsuzsa Csergo found this debate rather peculiar since it was reminiscent of debates throughout Central and East Europe in the early 1990s, when state-building was just beginning, yet it came after EU accession, when most observers thought the country was well beyond nationalism. Indeed, conventional wisdom dictates that democratization "cures" nationalism. Moreover tolerance and the protection of national minorities was a leading condition for EU accession. Therefore, what can account for this peculiar turn in Hungarian politics?
Csergo explained that irredentism stems from a mismatch between cultural and political borders of the nation state. The EU lessens the anxiety some people feel about this mismatch, primarily by reducing the impact of political borders between member states, for example by creating a regime that allows free movement of goods and labor across borders. But there remains an expectation within a culture to be able to reproduce itself. Cultural reproduction is something that the EU is not well equipped to address, due in large part to the inability of the EU member states to reach a consensus on this thorny issue. Thus, the EU leaves matters such as education, cultural reproduction and naturalization procedures squarely within the sovereignty of the nation state.
There is a long history of so-called "kin-state" policies (such as those included in the Hungarian referendum) throughout Europe. For example, Austria and Ireland have long supported nationals living abroad by offering simplified naturalization procedures and other benefits. There is case law from Venice Commission (which reviews constitutionality of legislation for the Council of Europe) on the topic of kin-state policies, which replicates the principles for national minority protections. It found that kin-state policies were allowable when states first exhaust any opportunity to work bilaterally with at the neighboring country, since the state of residence is primarily responsible for caring for minorities residing on its territory. International organizations and kin states are responsible for monitoring whether or not minorities are protected within a state. If a kin state finds that conditions are unacceptable for its nationals living abroad and attempts to reach a solution bilaterally have been exhausted, that state may introduce kin-state policies.
Csergo stressed that despite the legal possibility to adopt kin-state policies, such policies lack political salience in many countries. From this perspective, the referendum could be seen as a test of the political salience of irredentism in Hungary. Ultimately, the vitriolic debate and policy of misinformation and propaganda led to mass opt-outs within the electorate: only 37 percent of eligible voters participated and, of that number, 51.5 percent voted in favor of the policies, which reflected only 18 percent of the electorate, missing the 25 percent in favor required for a referendum to pass. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that this issue will be dropped, since Viktor Orban and his party seem determined to support kin state policies in the future through other means.