Hungary’s Moral Outrage at EU Regulations: Q&A with Zsuzsa Gille

Framing the Global Fellow Zsuzsa Gille recently discussed with us her book Paprika, Foie Gras, and Red Mud: The Politics of Materiality in the European Union, published by IU Press.

In the book, Zsuzsa Gille examines three scandals that have shaken Hungary since joining the European Union: the 2004 ban on paprika due to contamination, the 2008 boycott of Hungarian foie gras by Austrian animal rights activists, and the “red mud” spill of 2010, Hungary’s worst environmental disaster. Gille analyzes how practices of production and consumption were affected by the proliferation of new standards and regulations that came with entry into the EU. She identifies a new modality of power—the materialization of politics, or achieving political goals with the seemingly apolitical tools of tinkering with technology and infrastructure—and elucidates a new approach to understanding globalization, materiality, and transnational politics.

Zsuzsa Gille is Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is author of From the Cult of Waste to the Trash Heap of History: The Politics of Waste in Socialist and Postsocialist Hungary (IUP, 2007), editor (with Maria Todorova) of Post-Communist Nostalgia, and author (with Michael Burawoy et al.) of Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections and Imaginations in a Postmodern World.

Zach Vaughn: You cover three main issues in Hungary—paprika ban, foie gras boycott, and red mud spill—that captured people’s imaginations. These scandals, if I may, reminded me of Castells’ work on scandal politics and how people rise up against government or state policies when they feel that their culture is being torn away. What about these three incidents captured the imagination of people in Hungary? Why were they so invested in the protest against the EU?

Zsuzsa Gille: Castells’ take on scandal politics is fairly limited because it is primarily about personal issues or failings. Other kinds of scandals actually affect people, and this tends to be more visceral, more tangible than say an extramarital affair. So, it’s not necessarily a narrowing of politics, in Castells’ sense. For me scandals arise when there is a certain expectation for how things will go for a nation, a society, a sector of the economy. When those expectations are violated there tends to be a public outcry. It’s about incidents and cases that reveal something that was previously hidden. One could approach this from personal failings or corruption on the part of individuals in government, but that isn’t necessarily the scandal that stemmed from each of the three incidents. The scandal was that the people of Hungary did all the right things and they were misled. In that sense, perhaps moral outrage would be a better way to think of the scandals and the reaction to those. The media was saturated with coverage of the events to the point that one couldn’t avoid talking about the ban, the boycott, and the spill.

ZV: So the distinction you make is that instead of focusing on the individual, as Castells does, it would perhaps be better to explore state policy and broad societal issues from the government down to everyday life?

ZG: Right, and an equivalent example to my case studies is the Flint, Michigan water crisis. This was something that affected the lives of the people of Flint and the life outcomes of the children poisoned by lead. It became a scandal to the extent that there, too, citizen rights and expectations have been violated. It is a basic right to have access to safe drinking water, and that expectation produced a scandal once the contamination levels came to light. Again, we could look at this from corruption or greed on the individual level, but that wasn’t necessarily the source of the scandal in the first place.

gillecoverZV: Thinking about the scandals in Hungary, what role did the country’s desire to go into the EU play in all this? How did the EU’s expectations as a supranational organization exacerbate these incidents?

ZG: While some predicted some of the complications Hungary ended up experiencing, it was difficult to see the extent to which imposed rules and regulations would affect Hungarian economic sectors as a whole. The EU had this view of Eastern Europe and Hungary as not having any regulation, that it was a kind of “wild West” on issues of environment, food safety, and other areas. This prevented the EU members from seeing Hungarian policies as simply being different rather than nonexistent.

ZV: In what way did this perception of Hungary as a “wild West” of governmental policy affect the implementation of EU policies?

ZG: It seems to be a question of hierarchies. The EU perception led to an expectation that Hungary needed to adopt regulations from outside because of misconception that either Hungary doesn’t have regulation or that those regulations are so loose. This led them to the position that Hungary should adopt the standards of the EU rather than allowing Hungary to proceed with its own. In the book I talk about how Hungary’s environmental safety regulations were in many ways stricter than the ones adopted from the EU. Instead of seeing these policies as something that the EU could build on, they made Hungary scrap their policies even when they did work relatively well. For example, to some extent the red mud disaster was made possible by the temporary legal blindspot resulting from scrapping the old regulations and the incomplete and delayed implementation of the new ones.

ZV: How does globalization render some aspects of the case studies you explore of Hungary’s ascension into the EU invisible yet render other aspects highly visible?

ZG: One of the things I get at in the book is that it matters what we think globalization is. If we think of globalization as this ever increasing permeability of borders and the circulation of people, goods, and capital—we tend to limit our attention to the phenomena. This means we aren’t focusing on what makes those phenomena possible in the first place. They remain hidden because we focus on the symptoms not on the policies and procedures that led to the phenomena. One of the things that makes globalization possible is the role of the state. For instance, in order for things to circulate the state has to make a conscious effort to do away with import/export duties.

ZV: In what ways does the state’s role in this affect, say, the paprika ban after it was discovered that imported South American peppers tainted the supply with aflatoxin?

ZG: Hungary was doing fine, and its paprika was safe until its obligation arising from its EU membership. It had to end its import duty on peppers from other countries. When they ended the import duties it made paprika relatively cheap, while also eliminating border inspections on imported peppers. That is globalization, but it wasn’t an automatic process. There have to be certain conditions in place for those things we associate with globalization to happen in the first place. Which makes us question who benefits from all free trade?

ZV: Who does, or doesn’t, benefit from free trade?

Everything paprika at Budapest Central Market (Photo by moz278. Flickr Creative Commons.)

Everything paprika at Budapest Central Market (Photo by moz278. Flickr Creative Commons.

ZG: Small farmers are usually left out of this because they cannot compete with larger corporations and producers. This is because those larger businesses have the production technologies in place that allow them to implement Western regulation. This often results in an additional burden in Eastern European countries because they have to reform their standards and practices. “Free competition” doesn’t benefit everyone equally. It creates winners and losers. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have regulation. However, we need to have more open discussion about whose regulatory standard and which safety certificates will be upscaled to the national and supranational level.

ZV: What’s globalization like for these small farmers?

ZG: My goal has always been to bring light to how people who often have no say in the processes of globalization. This is why I think Framing the Global Fellow Rachel Harvey’s work on the global particular is so important. I can go down the street and ask “what do you think about globalization?” I’ll get a blank stare. But, if I ask “what do you think about what types of dairy products you can get in the supermarket?” That immediately drives it home. They realize and express how the local products of Hungary are often phased out of the markets. My ambition is to at least express what it is like for them to experience globalization, even though they would never call it as such. That’s why these scandals are important. They are fulcrum points where things become so clear after being hidden. The paprika ban exemplified how EU rules and regulations negatively affected the Hungarian economy in a way that many often didn’t notice before.

ZV: Obviously, there is much turmoil regarding the EU and Brexit and other issues. Does the moral outrage toward these regulations look differently now in Hungary, or is it more or less the same?

ZG:  Much of what is going on with the EU now captures these same sorts of issues I focus on in the book. It’s not that Hungarian agriculture as a whole is a victim. Who remained on top, and who had to leave, is most telling about what the EU has done. It’s ironic because the EU has talked about a vision of capitalism with a human face. That still led to hundreds of thousands of people having to leave agriculture because they couldn’t make a livelihood anymore. Some have criticized me for being nationalistic, but for me it is about a particular class of people in Hungary rather than about Hungary as a nation-state. In a way Brexit, too, was fueled by class grievances.

ZV: Can you elaborate on the materiality of production as it relates to regulations imposed by the EU on Hungary?

ZG: How we used to regulate something occurred in a different order. For instance, red mud causes environmental problems so we’re going to regulate producers to contain the by-product in some way. The government made the regulation, and the regulatory body and producers sought ways to implement the environmental standards. Now the EU regulates the productions process in a very detailed manner, which introduces greater economic hardships than leaving the environmental technology up to the producers. In the case of red mud, they decided that Hungary shouldn’t produce a by-product that is above a certain threshold of alkalinity. So, they prescribed a certain materiality by demanding a new production process. Who can stay in business then becomes a matter of a seemingly neutral technological decision, which of course requires no public negotiation and political and economic interests remain hiden. Many people in Hungary, and those voting for Brexit, voice exactly this sense of the game being rigged.

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