Article by Stefan Messmann in FAMILY CIRCLE WEEKLY/ CSALÁDI KÖR, 28 December, 2017. Page 16-17.

Elemér Hantos’s Theory of European integration--Still Relevant Today?

I am speaking with a genuine Elemér Hantos expert, the French Ph.D. student Gabriel Godeffroy, who is currently writing his Ph.D. thesis at the Paris-Sorbonne University on the Central European and European integration proposals of Elemér Hantos during the interwar period. The descendants of Elemér Hantos set up the Mitteleuropa-Stiftung in Zürich, which is supporting Mr. Godeffroy’s studies as well as those of many other students in Central and Eastern Europe. The Foundation also annually awards the Dr. Elemér Hantos Prize “to a person, persons or organisation for outstanding achievement in promoting Economic Cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe”. Among the recipients of the Dr. Elemér Hantos Prize are Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, George Soros, György Konrád and Goran Svilanović. I am going to ask him several questions in order to better understand Elemér Hantos’s proposals for European integration.

Who was Elemér Hantos?

Elemér Hantos was born in Budapest on November 12, 1880. After studying law and political science at the University of Budapest, he entered politics and later embraced a career in academia. Hantos became a member of the Hungarian parliament for the National Party of Work [Nemzeti Munkapárt] in 1910 and was appointed Secretary of State at the Hungarian Ministry of Trade in 1917. He started to teach at the University of Budapest in 1917 and became a professor of Finance in 1929. Elemér Hantos began to work as an economic expert for the League of Nations in 1924.

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, Elemér Hantos dedicated his life to economic rapprochement in Central Europe. Hantos published numerous books and articles in several languages about his proposal for Central European integration. To promote this project, he participated in the founding of the Central European Economic Conference [Mitteleuropäische Wirtschaftstagung] in Vienna in 1925, where the economic situation in Central Europe was annually discussed, and created research institutes, the Central Europe Institutes [Mitteleuropa-Institute], in Vienna, Brno, Budapest and Geneva between 1929 and 1930.

As a founding member of the European Customs Union [Europäischer Zollverein] in 1925 and of the Hungarian section of the Paneuropean Union of Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi in 1926, Elemér Hantos was also a great promoter of European integration.

How would you summarize his ideas?

During the interwar period, Elemér Hantos promoted Central European integration as a way to address the economic problems of the successor states of the Hapsburg monarchy. Hantos proposed recreating the economic area of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, without restoring the pre-war political order.

Elemér Hantos also developed a regional approach to European integration. Neighbouring countries, sharing common economic and cultural interests, would benefit from amalgamating their national economies to become regional groups, before merging into an economic, and later political, community covering the whole of Europe.

What was Hantos’s concept of Central European economic integration?

The Central European Economic Community advocated by Elemér Hantos relied on five pillars: monetary policy, trade policy, transport and communications policy, agricultural policy and industrial policy. First, Elemér Hantos aimed to stabilise the Central European currencies by establishing a monetary system with fixed exchange rates or even a single currency. Second, Hantos wanted to create a single market in Central Europe, which he wanted to perfect by standardizing the different Central European railway, river and postal systems and creating transnational institutions. Specifically, Hantos imagined a Central European transnational organisation for the sale of agricultural products. Additionally, Hantos supported private sector initiatives, including lobbies, cartels and other interest groups, which would be overseen by an independent body.

What was Hantos’s definition of Central Europe?

During World War I, Central Europe was composed of Austria-Hungary and Germany. At that time, Elemér Hantos proposed a trade alliance between the two Central European powers. After World War I and the reorganisation of Central Europe by the peace treaties, the paradigm changed. As a result, Elemér Hantos’s definition of Central Europe expanded to the South and the East and was composed of Germany, the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy (Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania, to a certain extent also Poland and Italy) and Bulgaria.

When imagining his Central European Economic Community, Elemér Hantos did not entirely rely on geography. Elemér Hantos wanted to recreate the economic area of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, extended to the new borders of the successor states. The geographical core was composed by Austria, Hungary and the Little Entente (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania).

Elemér Hantos wished to exclude Germany, Italy and Poland in order to avoid the hegemony of one of the Central European big powers. His goal was not to systematically and categorically exclude Germany, Italy or Poland, but to economically stabilize the successor states by avoiding the economic domination of the Central European great powers. For Hantos, the successor states had first to integrate economically before negotiating an enlarged Central European community with Germany, Italy or Poland as equal partners, which was in line with his first idea of Central European economic cooperation during World War I.

How was his theory of Central European integration viewed by the Central European countries at the time?

During the interwar period, the priority of the Hungarian government was the revision of the Treaty of Trianon signed in 1920. Hungary lost two thirds of its territory; hence, important Hungarian-speaking populations lived outside the new borders. The Hungarian government did not agree to participate in a Central European community, since this would have meant the de facto confirmation of the borders imposed by the Treaty of Trianon.

After World War I, Austria was divided over the question of the annexation of Austria by Germany. The Austrian government was fighting against the Anschluss and, therefore found the ideas of Elemér Hantos appealing because he was advocating a Central European community without the participation of Germany. But the Austrian government could not stop the takeover by Nazi Germany in 1938.

Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania created the Little Entente in 1920. This political, military and later economic alliance was formed to protect their newly acquired independence. Therefore, the governments of the Little Entente remained sceptical towards Elemér Hantos’s Central European integration project, because they were afraid it might be a hidden plan to restore the pre-war political order of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which would have jeopardized their independence.

And what was the reaction to his proposal for Central European integration outside the Central European countries, for example in Germany and France?

During the interwar period, Elemér Hantos was considered an enemy by the German government, because he wanted to exclude Germany from his Central European Economic Community and because he was against the annexation of Austria by Germany. Later, the government of Nazi Germany tried actively to silence Hantos because of his opposition to the merger between Germany and Austria. Shortly before the Anschluss, Hantos was no longer allowed to publish in Germany.

To avoid an increase in the influence of Germany in Central Europe and especially to counter the rapprochement between Germany and Austria, the French government became more and more interested in the ideas of Elemér Hantos. In 1932, the French Prime Minister André Tardieu used Hantos’s ideas and proposed his Danubian plan, without the participation of Germany, commonly known as Tardieu-plan, which failed because of the hostility of Germany, Italy and Austria.

What about Hantos’s regional approach to European integration?

The economic unification of Central Europe was only the first step of a broader plan for European integration. Elemér Hantos connected his idea of a Central European community to the pan-European project of Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi. According to Hantos, Paneuropa had to grow gradually through regional groups, whose member countries had decided to unify because of their common economic and cultural interests.

The grouping of Central European countries, historically, culturally and economically linked, would have been the first step towards Paneuropa. In a second phase, other regional groups could have emerged, such as a Western bloc, comprising France, Germany, Belgium and Luxemburg, and a Baltic group with Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Then, these regional groups could have merged into an economic, and later political, community covering Europe as a whole. The originality of Elemér Hantos’s European integration project relies in his regional approach, focused on Central Europe, as the starting point of European integration.

Why are the ideas of Hantos almost unknown today?

Elemér Hantos fell into oblivion for decades because his project became impossible to realise. Nazism interrupted the pan-European debate, and in the aftermath of World War II, the Iron Curtain made Central European integration, in the sense of Hantos, impossible. Elemér Hantos died on July 28, 1942 in Budapest and could not participate in the early stages of the building of today’s European Union. Apparently, Hantos’s ideas were not known by those who reinvented Central Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when they created the Visegrád group (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia) and signed the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA).

But is Elemér Hantos’s proposal for European integration still relevant today?

In my opinion, the ideas of Elemér Hantos are very relevant and deserve to be known more broadly. The growing number of European Union (EU) member states and their different views on European integration has reinforced the move towards a multispeed Europe. In this context, the study of Elemér Hantos’s regional approach to European integration could generate reflections on Europe’s future. Furthermore, Hantos’s concept of Central European integration could help to better understand the specificity of the Visegrád countries within the EU.

How important are the ideas of Elemér Hantos for the Central European countries today?

After the fall of communism, the creation of the Visegrád group and the signature of the CEFTA were meant to accelerate the European Union accession process for the Central European countries. It is important to keep this in mind, because the countries of the Visegrád group have changed their political course and seem to have grown into a bastion of conservatism, populism and anti-Europeanism. It also never hurts to recall that Central Europe has created some of the most brilliant pro-European minds, such as Stefan Zweig, Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi and Elemér Hantos,  to name only a few.

How would Elemér Hantos have reacted to the new wave of populism in Central and Eastern Europe?

Elemér Hantos would have been a link between Western and Central and Eastern Europe. I think that Western European countries do not have enough knowledge or understanding of, Central and Eastern Europe and vice versa. Hantos would have tried to create more communication between these two parts of Europe that now seem to be moving in opposite directions. He would have favored regional integration in Central Europe, but he would have ensured that this Central European solidarity does not endanger sixty years of progress towards a more unified Europe.