• “We are home,” reads the faded yellow cover of the newspaper I have carefully kept in a box under a shelf for the last 20 years. Its publication date – 1 May 2004 – is symbolic for two reasons: it was the day when Hungary joined the European Union, and the day when I started working as a journalist.

    In fact, one of the papers I kept is the special edition of Magyar Hírlap, where I started my career as a foreign affairs reporter.

    Much has changed in the 20 years since that cover was published. For one, Magyar Hírlap has been turned into a radical right-wing propaganda outlet, while Népszabadság, the other newspaper I kept, shut down under government pressure.

    It is not only my profession that the government has captured, but Hungarian society as a whole.

    When I see official posters on the streets of Budapest, depicting ‘Brussels’ throwing bombs or the president of the European Commission as a puppet of the Soros family, I wonder if people have forgotten what it means to be part of the EU.

    Government propaganda is having an impact, as support for the EU in Hungary has fallen by 10 per cent in recent years.

    Still, the cover story of two decades ago was not wrong: joining the EU felt like a homecoming for most Hungarians. For us, enlargement was not only about free travel and more chances of a job abroad, but also about finding our place as a nation on this borderland between East and West. Of course, membership came with its own obligations, which both sides had to respect. But I also firmly believe that disagreement on some issues, be it migration, agriculture or foreign policy is good for the European community.

    And waging war against where we have always belonged is not.

    The number of financial benefits for families in Hungary is unprecedented. Married couples where the wife is under 30 are entitled to an interest free loan of 11 million HUF (30,000 euros) which they don’t have to pay back if they have three children. They can also take out a subsidised loan of 50 million HUF (130,000 euros) to buy a house, as a few examples.

    The problem? The plan is not working. 2023 saw an all-time low in Hungarian births.

    It appears Hungarian couples prefer good schools, proper healthcare and fair wages over hand-outs for babies. None of these alternatives seem to be on offer by the government.

    Hungary’s government has never made a secret of supporting Donald Trump. Prime minister Viktor Orbán also openly endorses the former U.S. president in his attempt to regain power. “I am sure that if President Trump were President, then today, Ukraine and Europe would not be stricken by any war. Come back, Mr. President! Make America great again and bring us peace!” he said last year at CPAC Hungary.

    The real reasons might be more complicated. Unlike other EU members, the relationship between Hungary and the U.S improved under the Trump administration. While the former president was willing to turn a blind eye to Hungary’s declining rule of law under the Orbán government, the current U.S. administration is the opposite. Hungary’s adoption of Kremlin-style narratives and its failure to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership also do not help.

    “I have no idea. This is a party you can only attend once,” 46-year-old constitutional lawyer Dániel Karsai answered journalists, when they asked him about his future. A future that, in his case, will last no more than a few years, leading to total paralysis and loss of speech, while leaving his mental faculties intact, and inevitable death.

    In 2022, Karsai was diagnosed with ALS, a rare genetic disease brought to the world’s attention by legendary physicist Stephen Hawking. While he may not live to Hawking’s age of 76, he is using the time he has left to fight for the right to die, or, in his own words, “To die like the trees, standing”.

    Hungarian law allows terminally ill patients to refuse life-saving treatment, but this does not apply to people suffering from ALS, as there is no treatment to refuse. If he wanted to travel to Switzerland, where euthanasia is legal, to end his life, even family members driving him there could be imprisoned on their return to Hungary.

    Besides, Karsai does not wish to die in a room overlooking the Swiss Alps.

    “If they teach us in school: ‘here you must live and die’ [in a poem by Vörösmarty Mihály], at least let me do it with dignity”.

    As one of the most successful human rights lawyers in Hungary, he has represented hundreds of clients before the European Court of Human Rights. It is a dark twist of fate that he has launched a case for his own end-of-life decision in Strasbourg.

    By sitting in a wheelchair in front of the panel of judges, he did much more than plead his case: he united a country torn apart by politics. Dying – he admits – “sucks”, but nobody can avoid it. To his surprise, Hungarians rallied behind him. From doctors to priests to philosophers, many have understood that Karsai is fighting for them all.

    Should his case succeed in Strasbourg, the government will be obliged to change the law, making his struggle for human rights immortal.

    As I was dragging my suitcases across the Hungarian-Serbian border in the summer heat, I had my doubts about taking the train. The year was 2004, the destination was Montenegro, and I was ready for a 20-hour night journey from Subotica, Serbia to Bar on the Adriatic coast. However, due to a huge queue of cars, we had to cross the border on foot to reach our departure point.

    With these beginnings, the holiday was – naturally – the best time of our lives.

    Since that August day, I have become a firm believer in rail travel, criss-crossing the continent from Narvik to Naples. It was a far cry from the 90s, when Hungarian students travelled around Europe on fake interrail tickets, but it was cheap, efficient – and a real coming-of-age-adventure.

    The years went by, my love of travel remained, but with the advent of budget airlines, I became a frequent flyer. Although it is fast and inexpensive, I miss the train journeys where I could comfortably stretch my legs and watch the forests pass by.

    The problem is: I could not travel by train even if I wanted to. Our night train from Budapest to Venice has been cancelled, there are no more trains from Budapest to Montenegro, and to travel to Brussels – a trip I make every month – I would have to drive to Vienna, where the train departs.

    Passenger rail transport has sadly become unprofitable in Europe. While governments support national lines, international ones are so expensive that people choose to fly, even for smaller distances.

    After more than a decade, I finally managed to take a night train again this May. Memories instantly came rushing back, as I lay in the compartment taking me from Chełm in Poland to Kyiv, where the train is a lifeline for the war-torn population. Ironically enough, sometimes it takes a war to make us appreciate what we have.

    On the first day following his election victory in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán travelled to Warsaw, where he was welcomed by his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk. Thirteen years later, Tusk is about to return to power, while Orbán seems to have chosen a different partner.

    When Orbán met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing last week, much of the Western world was aghast. Some called it “shame”, others a “security concern”, or even an embarrassment. It did not go down well with the Poles who – up until now – were staunch allies of the Hungarian government in the European Council.

    A change of government in Poland could increase Orbán’s isolation within the EU. The PM may be comforted by the support of Slovakia’s returning populist Prime Minister Robert Fico, but the loss of the famous Polish-Hungarian friendship would be a serious blow.

    And cosying up to war criminals does not seem to help his case.

    Last Friday, when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán received news of a planned demonstration in support of Gaza in Budapest, he banned it instantly. “No one is allowed to hold demonstrations promoting the cause of terrorist organisations because that, in itself, would pose a threat of terror,” he said.

    For once, Orban’s actions were not isolated. Pro-Palestinian and pro-Hamas demonstrations were banned or broken up by police in other European cities.

    But the European Union as an institution still faces a dilemma. Though mostly united and effective in its support for Ukraine against Russian aggression, its statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to be more complicated. While EU leaders are showing full solidarity with Israel and the country’s right to defend itself, some are expressing the importance of providing urgent humanitarian aid to Gaza and the need to comply with international law.

    Disagreements started to show days after Hamas terrorists broke into Israel and murdered 1,300 people. On Monday, Hungarian enlargement commissioner Oliver Várhelyi announced an immediate suspension of EU aid to Gaza, apparently without consulting his colleagues. The Commission replied with not only a denial, but the tripling of humanitarian assistance to 75 million euros.

    Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also faced criticism after not speaking up about the humanitarian consequences of Israel’s retaliatory attacks during her visit to the country. “She simply said Israel has the right to defend itself, full stop. That is not the line member states agreed,” a diplomat told Politico. Individual member states are also divided on the issue, with only Austria and Germany cutting aid to Palestinians.

    This is not the first time that divisions within the 27 member states mirror the feelings within different European societies. In fact, the 2003 U.S.led invasion of Iraq caused a far greater rupture in the EU. But if the European Union wants to live up to the idea of “unity is strength”, there is still some way to go.

    Hungary, the rogue child of the European Union, is ready to break more of the bloc’s rules. The Minister of Agriculture, István Nagy, has vowed to fight against the import of cheap Ukrainian grain to his country, even if this risks another infringement procedure with the EU.

    In a radio interview, he claimed that if the EU does not extend the ban on grain imports from its war-ravaged eastern neighbour, Hungary will continue this prohibition unilaterally on four of the 24 listed goods. Nagy admitted this would “obviously” lead to a fight with Brussels. In that case, Budapest would not relent, but would go further, and introduce the ban on all products concerned.

    Threats from the Hungarian government often sound empty, but it may be different this time. Budapest has already started negotiating with Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania on the issue of cheap Ukrainian imports, which is making central Europe a force to be reckoned with.

    It’s a few minutes after noon on the beach at Hungary’s holiday destination Lake Balaton and some families are already packing their stuff to return to their small rented houses. Although there are many food stalls and restaurants, they opt for a home-cooked lunch to save money.

    The beach – lined with towels and colourful inflatable unicorns in the grass – becomes deserted for a few hours. The noise of children playing, adults gossiping under the willow trees and waves hitting the rocks disappears. When families return in the afternoon, many walk with cooler bags in hand, bringing sandwiches and cans of beer.

    “We are a family of four. Even with a family discount, the daily entrance fee to the official beach is eight euros. One lángos (deep-fried dough with cheese and sour cream) costs five euros. I would probably have to spend 50 euros there every day,” explains a beachgoing dad who is staying at the free beach of Siófok, a bit further away from town.

    In a country where the average salary is 972 euro per month and inflation in June was still above 20 per cent, that is a lot of money.

    “For the same price, I can go and swim in the sea,” explains 39-year-old Anna on why she chose Croatia this summer. Such costs leave the future uncertain for Lake Balaton.

    When NATO leaders gathered for their “family photo” at the recent summit in Vilnius, the cameras captured a surprising moment. Walking onto the stage, United States president Joe Biden shook hands with just one leader: Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary.

    Given the not-so-amicable relationship between the two countries, most commentators speculated that the gesture was to thank Hungary for its willingness to finally support Sweden’s NATO accession.

    However, as the summit ended, it became clear that the handshake was not enough to change Budapest’s position. As senior government officials admit Hungary is waiting for Turkey to lift its veto, there is still no date set for the final vote in Parliament, which would be necessary to fulfil Orbán’s promise.

    Orbán also made it clear in an interview his views on Washington were unaltered: that if America wanted peace, it could happen by the next morning. But that the conflict in Ukraine would drag on because people in the West wanted the war to continue.