A Magyar moment

Hungary makes headlines – from tech battles to major humanitarian stories

Waiting outside a Budapest café in the pouring rain, the option of walking to the sports hall for a football match was hardly attractive. There were no local taxis to be seen so my friends and I thought about requesting an Uber.

I am not a regular Uber-user but I have bought into its disruptive effect on the economy. It has become the world’s most valuable start-up company and has spread to cities around the globe. Surely Uber would be alive and well in an EU country such as Hungary?

As it happens, this blog was witness to what were the twilight days of the ride-hailing app. We would have been some of the final, legal passengers that Uber drivers could carry.

Hungary has a long list of requirements legislating so-called ‘dispatcher services’ and the cabbies’ beef was that Uber did not have to adhere to these rules. Under a new law, internet access to services classed as illegal dispatchers can be blocked.

The head of Uber in the country told the media that its drivers had taxi permits. He said that operations would continue while Uber sought dialogue with the government.

Our driver, taking us over the river from Pest to Buda, railed against the government’s handling of the taxi sector and about corruption among the political class as a whole.

He threw a dismissive hand gesture when I mentioned Viktor Orban, the forthright prime minister whose government is overseeing the introduction of the new law on taxi permits. For the driver, officially branded cabs and his bruised Ford Focus should have been able to work together in the ride-hailing economy.

Hungary is far from the first country to fall out with Uber, and it will not be the last. But its vocal dislike of the American tech start-up does fit with a defensive nationalism that threads through the Orban administration.

The landlocked nation has also been making the headlines when it comes to the refugee crisis in Europe. Last year, Budapest sanctioned the construction of a wire fence along the border with Serbia and the prime minister floated the idea of a referendum on how many non-Hungarians should be allowed to settle in the country.

It is hemmed in, coast-less, by seven nations and split down the middle by the continent’s famous River Danube. Rich in history with a distinct culture and a strange, isolated language, Hungary sits on the cross-roads of the Teutonic, Slavic and Balkan regions, bordering European giants like Ukraine and minnows such as Slovenia.

And it is that linking, bridge-nation position that has seen it become a transit point for hundreds of thousands of refugees coming up through the Balkan states from Turkey.

Charting the right path for a country is hard enough for MPs from any state. For Hungary right now, the Orban government is going to be judged on how it deals with major issues such as the humanitarian crisis stemming from the refugee situation and minor ones (which can be more nuanced and city-focused) such as the furore over Uber.

Just like the pilots driving their vessels under the chain bridge over the Danube in Budapest, skilful navigation by the government is required.