Terminal 2 at Budapest's Ferihegy airport is an exemplar of the modern style. Airy and spacious, with plentiful duty-free options and a serene business class lounge done up in light-toned wood paneling and leather furniture.
It's also empty. It was clearly built as a showcase for Malev, the national airline, which went bust last year. My flight to London, departing in 70 minutes, is the next item on the departure list. I approached passport control to find no line whatsoever, just three officers shooting the breeze.
You don't hear much about Hungary in the contemporary stories of European economic woe -- it isn't one of the so-called "PIIGS." But there is plenty of woe here. Many of the locals I met in the course of two days in conference at Central European University worry about the nationalist government that recently took power and proceeded to change key elements of the national Constitution. But even the best government in the world would face severe economic challenges. Things aren't as bad here as in, say, Greece, but GDP growth has dipped into negative territory this year and even in the best of recent quarters Hungary's growth rate rarely reached half of Germany's.
Hungary has not yet joined the Euro -- but their one-time aspirations to do so are clear. The 200-forint coin, pictured here, is clearly designed to emulate the 2-Euro coin. The principal difference being that the 2-euro coin is worth approximately three times more. This gives Hungary the option of devaluation as a means of boosting exports, an option that many of their counterparts lack. Even with this option there is a clear sense of foreboding here. On the way to the airport this morning my driver commented on how the Forint has once again lost value relative to the Euro.
Earlier this month I ran into one of my doctoral advisors, Martin Feldstein. I asked him, "how are things?" and his reponse was "Things are not good. Things with me are fine, but things in general are not good." The state of Europe was foremost among his concerns. And with good reason.