Hungarian politicians, experts discuss foreign policy issues

March 12, 2015

Photo: Valter Berecz,
Photo: Valter Berecz,

Political Capital Institute and Common Sense Society jointly hosted a conference on Wednesday at which various foreign policy “experts” and politicians were invited to speak on a range of foreign policy issues. The event was supported by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a “non-profit German political foundation committed to the advancement of public policy issues in the spirit of the basic values of social democracy through education, research and international cooperation.”

The purpose of the conference was to call attention to pressing matters of Hungarian foreign policy. Unfortunately, it seemed almost impossible to keep participants on topic and there was little progress explaining what has happened and what is happening with Hungary’s foreign policy, especially with regard to its transatlantic relationships.

Opening remarks were made by Jan Engels, Head of Representation at Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Peter Krekó, Director of Political Capital Institute, and Emese Böröcz, Director at Common Sense Society.

Krekó opened the event by saying that, thanks to the government’s “Eastern opening”, there has been an increase in the Hungarian public’s interest in foreign policy, as well as an increase in international interest in Hungary’s foreign policy.

Hungary’s “Eastern opening”

The first panel featured discussion on the topic of Eastern opening: political, geostrategic and economic implications. The panel’s speakers included János Hóvári, Hungary’s former ambassador to Turkey and former Deputy State Secretary of Global Affairs, István Íjgyártó, Hungary’s former ambassador to Russia currently working as state secretary for cultural diplomacy, and József Pandur, Hungary’s former ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The panel was moderated by Heti Válasz journalist Edit Zgut.

Given the topic being discussed by the first panel, one would have hoped to see even the slightest diversity amongst panel members. Each speaker had served as a Hungarian diplomatic representative during the second Orbán government, and moderator Zgut is a journalist for pro-Fidesz weekly Heti Válasz. Each panel member tried to convince conference attendees that Hungary’s policy of “Eastern opening” is nothing more than an extension of a much larger foreign policy strategy which they referred to as “global opening”.

Hungary’s Eastern opening, explained Hóvári, was only one part of the country’s global opening in every direction. The purposes of Hungary’s foreign policy shift following 2010 was to awaken relationships with previously neglected countries, such as Mexico, Argentina and Turkey, etc., to expand foreign trade in such emerging economies, and to strengthen Hungary’s position around the world, said Hóvári.

Íjgyártó followed Hóvári’s lead and discussed the importance of Hungary’s efforts to renew ties with countries that had previously been overlooked in Hungarian diplomacy, and to shift discussions away from the issues which had earlier dominated classical diplomatic discourse.  The United States, said Íjgyártó, was clearly expanding its influence in the Pacific and Asia, and Hungary wanted to do the same. He also emphasized the importance of keeping in mind Hungary’s dependence on natural gas. If Hungary strengthens its position as a gas transit country, Íjgyártó said, then Hungarians will be better off. That is why Hungary needs Russia.

“As a gas exporting country Russia has been very reliable,” he said. “What opportunities would Hungary have without Russia as an energy carrier, especially given the volatility of the energy market? Russian supply seems to be a reality of European energy markets.”

Pandur said Hungary’s “Eastern opening” has resulted in its diplomatic isolation, and the loss of Hungary’s position in the West. However, Pandur attributes this to a double standard by Western media, which expressed no such qualms when the Prime Minister of Italy recently visited Russia.

During the Q&A session of the discussion a member of the audience reminded the three representatives of Hungary’s foreign ministry that unlike Prime Minister Orbán, the Italian Prime Minister has not entered into a Paks agreement with Russia, has not praised the successful Russian economic model, and has not announced his intention to build an illiberal democracy in his country.

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

The second panel featured a discussion on The politics and economics of TTIP – Should We Want It? Panel speakers included LMP (Politics Can Be Different) parliamentarian András Schiffer, Hungary’s former ambassador to the U.S. György Szapáry, and Együtt (Together) parliamentarian Zsuzsanna Szelényi, and was moderated by Joshua Dill of the Common Sense Society.

Schiffer said Hungary doesn’t need the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership for two reasons. Like all international trade agreements, he said, it would be bad globally, and, secondly, it would hurt Hungary and the East and South European countries. He believes the TTIP issue is purely a question of one’s world view. “Neoliberalists like [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán (sic) say that free trade is good for everyone,” Schiffer began.

TTIP will only lead to the exploitation of countries, their national resources and the world’s natural resources, he said.

“The globalist capitalist system is plummeting in a downward spiral. [TTIP] is the large multinational capital war against the small semi-peripheral countries,” Schiffer said. “[A]nd Hungary’s sovereignty is at stake.” He said TTIP is just as “traitorous” as Hungary’s Paks II agreement with Russia.

Schiffer believes TTIP will result in Hungary’s agricultural sector succumbing to the interests of America’s.

Szapáry and Szelényi, however, were quite open in their support for TTIP. Both expressed their hopes of an agreement between the EU and the US as soon as possible, but were skeptical anything would happen this year.

Szelényi countered Schiffer’s arguments by saying that TTIP is much more than an economic agreement.  She sees it as an important political issue and question of future civilization, lasting peace, shared understandings of democracy and a shared cultural platform.

“Those who can adjust,” Szelényi said, “will survive and continue advancing. Those who don’t will lose out.”

The Ukrainian crisis

The third panel featured a discussion on the Ukraine Crisis: New Impetus for Transatlantic Security Cooperation? Panel members included foreign policy expert at St. Ignác College Botond Feledy, MSZP parliamentarian and chairman of the National Security Committee of the Parliament Zsolt Molnár, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament and Fidesz MP Zsolt Németh, and Deputy State Secretary for Defence Policy and Planning at Hungary’s Ministry of Defence Péter Siklósi. The panel was moderated by Péter Krekó of the Political Capital Institute.

Regarding the Ukraine crisis as an impetus for transatlantic security co-operation, panel members agreed that Central and Eastern European countries have become focal points for international foreign policy strategies. Because of Hungary’s relationship with Russia, many regional partners, including Hungary’s Western allies, had expressed concerns over Hungary’s foreign policy following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and support of Donbas separatists.

Molnár said Hungary’s geographic location and border to the Ukraine conflict zone has made Hungary a transit point for foreign intelligence agencies.

Németh said there needs to be an effort to fight off the impression that a new cold war is under way which poses a threat to European security. He pointed out that the security strategy of the European Union written in 2005 will be updated this summer to reflect the security concerns resulting from the conflicts to the south, specifically that of Islamic State, and in the east, referring to military aggression in Ukraine.

Németh said the crisis in Ukraine is closely related to the situation of ethnic minorities in the country. He pointed out that Hungary’s relationship with the US soured last year when Orbán called for the autonomy of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine as the Russian-backed separatist movement in Ukraine turned violent.

Molnár discussed the role of Hungary’s intelligence services in providing accurate information related to the conflict in Ukraine, specifically referring to how the conflict is affecting the situation of Hungarians living in the Subcarparthian region of Ukraine. He said Hungarian intelligence services have been doing a great job in assessing the situation on the ground and forecast spillover effects into Hungary.

Siklósi explained how the crisis in Ukraine contributed to an overall strengthening of NATO. He said that up until the point Russia annexed Crimea, many NATO members had been neglecting to increase their military spending to 2 percent of their country’s GDP. That changed, and even Hungary was now increasing its military spending, and if NATO went to war with Russia, NATO would win.

(Hardly reassuring. Anyway, Hungary’s military spending decreased this year to 0.6 percent of GDP, although the decision to send troops to the Middle East may cause this figure to rise.-ed.)