For the past 26 years, an annual conference has brought together the foreign affairs ministers of Hungary and Germany, as well as numerous political, economic, scientific and cultural leaders from the two countries, to discuss their multi-faceted cooperation. The German-Hungarian Forum was, since 1992, an important foreign policy tool through which Hungary was able to regularly meet and negotiate with one of its most important economic and political allies.
Until this year, when the Hungarian government decided it would no longer participate in the forum.
As Magyar Nemzet reports, the Fidesz government had become increasingly intolerant of German criticism, which had become a feature of the forums since 2010, when Fidesz returned to power. According to the conservative print daily, the German government has been openly critical of numerous Hungarian policies including the media law, the takeover of the Hungarian media industry by government-tied oligarchs, attacks on civil society groups, anti-EU rhetoric and apparent attacks against Central European University (CEU).
The Hungarian government’s frustrations with German criticisms at the forum first became apparent in 2012 when – contrary to the tradition of holding the event in Budapest and Berlin on alternating years – the government began pushing to hold it in Berlin, presumably to avoid Hungarian media coverage. This was especially important in the election year of 2014 when, according to Magyar Nemzet, the government hoped to prevent Germany’s former Foreign Minister and current President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (a regular critic of Hungary), from raising politically inconvenient topics in view of Hungarian voters by again moving the forum to Berlin. Steinmeier has reportedly refused to participate in the forums since, and the Hungarian government has been sending only low-level delegates, reports Magyar Nemzet.
The forum was first organized in 1992 by then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and József Antall, Hungary’s first democratically elected prime minister after the fall of communism. The aim of the first forums was to assist in Hungary’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic alliance, but they continued even after Hungary joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. The forum has been described with envy by other countries in the region because, according to Magyar Nemzet, Germany only holds such forums with partners of strategic importance. The very creation of the forum can perhaps be attributed to Hungary’s opening of its western border with Austria in 1989 which allowed many East Germans to escape into Austria and then into West Germany.
With friends like these…
Hungary pulling the plug on this 26-year-old diplomatic event is not the first sign that its relationship with Germany has frayed. As we reported earlier this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel would not receive Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for the 25th anniversary of a “Good Neighbor treaty” signed between the two countries in 1992. (Merkel met with the prime ministers of Slovakia and the Czech Republic to celebrate the signings of very similar treaties just a few weeks later.)
Additionally, a planned meeting in May between Germany and the foreign ministers of the Visegrád 4 countries (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia) was cancelled owing to difficulties encountered by the summit’s organizers in finding common points for the countries to discuss.
Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó reportedly attempted to initiate bilateral talks four times with then-foreign minister Steinmeier at the end of 2016 and the first weeks of this year. Steinmeier, who became Germany’s President on March 19, declined all four requests, and Szijjártó’s relationship with Germany’s new foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel is reportedly no cozier.