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Directions of Hungarian Foreign Policy in the Post-Coronavirus World by Zsolt Németh

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Directions of Hungarian Foreign Policy in the Post-Coronavirus World

Two complementary treaties (the Treaty of Münster and the Treaty of Osnabrück), collectively known as the Treaty of Westphalia, marking the end of the Thirty Years’ War, was ceremonially signed on 24 October 1648.

The last document that summarized the Hungarian government’s foreign policy strategy was published ten years ago in December 2011, with the title Hungarian Foreign Policy after the EU Presidency. Since that time, although the basic strategic considerations of Hungarian foreign policy have not changed, their application has been adapted to the changing world. Now on the eve of the Hungarian Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and the Visegrád Four, a review on how this strategy is being implemented in our current world is warranted. Today, the two major contexts of Hungarian foreign policy are determined by the evolution of the Hungarian economy and society after the economic restart and reconstruction, along with the surrounding international relations. At the time of writing this study (the Ides of March 2021) we are approaching the peak of the third wave of the coronavirus epidemic in Hungary. This makes some of our conclusions conditional; however, the emergence of numerous new trends makes it possible to offer predictions for the future.

The nature of the global coronavirus crisis

Starting at the end of 2019,

coronavirus infections and subsequent epidemic control measures caused labour and production losses worldwide, causing disruption to the increasingly internationalized production and supply chains. This phenomenon caused social problems worldwide. These problems still have an elemental effect on the existing power relations: dissatisfaction in the wider population causes political instability too. The example of the United States shows us that mass protests against restrictions have provided an opportunity for riots against the democratic nation state as a whole. The crisis caused by the pandemic has also contributed to the replacement of the Trump administration, which had performed particularly well in the pre-pandemic years.

However, from the perspective of nation states, the economic recession poses an even greater challenge than instability. The loss of tax revenue diverts resources from social funding and reduces government efficiency. Measures for economic stimulus are critical to minimizing losses. These measures, much like in the case of health measures, either divert money from other areas of the public sector or contribute to sovereign debt. This hampers the governance of states, without any exceptions worldwide, even if there appear to be major differences between the pre-pandemic and the current situation of nation states.

The long-term financing of the public sector is also affected by the fact that larger companies started to implement security measures once the vulnerabilities surfaced in their international production and supply chains. They have sought to reduce geographical distances between different production and consumption units, and to try to diversify the location of certain activities. Thus, should production be paralyzed in one spot, it can be replaced by that of another location. There will be countries where this phenomenon will lead to downsizings and loss of tax revenue, but in the case of other countries, new and possibly higher quality jobs will be created. European countries may gain advantage in this regard by means of the EU’s industrial strategy, adopted in March 2020, which aims to promote the resettlement of key industries into Europe.

So while the situation of nation states has deteriorated everywhere due to the pandemic, the differences between them have increased. Countries sustaining a relatively small-scale downturn have emerged in a better position than others, despite the fact that they also suffered to some extent. The post-coronavirus world is also changing in geopolitical terms, as the pandemic has also affected the international balance of power. The aim of Hungarian foreign policy is to emerge from this geopolitical shift as a winner.

Increasing globalization and the future of the nation state

Hungarian foreign policy is not unique in its goal to turn the crisis to its advantage.

The thinking on how the post-pandemic world may or should look started long before the peak of the pandemic, in various think tanks and other advisory bodies in all parts of the world. According to certain experts, the major lesson of the pandemic is that certain public affairs (especially public healthcare) should be decided on an international level. Others suggest that supranational institutions have failed, and most competences, if not all, should return to a national level. Some see the decline of the West and the rise of China and even Russia as an inevitable scenario for the future, due to the disappointing pandemic policy of the EU and the US. Others see China and Russia cunningly exploiting the pandemic to assert their influence on vulnerable countries by means disguised as aid.

Taken together, these standpoints provide us with a precise outline of the kind of strategic competitions which are taking place in world politics, and who the main actors are. Thus, there is an ongoing rivalry between nation states and internationalist factors and ideological workshops on the question of whether states, or rather international organizations, should be the main depositories of public authority. At the same time, there is a competition on both sides regarding different ‘world- saving’ concepts, while the political and economic interests of nation states may also collide with one another.

On the one hand, there are several conflicting visions of what an increasingly globalized world should look like. To provide just one example: the multicultural ideal of liberal internationalism and the so-called ‘open world’ outlined in the papal encyclical ‘Fratelli tutti’, seeks to supersede international migration controls built upon nation-state sovereignty. At the same time, the encyclical opposes ‘globalization that rejects the specific image and values of certain cultures’ and advocates unconditional respect for human life, while liberal internationalism wants, among other things, to make the right to abortion one of the cornerstones of the new world order to prevent overpopulation. While the difference between the position of Hungary and that of the Holy See is obvious on some important issues, it is also clear that the vision of the world order expressed in the encyclical is much closer to the principles of the Hungarian foreign policy than those proclaimed by liberal internationalism.

On the other hand, certain nation states, which can be considered great powers, also believe that the situation caused by the pandemic may help strengthen their influence and achieve their national goals. Prior to the outbreak, the rivalry between certain global economic and military powers was intensifying. States sought to enforce the regulations they wanted, first through bilateral and regional agreements, but also by circumventing or flexibly interpreting international legal institutions, and then through protectionist tariffs and sanctions. These are often associated with President Trump, but they were not only applied by America.

US President Joseph Biden, who took office at the beginning of 2021, seems to be seeking more refined tools to assert US interests. This is a welcome development for Hungary, as our economy is strongly reliant on foreign markets and therefore has a fundamental interest in global stability. However, the changes in US politics will not eliminate basic trade and geopolitical conflicts of interest between the major powers. Therefore, it is futile to chase illusions of a stable global political future. The ‘economic world war’ of the previous years will continue, though with less visible means of coercion, should US efforts be successful.

In light of this, there are debates about whether it is the virus and the management of the health crisis that is reshaping the world, or whether the pandemic is simply reinforcing fundamental international trends, which will eventually compel international actors to more timely and effective reactions. In any case, there can be no doubt that only those international actors will remain successful who are capable of more timely and appropriate responses to change. It is thus that they will be able to successfully protect their citizens and their economies from crisis, while shaping their external relations in a way that could make them winners in a changing world.

The geopolitical crisis is escalating

Even before the coronavirus, it was well known that great power games are essentially determined by three things: economic power, military power, and the proper strategy for using these powers. In the post-coronavirus era, the health situation of individual countries has been added as a fourth factor. Segments within value chains which produce high added value will be relocated to areas with competitive business environments and satisfactory levels of workforce healthcare security. The pandemic situation also has a military security dimension. In some countries, the pandemic has affected the functioning of the military on several levels; for instance, the Swiss army was temporarily paralyzed. However, there have been successes in this field: it was possible to hold the NATO Defender 2020 exercise despite the outbreak of the coronavirus, allowing the Alliance to demonstrate its ability to carry out its missions during a pandemic situation.

The four factors—economy, military, health, and strategic thinking—combined are essentially the ‘ammunition’ with which the actors engage in the global political contest. It is of course already possible to speculate on how losses in these domains may have affected the international positions of certain countries. However, while indulging in speculation of this sort it should not be forgotten that the pandemic is not yet at an end. Once the pandemic is over (presumably by 2022), the degree to which economic, military, and human strength has been preserved in individual countries afterthe loss of life, economic shutdowns, and recovery efforts, will become much clearer. By comparing our results with others, we will see how far we have achieved our goal of being in a better position than before. However, this will not impede the modification of the international balance of power. Those with more efficient technologies will be able to build up their remaining capabilities more quickly, which might rearrange the balance of power in a few years. Therefore, the key question of the competition is: who will lead in the race for new technologies?

One of the most important elements within technology is the transmission of digital information.

The question of which country will be able to use what kind of technology will largely depend on its infrastructure of data transmission, and its compatibility with state-of-the-art technologies. The ‘5G war’ between the US and China is significant in this regard. It is not only about the ability to sell one’s technical equipment to others, but also about the technological split of the world into two parts. This manifests itself, on the one hand, in the ban put on some elements of Chinese data transmission technology, considered dangerous in many Western countries, and, on the other, in the development of China’s own data transmission technology, as announced in the autumn of 2020 at the Chinese Party Congress. The vast majority of US technologies will likely avoid areas of Chinese presence. And obviously, it will be the other way round as well, because—although this is not openly stated by the Chinese—their innovations and collected data have been obtained at too high a cost to risk sharing them with third parties. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, speaking at the session of the 75th founding anniversary of the organization, pertinently observed that the world is threatened by a technological rift and rivalry, somewhat similar to the Soviet–American Cold War in the twentieth century. The difference, however, is that now the two power centres are facing each other at a similarly high level of competitiveness. This is becoming apparent in economic, military, and health technologies alike.

Characteristics of Hungarian crisis management

As soon as it became clear that the effects of the epidemic could not be avoided by Hungary, the priorities of the Hungarian government regarding the coronavirus crisis quickly became clear. These priorities boil down to three concepts: health, operational capacity, and the protection of sovereignty. Among these priorities, healthcare comes first. This includes the slowing down of the spread of the pandemic and the preparation of the health system for increased operational capacity, and, finally, vaccinating the population as quickly as possible. The health dimension has had a strong external, humanitarian aspect too: empathy for those who are in greater need than us. Hungary has attempted to provide as much medical assistance as possible to the countries of Central Europe which were in greatest need. Once sufficient quantities of masks and ventilators were available at home, we started to support our neighbours and countries in the Balkans, along with Hungarian communities abroad. Moreover, in some countries mass testing has been implemented with the support of Hungarian medical personnel.

Our diplomatic relations have played a key role in the stockpiling of medical supplies. From the beginning, we purchased medical supplies from China, which reacted more quickly than Europe to the exigencies of the pandemic, and we were the first in the EU to agree contracts to import Chinese and Russian vaccines. The success of our stockpiling of medical equipment has clearly shown that the source of our security comes from the principle formulated in our 2011 strategy: ‘Value-based foreign policy cannot be interpreted as limiting our relations with countries where our values are not fully respected or are interpreted differently. Having a value-based foreign policy approach means that in these relations too we define our interests on the basis of our values, and we choose our tools, including the forms of communication, according to how we can most effectively enforce our interests dictated by our values.’

The priority given to the operational capacity of the economy manifested itself in the predictability afforded by the relatively infrequent changes in restriction measures, and also in the high level of attention given to both human life and the economy. The state’s response to the crisis was not focused on providing unemployment aid, but on supporting the preservation and development of jobs, especially through foreign direct investment and a moratorium on mortgages. The Hungarian economy, which is extremely open to foreign markets, suffered a decline of more than 11 per cent in the first half of 2020. (Tourism, which normally supplies important revenue for our economy, was particularly affected by the restrictions caused by the pandemic.) Thanks to the above-mentioned measures, Hungary can look forward to a path of growth that may be above the European average.

The source of support for the economy was mainly provided by the stable financial situation of the country. In the light of the challenge of the crisis, the Hungarian stabilization policy of the last decade found its full justification, although it faced considerable foreign opposition when it was launched. One of the shakiest in Europe ten years ago, Hungary’s economy has become one of the most stable on the continent. At the same time, the available reserves had to be replenished with loans in 2020 to provide sufficient support for the economy. After a downward trend, government debt rose three percentage points higher in the second quarter and seven percentage points higher in the third quarter of the year than in 2020 (74 per cent instead of 67 per cent), which is however still significantly below the level of European debt growth.

The Hungarian government firmly rejected proposals to increase the public debt to such an extent that it would limit the country’s financial and political room for manoeuvre, to the point of jeopardizing the state’s sovereignty. Its action was based on the principle that crisis management should not be accompanied by waiving or limiting the country’s sovereignty. Hungary only agreed to the joint EU loan in a spirit of solidarity with European economies in greater trouble.

Restart in the spirit of technological competition

It is also obvious, however, that post- coronavirus Hungary will not be exactly the same as it was before the pandemic. There are several definitions in circulation about what kind of economy and society the Hungarian government wants to create by the end of the decade, with the resumption of reconstruction after the pandemic. The most common definition is that our goal is to become one of the five most liveable and competitive countries in Europe. Quality jobs and a clean, safe, and modern living environment are key elements of the vision.

From a foreign policy point of view, however, the question is how our foreign partners can interpret this definition, which is completely clear in domestic use. In the terminology of the EU, a significant part of this vision is covered by the concepts of green transition and digital transition, with the difference that in the EU approach environmental awareness is more of a goal, while in the Hungarian approach it is more of a tool to improve the quality of life of citizens. Therefore, Hungary is committed to supporting the EU’s green and digital aspirations, though with some reservations. In the field of agriculture, for example, the requirement of sustainability on the Hungarian side also includes the continuous maintenance of the competitiveness of European food production, so we consider the rapid adoption of some green criteria that would imperil the existence of Hungarian small-scale producers as contrary to the principle of sustainability.

The international term ‘new economy’ is akin to the Hungarian concept.

It means sustainable technological development, which does not increase, but reduces social disparities in the quality of life and the environment, helping those who fall behind to catch up. This is precisely the essence of the Hungarian vision. However, the Hungarian vision does not define itself as a revolutionary alternative to capitalism. The common point between the Hungarian vision and the international ‘new economy’ approach is that neither seeks to impose green modernization on the population. Instead, they intend to achieve the transition to the ‘new economy’ by making use of people’s ideas and talents. If there is a peculiarity to the Hungarian interpretation of the ‘new economy’, it is clearly respect for tradition. The Hungarian ‘new economy’ will draw on Hungarian traditions (such as the ‘Hungaricum’, which triggered an entire movement, with considerable state support), culture, aspirations, and talents as values in an economy that puts technology at the service of sustainability. As a historical heritage, the embeddedness of the Hungarian ‘new economy’ in the economy of the Central European region will presumably be strong. The evolution towards a ‘new economy’ in the neighbouring countries and in Hungary will be mutually reinforcing. One of the most important tasks of the current Hungarian foreign policy is to help and protect this Hungarian vision of a ‘new economy’, and to incorporate it into ongoing global dynamics.

The success of building a green, digital economy depends entirely on whether the Hungarian economy can embrace the latest technologies, while ensuring that the import of these technologies will not create an economic imbalance. Hungary’s goal is to produce as much technology as possible, and, by exporting this, to balance the cost of the imports necessary to make a successful transition to the ‘new economy’. Thus, innovation has become a key issue. That is why the Hungarian government has decided to use part of the resources allocated to Hungary within the framework of the European Recovery Plan for the development of higher education. This places scientific and technological diplomacy at the foreground of our foreign policy, which will require as much foreign service attention as our economic diplomacy did in past years.

Pragmatic foreign policy approach

The Hungarian foreign policy position is that the re-launch after the pandemic—that is, the creation of the ‘new economy’ that puts digital transformation in the service of sustainability—is not an ideological issue, but a task that requires rational and practical solutions. Therefore in all our foreign relations we have to take advantage of every opportunity. That is critical for the success of the restart, but we also have to consider possible dangers. Let us take, for example, some high-profile relations.

There is no successful restart without security and stability. The United States is our strongest ally, the guarantor of our military security. At the same time, however, it is not only Europe’s most important partner, but also a competitor. Therefore, the Hungarian approach to the possible resumption of free trade negotiations between the EU and the US, and to the EU’s trade policy in general, should be based on a proactive and well-thought-out approach. In connection to the latter, the EU’s positions on world trade regulations can offer favourable terrain for EU–US cooperation, but may also generate economic/commercial rivalries between them.

There is no successful restart without stable markets. Since the Eurozone is the main market for Hungarian products and services, its problems can also give rise to existential challenges for the Hungarian economy. Thus, Hungary needs to consider the issue of its membership of the euro area very carefully (entering only if it strengthens both the Hungarian economy and that of the Eurozone as well) and at the same time it also needs to influence the processes taking place in the Eurozone itself. The latter goal can be achieved through intergovernmental relations with member states using the euro, and through professional attention paid to the actions of the European Central Bank.

There is no successful restart without financial stability either. China contributes to Hungary’s financial stability without attaching economic and socio-political conditions. It also provides support for our railway development towards the Balkans, and has supplied Hungary with necessary medical equipment during the pandemic. At the same time, the United States—which guarantees our security—considers China’s geopolitical and technological efforts a major security challengethat stands above its domestic politics. One of the greatest challenges of Hungarian diplomacy is to ensure that the military security granted by the United States and the economic and medical security provided by China will not collide with each other.

Besides the green energy shift, energy security is another precondition of the successful restart.

Since the signing of the agreement for the Krk LNG terminal, Hungarian energy independence has become a reality. Russia remains our indispensable energy partner and will continue to play a significant role in our gas supply. This cooperation is contributing to the replacement of coal with other energy sources, along with the expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant, which is also being achieved through Russian cooperation. Moreover, Russia is of outstanding importance to us in the field of space technology. At the same time, Russia harbours unjustified fears of NATO, the military alliance of which our nation is a part. This Russian complex entails a real security risk for the whole of the alliance, as well as for its members, including Hungary. This pragmatism-based foreign policy, exploiting the opportunities yet considerate of the dangers, proved to be the appropriate way out of the crisis after a period when, due to the economic policies of the 2002–2010 period, we were caught in a situation similar to that of Greece. In the years after 2010, Hungary has been able not only to stabilize its financial situation and dynamize the growth of its gross national product, but also to deploy resources for the foundation of today’s energy security. It guaranteed state ownership of the Hungarian electricity company (MVM), bought back the national oil company (MOL), and built a 100 kilometre-long pipeline connecting the Hungarian and Slovakian gas networks. The success of Hungary’s post-financial crisis reconstruction strengthened the whole of Europe too, since today our country is one of the national economies which are pulling the Union’s economic performance upwards. There can be no doubt that Hungarian foreign policy must continue the well-proven, pragmatic implementation of its value-principled goals after the pandemic.

Regional stability and neighbourhood policy

As stated above, security and stability are indispensable preconditions for a successful restart. For this reason alone, one of Hungary’s most important foreign policy interests is the security, stability, and prosperity of Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe. Hungary desires the establishment of a Central European economic zone, of which—due to its size, among others—Poland is the leading power in terms of economic and security policy. In practice, this vision means that we intend to turn the EU’s eastern frontier into Europe’s most dynamically developing area in the long term, through much-needed North–South infrastructure investments (power lines, highways, high-speed trains, etc.) connecting the countries of Central Europe, and by promoting the foundation of Central European joint ventures to play a prominent role in the global economy.

The classic tool of building up the Central European region—besides the bilateral cooperation between its countries—is the forum founded in 1991 by Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, later called the Visegrád Four (V4), which has since expanded to ‘V4+’ through concrete projects with other countries, and which can exert a notable impact on the entire region. Hungary will assume the V4 presidency in the summer of 2021. This provides a perfect opportunity to extend the cooperation developed during the crisis management of the pandemic towards a closer coordination when it comes to economic restarts and reconstruction. Budapest also looks with anticipation at the relatively recent Three Seas Initiative, which encompasses the whole ‘inner side’ of the EU’s Eastern frontier, and actively involves the United States, Germany, and the EU in the strategic development of the Central European region.

The goal of the Three Seas Initiative is to create an infrastructural connection between the Adriatic, Baltic, and Black Sea regions, to launch as many economic projects as possible for the entrepreneurs of the region with a population of roughly 100 million, and to encourage investments in the region. The most important project in Central Europe’s infrastructure development is the Via Carpathia and Via Baltica highway, connecting the easternmost parts of the Three Seas Initiative region. The Hungarian section of this road will be completed in 2021. Thus, Hungary will be the first Central European country to have built its part in full. In addition, the maintenance of good bilateral neighbourhood relations is also indispensable in order that this zone of stability and future prosperity should constitute a unified geographical zone between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black seas.

The pandemic highlighted the special opportunities and challenges which characterize our relations with our direct neighbourhood. The experiences of Austria, which was hit by the pandemic’s first wave before Hungary, provided Hungarian politics with a strategic guideline. The Slovakian health sector reform, implemented before the emergence of the virus, was one of the starting points for the Hungarian health sector’s re-organization, prompted by the pandemic. That shows that Hungary exploits the advantages of its good relations with neighbouring countries. At the same time, Hungary has not always been able to communicate to Romanian and Ukrainian public opinion that the transit difficulties experienced in Hungary by their citizens returning from the West because of the pandemic was not due to any kind of prejudice against them. Hungary subjected itself to great risks in their interest by securing their mass transfer through the country via public roads in an orderly manner.

The unjustifiably negative public opinion of Hungary can be traced back to the tendentious commentaries made by some Romanian and Ukrainian media organs. However, Hungary also has to consider whether its foreign policy and the building of its national image— regardless of the coronavirus crisis—pay sufficient attention to communication with the public opinion of neighbouring countries. We should consider launching initiatives aimed at changing the perceptions of our neighbours, similarly to Polish initiatives run by the Wacław Felczak Foundation, which supports the transmission of the tradition of our thousand-year-old friendship, and its Polish counterpart, the Felczak Institute in Warsaw. The travel restrictions introduced for public health reasons had a profound and painful impact on Hungarian communities living in the neighbouring countries. These communities, having found themselves outside of our borders as a result of the Treaty of Trianon a hundred years ago, are especially sensitive to any disruption of their relations with the motherland.

The Hungarian communities living in neighbouring countries are also of geopolitical importance: in Romania they number more than one million, while Slovakia, Serbia, and Ukraine are each home to several hundred thousand people. The cultural, economic, individual, and community political rights guaranteed to them, as well as the assistance from the motherland, mean that these communities are particularly interested in the stability of the region and in the prosperity of the country which is their place of birth. This neighbourhood policy of national commitment must be accepted also by the political elite of those neighbouring countries, where this has not been achieved so far.

This is particularly true for Ukraine, where the measures taken by the administration have, in many respects, led to the Hungarian community facing more discrimination than during the period of the Soviet Union. As a result, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe drew Ukraine’s attention to the necessity of maintaining the acquired rights of the minority communities and the ban on discrimination, and stressed that the acquisition of the state language can only be promoted through measures agreed to by representatives of the minorities. Although the present Ukrainian leadership has not yet resolved the problems caused by its predecessors, some signs suggest that through Hungarian mediation, substantive dialogue can be developed between the Hungarian minority and Kiev, regarding the implementation of the Venice Commission’s recommendations. At the same time, unfortunately, the increasing frenzy stoked by the authorities and their administrative pressure is making life difficult for Hungarians in Transcarpathia. As long as this unfortunate situation does not change, Hungary must maintain its veto on any high-level political engagement between NATO and Ukraine.

The stability in the region of our eastern partners

(Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia), and in the Western Balkans (Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Albania) is extremely important for Hungary. The long-term stability of these two regions cannot be secured without a credible pathway towards EU accession. This is the reason why one of the fundamental goals of Hungarian foreign policy is the support of the EU neighbourhood and enlargement policy. Other policies concerning Eastern and Southeast Europe—for example the Berlin Process or the EU neighbour policy—have to serve the enlargement of the EU, and should not be allowed to become an alternative to accession. Having Olivér Várhegyi as an EU Commissioner responsible for the neighbourhood and enlargement policy is a huge opportunity for both Hungary, the EU, and the regions involved. Our commitment to the effort of partner countries in the Balkans and in the East to join the EU and NATO does not mean that Hungarian foreign policy is not aware of the objective difficulties standing in the way of the accession process. Hungary does not wantto make exemptions from the criteria for accession to be fulfilled by the Balkan states, or any exemption from the criteria for candidacy in the case of the Eastern states. In certain cases, Hungary is making more consequential demands than other EU countries that the countries in question meet the prescribed criteria. This is a clear indication that Hungary anticipates the enlargement of both the EU and NATO in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, Hungary expects the EU and NATO to provide a genuine perspective for accession to the aspiring states. The criteria should not be changed and progress in the accession process should be made once criteria are met. It should also be clear that disregarding the criteria would lead to the blocking of the accession process.

Regarding the Balkans, Hungary must firmly reject—on both theoretical and practical grounds—that individual and collective rights should be seen as mutually opposed. There are views according to which the integration prospects of some Balkan states—especially of North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo—are weakened by the fact that during consolidation following the Yugoslav War, certain rights granted to national communities and minorities are blocking the implementation of a European type of democracy based on individual rights. Theoretically, the problem with this approach is that the standards of human rights-based European democracy defined in the documents of the Council of Europe and other European organizations do not place individual and collective rights in mutual opposition, but consider the latter as means of ensuring individual rights. Hungary cannot accept this, because the opposition of individual and collective rights redefines European democracy, undermining its very foundations. And let us not forget that in the specific case of the Balkans, the various collective legal instruments were used as a guarantee for post-war stability. Therefore, their removal could easily lead to instability, which would jeopardize the security of the region. In the Balkans, the collective legal institutions should not be abolished, but fine-tuned in such a way that all fundamental individual rights can be ensured within an appropriate constitutional framework.

The sustainability of Western civilization

A consistently pragmatic foreign policy should never ignore that what is taking place in Germany or in the USA, be it good or bad, affects our country more directly than what is going on in Russia or China. Therefore, the sustainability of Western civilization (which has seen better days) is vital for Hungary, alongside global and Central European sustainability. This is the basis of Hungary’s alliance with the Western powers. Demographic problems and the pressures of migration on Europe pose a strategic challenge to the sustainability of Western (and thus Hungarian) civilization, just like the risk of Europe lagging behind in the global economic and technological competition. In addition, a very serious danger is created by certain political and ideological diktats, which weaken the sense of responsibility of Western countries towards one another.

Diktats within the EU played an important role in the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU (Brexit), which is likely to weaken both sides, but Europe in particular. It is still unclear what the long-term relationship of Britain will be with the EU and with the leading power in the West, the USA. Brexit has created a tripolar Western world instead of the former bipolar world (Europe and America), which in a best-case scenario may end up stronger and more sustainable than before, but also weaker in a worst-case scenario. What the tripolar West will look like will be determined by treaties between the three parties and the military-industrial and defence cooperation between them. In this context, the question is not whether there will be any trade agreements and defence cooperation. It is not even the incessantly repeated question of how ‘ambitious’ these treaties will be and what the amount of defence spending imposed upon the allied countries by the defence cooperation will be. The point is rather whether the content of trade and investment agreements and defence cooperation will make Western civilization and its political alliance sustainable or whether they will be unable to prevent their gradual erosion. The basis of the Hungarian coalition-building in the Western world is the will to cooperate, and to accept conflicts if needed for the sake of the sustainability of Western civilization and Hungary within it. But what do we mean by the sustainability of the West in a broader sense?

In the debate on internationalism and national sovereignty, Hungary unequivocally supports the latter position , since the strength of the West primarily lies in the wealth and cultural heritage of its nation states. In Hungary’s view, the sustainability of the West can only be ensured by preserving the jurisdiction and competences of nation states to effectively safeguard the freedom, security, and well-being of their citizens. Only this conception of sovereignty can ensure the preservation of the constitutional identity of Western nations, and in the case of Hungary, the protection of the constitutional guarantees of modern Christian democracy based on the conservation of values. This must be the foundation of a lasting alliance and friendship between the peoples and states of the West, and of the cohesion of the EU and NATO.

Hungary sees the support of families as a sustainable solution to the demographic problems of the West, instead of immigration which causes unaffordable social costs. Therefore, Hungary rejects the EU’s efforts to ‘Schengenize’ the world, namely to recognize the free choice of residence as a fundamental human right. (A sign of this was Brussels’ support for the UN Global Migration Pact, which Hungary strongly opposes.)

Hungary believes that the aforementioned commerce treaties and defence partnerships should create a relationship between the EU, UK, and the US that keeps all three sides at the forefront of global technological development, and ensures that Europe remains one of the most secure places on the Earth. To achieve this, the treaties must ensure a balance of competition and cooperation between the three sides.

Hungarian policy regarding the EU’s post- COVID-19 financial assistance programme is a good example of our policy regarding the sustainability of the West. Hungary, though not in need of aid, accepted the financial assistance programme in solidarity withEuropean nations in need. At the same time, in cooperation with Poland, Hungary succeeded in securing confirmation that in accordance with the EU’s seven-year budget, the granting of the aid will not be tied to the undefined ‘rule of law’ criterion and thus will not become a tool for political pressure. It is well known that the nightmare of a United States of Europe is based exactly on this kind of pressure. According to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, with the victories in the debate about financial aid and the budget, we have only won a battle, not the war. It must be emphasized, then, that we have not yet won the decisive battle for the future of the West.

The vision of a providing EU

Narrowing the focus of the aforementioned onto the EU and the coronavirus pandemic, we can state that the EU would have fulfilled its duty regarding to the pandemic only if it had been able to provide assistance to the member states in preventing of the spread of the pandemic and restarting their economies. Unfortunately, the EU was unable to play an effective coordinating role in the defence against the virus. Those member states which relied on EU coordination in the acquisition of the vaccines fell behind in the global competition for life-saving substances.

While the shortage of vaccine can be attributed rather to the failure of the EU bureaucracy than to that of its political actors, the latter nevertheless made serious mistakes in wasting time on ideological disputes in the midst of the pandemic and the economic crisis. Let us refer for example to the motions against Hungary and Poland on the rule of law. These motions did not hinder the defence of the two countries against the pandemic crisis, but did not help them either. Disputes regarding these matters could have taken place after the end of the pandemic. It was especially irresponsible to tie together pressure regarding rule of law issues with the assistance package, which almost resulted in the wrecking of the financial aid programme.

In the meantime, Hungary’s disappointment over the EU’s handling of the pandemic situation does not change the fact that the EU is one of the most important structures upon which the sustainability of Western civilization relies. Hungary intends to exploit the possibilities inherent in its EU membership to contribute according to its means to the advancement of Europe towards greater sustainability.

In terms of Hungary’s Europe policy, the question of whether we need ‘more or less Europe’ is not a matter of principle. From the Hungarian standpoint, the common structures and institutions should help member states to strengthen their citizens’ liberty and well-being and guarantee their security in the face of global challenges. The common institutions of the EU were created by the member states in order to serve their common interests. The reasons behind the frictions between Hungary and European institutions in the last years are due to the fact that the institutions strengthened by the deepening of the integration, especially the European Commission, have started to re-evaluate their role, and instead of serving the common interests, they have started toarticulate—or even to dictate—these interests.

The migration crisis is the most prominent example of this.

In the last few years the EU has made less and less effort to assist member states in the pursuit of their socio-political interests, which are different in the individual states. There are member states which wish to solve their demographic issues through mass immigration. Outsiders may or may not agree with this, but it is the unquestionable right of each member state to proceed in its own way. However, there are some, mostly Central European member states, like Hungary, that find the costs of migration too high and are not willing to pay it. This must likewise be considered their unquestionable right. There is no clause in Treaty of the European Union that would empower the common institutions with the power to declare one attitude right and the other one wrong, or even to determine the middle course and make it mandatory for everyone to follow it. For this would overwrite democracy within the member states—the most valuable component of European integration—and it would be in contravention of the Treaties as well.

At the same time, Europe must know that Hungary does not at all seek to reorganize the EU into a loose association of the member states. There are domains in which Hungary expressly proposes the deepening of integration and the broadening of common competences. For example, Hungary supports the idea of a European army, along with a digital and green common market, since these would strengthen the security of the member states and advance the cause of the ‘new economy’. This means that Hungary does not want to reduce common competences, but wants to ensure their appropriate usage. Hungary’s standpoint is that the EU institutions should return to their role as providers instead of their emerging oppressive role.

The Europe of human rights and security

Let us not fall into the trap of focusing only on the EU when speaking about our European policy, since there are some other important institutions that also affect developments on the continent. From the viewpoint of Hungary, the Council of Europe (CE) stands out among these institutions, since Hungary will fill its presidency in 2021. The Hungarian presidency of the CE also has significant symbolic importance, because it was exactly thirty years ago that Hungary joined the CE first from among the countries formerly under Soviet occupation.

The identity of modern Europe rests primarily on the founding documents of the CE. For this reason it is pointless to talk about European well-being and security— including post-coronavirus life—in a pan- European dimension without involving the CE. The CE also plays an important role in the development of minority rights in Europe. The promotion of human and minority rights has always been an essential part of Hungarian foreign policy; one could even say that Hungary is existentially committed to them by its history. The role of the CE in this area is of key importance, since the European Commission—as proven by the case of the Minority Safe Pack—rejected the idea of creating a European mechanism for protecting the rights of national minorities.

The democratic Western European countries founded the CE—which then elaborated the European Convention of Human Rights—in order to ensure the integrity of their democratic systems, sometimes very different from one another in multiple aspects. This institution was created shortly after the downfall of German Nazism and Italian fascism, and in the face of the then vigorous Franco regime and, most importantly, against communist propaganda spread by the Soviet Union with the aim of overthrowing Western democracies. Thus, it was created long before the EU for the protection of Europe’s democratic identity. It shows that security policy aspects were vitally important from the beginning.

We believe that the CE holds the same role today. One of the aims of the hybrid attacks against Europe is to undermine and confuse the democratic identity of Europe (and the CE), especially its concept of human rights and the rule of law. It is important (and unfortunately not obvious in some eyes) that the CE not lose its strategically significant function that it is the depository of democracy constituting a common ground for its member states. It is not obvious, because the legal interpretative processes ongoing in the CE in past years have often ended up in opposition to human-rights-based democracy and European security. Such cases impede the exercise of the essential functions of the CE, that is effective assistance to member states in improving their human rights-based democracy. Greater attention should be paid to legal efforts to make the right to security a fundamental human right.

The interdependence of security and human rights is particularly important with respect to national minorities, interfaith dialogue, family, youth, and children’s rights, which are the priorities of the Hungarian presidency. With this in mind, the CE may be able to successfully advance its system of values in the face of future challenges. Such challenges are moral and human rights dilemmas related to the development of technologies, especially the widespread use of artificial intelligence, to which the Hungarian presidency also intends to pay special attention in order to ensure the success of post-coronavirus reconstruction. Another important challenge on our agenda is the relationship between environmental and natural change in Europe on the one hand, and human rights on the other. It presents an opportunity to begin the elaboration of an additional protocol concerning environmental human rights within the European Convention on Human Rights.


Zsolt Németh, founding member of Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Party) and Member of Parliament since 1990. He studied political science at StAnthony’s College, Oxford University, as a visiting student in 1988 and 1989.

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