Hungary and the EU: A conversation with the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade

By Lea Schiller

On the 1st of May 2004, Hungary was one of ten eastern European countries to join the European Union (EU) as part of the biggest enlargement to date. Since then, political and economic changes have shifted Hungary’s relationship with the EU – from an applicant in the process of consolidating its democracy, to a country in the middle of some of Europe’s most challenging conflicts. As a leading Hungarian foreign policy think-tank, The Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT) not only carries out research in all fields of Hungarian foreign policy, but also publishes its own foreign policy journal and organises conferences and workshops.

In an interview, Dr. Attila Kovács, a Senior Research Fellow at the institute, describes the work of the institute as well as his own judgements on the current position of Hungary in the European Union.

What does your day-to-day work look like?

The work is flexible, so I am not in the office every day. Sometimes I have meetings with representatives of other think-tanks, or I go to the ministries. But normally we are writing; for example, we follow the daily news from other countries. I could also talk to the media about once a week on average. Especially when there is a political situation, for example a plenary week of the European Parliament, then it’s very common that I will get calls to give my expectations on what’s going to happen. But in the very end, we are measured based on the written outcome of our work.

So would you say written reports are the biggest part of your work?

To me personally, yes. Sometimes these are not for the external audience, but for inside: for the ministry; for decision makers. I haven’t organised that many events yet, but many of my colleagues are concentrating on increasing the visibility of the institute via organising lots of events. Another thing is that when there is a foreign delegation coming to Hungary, we regularly meet with them. Top-level diplomats are going to the ministry, but at the expert-level, they come to the institute, where we have workshops or talks with them. It can be just an exchange of views, or we establish some relationships with them.

I read about the round-table on minority affairs in the European Parliament that was organised by the IFAT.  The report mentioned that Hungary’s involvement in minority affairs in Europe is due to the fact that they are also at the centre of Hungarian domestic politics. Could you explain why that is the case?

It comes from one hundred years ago exactly. This year in June a hundred years ago, two-thirds of the previous territory of Hungary were detached from the country and given to neighbouring countries. […] Five million Hungarians were put outside of the country’s borders. Historically, it was one country with a similar population, and that’s a historical wound in Hungary. It’s still a living wound, and many Hungarians consider this as a very unjust outcome of the First World War. This is the root of the situation. Since then – depending of course on the ideological orientation of the government – we have been paying special attention to Hungarians living outside of the official borders of Hungary. Most of them live in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and a small part in Ukraine, which is very sensitive nowadays because of the Ukraine-Russia relations. But apart from that, there is a specialised group in the European Parliament dealing with the traditional minorities in Europe, for example the Catalans in Spain. But with these issues, there is a high level of political sensibility; there are independence movements, autonomy movements and many other, so you need to be very delicate when you approach these things. That was the root of the event. And I can see that Hungarian politicians – no matter what political side they are – are paying attention to these situations frequently.

How do you see Hungary’s position in the new European Commission under Von der Leyen?

There is a debate in Hungary, but also in Central Eastern European countries including Poland and the Czech Republic, that after sixteen years of the EU enlargement – so after sixteen years of EU membership since 2004 – there is not a double standard within the European Union, for example regarding the allocation of positions and the level on influence that countries have. Many believe that the allocation is still biased in favour of the old member states, and we are not represented based on the population. To answer your question, in this new Commission, Hungary got a good portfolio, which is Enlargement and Neighbouring Issues. I think so far this is the most important position that we have had in the European Commission. Previously, we had things like Youth Issues and Sports, which is not as important. For many young students, things like Erasmus are impactful, but politically speaking, Enlargement is much more important.

What do you see as Hungary’s long term goals for European Integration?

Hungary could be – and this is why the Enlargement and Neighbourhood portfolio is important – a bridge to Russia, and to Turkey. Orban has good relationships with Putin and with Erdogan. We need to maintain good relationships with Turkey and Russia. I think this could be a special role for Hungary in the European Union, to be an intermediary. Economically speaking, based on logistics, but also politically speaking, Hungary can be an intermediary; a bridge between the European Union and Russia and Turkey. And another thing is the Balkan countries, which we are neighbouring with, and that have a very special set of power relations. For example, the last war in Europe was in the Balkans, and the Balkans are one of the main sources of migration in Europe, which is also a sensitive issue. And again, Hungary is at the crossroads.

What is the position of the current Hungarian government towards the European Union? Under the current government, Hungary’s position is very critical, but it is not critical towards the European Union itself, but more towards the leadership – or the lack of leadership – regarding the European Union. […] For example, if you take a look at the current coronavirus situation, we didn’t see bold decisions like we see them now from the previous European Commission, while Von der Leyen immediately disclosed huge funds to handle the economic consequences of the virus. So what Hungary had a problem with was the lack of leadership. The second thing is more of an ideological approach. The current Hungarian government believes that the European Union should be about economic integration, not necessarily a political or cultural type of melting pot but economic cooperation of nation states. And this is a huge, fundamental debate; whether we should one day be the United States of Europe or a loose cooperation of nation states. Hungary represents that states still need to have significant powers in the European Union, and that can be a conflict. I can also tell you that Hungary has never been as important as it is today and in the last fifteen years. No matter what you think of Orban’s policies, everyone agrees that he has put Hungary on the map of Europe. Before that, it was a country no one really cared about, but now Orban became a reference point. Be it in a good sense or a bad sense – that’s a matter of personal interpretation – but Hungary counts today.

Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash

References

European Union (n.d.). EU member countries in brief: Hungary. Retrieved from: https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/countries/member-countries/hungary_en

Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (n.d.). About the Institute. Retrieved from: https://kki.hu/en/about-the-institute/

Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (n.d.). Hungarian national interest in Europe: minority affairs in the European Parliament. Retrieved from: https://kki.hu/en/hungarian-national-interest-in-europe-minority-affairs-in-the-european-parliament/