Bilateral relations between Serbia and Hungary are excellent. This fact has a positive effect on all segments of mutual cooperation, including political and economic questions, and the issue of having communities of national minorities living in the two countries. The recent visit of Hungarian Prime Minster Victor Orban and the upcoming third session of the Hungarian-Serbian joint government summit are just some of the examples of the excellent bilateral relations between Serbia and Hungary, says Ambassador Attila Pinter in this interview for D&C, which sees him speak in detail about relations between countries in the global, European and bilateral context.
Do you believe Europe’s Agreement with Turkey has put an end to the refugee wave in Europe?
The Agreement between the EU and Turkey is a huge step forward, which can serve as the basis for future international and regional cooperation in tackling the migrant crisis. At this point we hope that the agreement will fulfil its role. However we have to see that agreements like this are only dealing with the symptoms of the wave of refugees, and will not cure the root causes. The war in Syria, Iraq and Libya has to come to an end as soon as possible, and normal living conditions have to be restored. This is the only solution that can stop people leaving their homes and their countries. We are very pleased to see that the international community has been doing its best of late to reach a lasting solution for the crisis.
What are Hungary’s main security concerns connected to the current migrant crisis and, in this context, how do you view the fence erected on the border between our two countries?
The Hungarian Government has several times made its position clear on this issue. On the one hand, the Schengen rules have to be respected and implemented in all Member States. These regulations have served and are serving the benefit of all sides, no matter if the given country is a member of the Schengen Zone or not. On the other hand, those people in urgent need must receive help as soon as possible. Still this help in practice cannot mean simply opening our borders and allowing people to enter without control. In this way we would endanger the simple existence of Schengen and at the same time risk the lives of our citizens. That is why we believe that measures taken were, and still are, required. When Hungary started to implement the actions there were, of course, critical voices. However, more and more countries agree with our policy and are following our practice. To our greatest satisfaction, Serbia and the Serbian Government perfectly understood our reasons from the start. I can only underline here the importance of continuous dialogue, so that the steps of one side cannot be misinterpreted.
What are the main issues at present when it comes to cooperation between Serbia and Hungary?
As both the Hungarian and Serbian Prime Ministers emphasised at their last meeting on 13th April, our bilateral relations are excellent and at the highest level possible. This fact has a positive effect on all segments of our cooperation, including the political and economic question, and also the issue of communities of national minorities living in our countries. Joint governmental summits are an excellent forum for cooperation, as they provide an opportunity to discuss and advance the most important issues affecting our countries. The third session the Hungarian-Serbian joint government summit is to be held in Serbia this year.
We strive to further expand infrastructure ties between our countries. Our governments have decided to launch a comprehensive cross-border programme on the development of transport infrastructure and border crossing points, in order to further strengthen ties between the people living on both sides of the border. This intention was set down in the Memorandum of Understanding signed on 1st July 2015.
The development of North-South infrastructure is vital for the Western Balkans and Central Europe. We consider the joint modernisation of the Budapest-Belgrade rail line as the “flagship project” of our cooperation. We are satisfied that the project is progressing according to plan.
Do Serbia and Hungary have outstanding issues that could lead to delays in Serbia’s EU integration process?
There is no such issue as of today, and I cannot see one emerging in the near future either. Serbia’s EU integration is also in line with Hungary’s interests. Hungary has, from the very beginning of Serbia’s EU integration process, emphasised the importance of tackling all possible differences on bilateral bases. This has been and will remain our main objective in the future as well.
How would you assess cooperation between the two countries when it comes to the rights of minorities?
As you are probably aware – related to the EU integration process of Serbia – on 3rd March the so-called Action Plan on the Rights of National Minorities was adopted by the Government of Serbia. During the formulation of the document all National Councils, including the Hungarian National Council, were involved in the process. After a break of five years, the meeting of the Hungarian-Serbian Intergovernmental Joint Committee on Minorities was also held this April. Based on these recent experiences, I can only confirm that cooperation is excellent and all subjects can be discussed. I believe that if you asked the Serbian side, or the main representatives of the Hungarian community living in Serbia, you would receive the same answer.
You served as the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Chief for the Western Balkans. On the basis of that experience, how do you view these countries’ EU membership aspirations?
Every country in the region has EU membership aspirations, but to reach this goal every country has to fulfil preconditions for fully-fledged membership. If we compare the EU integration process of Central European countries with that of Southeast European countries, we have some differences. Back 15-20 years ago the EU did not have any experience of how to integrate so-called post-communist countries and the acquis communataire was much smaller than today. Now the EU has had more experience regarding the integration of the former Eastern Bloc, but the acquis has become much bigger.
As far as Serbia’s membership is concerned, I am optimistic. The Serbian Government has done a very good job and I am sure that the Cabinet and the administration will continue with that until the date of accession.
Hungary has always supported the EU accession of the countries of the Western Balkans, and we would like to remain the standard-bearer of this mission. The region including Serbia can expect our support in the future as well. The Hungarian Government has offered its best experts to help the activity of the Serbian Government in this process.
To what extent has Hungary succeeded in leading policies harmonised with those of the EU while simultaneously implementing its own foreign policy and economic goals, which include – among other things – good relations with Russia and China?
In order to avoid any misunderstanding, we have to make one thing clear right at the beginning: when a country becomes a member of the European Union it has to harmonise foreign policy goals with the common EU policy. However, this does not mean that Brussels will automatically take over the country’s foreign policy planning or any other policymaking, as a matter of fact.
In 2010 our Prime Minister Viktor Orban asked: “why should we stand on one foot, if we have two feet?” Despite the fact that we sail under the flag of the West (European Union), in the global economy the Eastern wind blows, which can easily overturn the boats of those States which are weak and don’t have diversified relations. Of course, our policy has to be in line with the EU’s foreign policy, but individual Member States can set their own priorities. The “Eastern Opening Policy” is Hungary’s answer to all the ongoing processes in world politics and world economy, and which can be clearly seen by the international community too. The doctrine is not aimed at creating good contacts with one specific country, but rather is more about building strategic alliances with states whose potential is not recognised. It is a political and economic opening up towards those countries which, despite the global economic crisis, have managed to preserve their stability and achieve economic growth. The Hungarian government has recognised the importance of cooperation with China and announced a dual policy of cooperation, saying that while the country is making efforts to maintain cooperation with western allies and the European Union it simultaneously builds good relations with China, as one of its main Asian partners and strategic allies, in accordance with the “Eastern Opening Policy”. The same situation applies when it comes to Russia. Although Hungary respects the EU’s decision about the introduction of sanctions against Russia, it uses every opportunity to convince Europe that the crisis can’t be handled efficiently in this way. The sanctions introduced in August 2014 caused a loss of nearly $4.5 billion in exports for the Hungarian economy, and the greatest losses were registered in the field of agriculture and food processing.
How much do you think Hungary’s unorthodox economic policies have helped the country overcome the consequences of the global financial crisis?
The structural reforms which were implemented by the Hungarian government led to an economic and financial turnaround in Hungary, the unorthodox crisis management has proven successful. The country is not under the EU excessive deficit procedure anymore, the deficit declined and the country is on its new, sustainable economic path. Without the introduction of structural reforms, we wouldn’t be able to achieve sustainable GDP growth in the medium-term, while it would have been impossible to reach higher employment rates and a balanced budget. Many European examples show that the austerity reforms were not successful and caused political instability. Hungary, in contrast, has chosen the path that led to reforms and a burden-sharing policy. Among the measures which led to the economic and financial turnaround we should mention: the introduction of a flat-rate personal income tax, bank tax and crisis taxes, economic crisis management without the International Monetary Fund (IMF), tighter budgeting, a deficit cut in the state budget and, finally, the use of unconventional monetary tools.
How much progress has been made in Hungary when it comes to realising plans to rebuild the Belgrade-Budapest railroad?
The ongoing Budapest-Belgrade rail line renovation project has been progressing successfully. On 15th August 2015 we received a financial and investment offer from the Chinese side, and we started the negotiations for the preparation of the intergovernmental agreement. On 24th November 2015, in Suzhou, on the margins of the China-CEE 16+1 Summit, we signed an intergovernmental agreement. The next working group meeting is planned to be held before the summer holidays.
How much could this infrastructure connection create room for wider economic and cultural cooperation, as well as cooperation in the field of tourism?
The Budapest-Belgrade rail line forms a bridge not only between our two countries, but also between East and West. The completion of the rail line will decrease the travel time between the two capitals to three hours. The development of the transport infrastructure between our two countries, and here we mean not only the railway line but also the opening of new border crossings, will definitely make our capitals more attractive to tourists, especially to those from the Far East, and we will be able to offer them regional and thematic tourist tours (wine routes, city breaks, spa tours etc.).