5. PHONEY FOREIGN POLICY
The ‘peacock dance’ and isolation
Hungary battling its allies
In today’s world, Hungary, a landlocked country of 10 million people, has every need for powerful friends: to guarantee its security, increase its prosperity, and preserve its national character. Through NATO and the European Union, Hungary has become part of a powerful system of alliances, one that expands the country’s room for manoeuvre and puts a dampener on damaging external influences. Since 2010, however, the Fidesz government has broken the national consensus that since 1989 regarded Euro-Atlantic membership as the cornerstone of Hungarian foreign policy and which governed Hungary’s policy towards its neighbours and the ethnic Hungarian minorities living in those countries.
Hungary is a faithful member of NATO, its soldiers have participated in a number of military operations, but the country’s army is small and not adequately equipped. The backbone of Hungary’s relationship with the United States is determined by the interests of NATO, including the purchase of modern American weapons and reductions to the country’s one-sided dependence on Russian energy. Hungary’s strategic significance, or the lack of it, is reflected in the fact that Prime Minister Orbán, after nine years of government, was the last of the Central European leaders to be welcomed by the current President of the U.S.
The Fidesz government has, for no good reason, turned against ‘Brussels’, that is, Hungary’s European allies, announcing a ‘freedom fight’ against them. Fidesz frequently vetoes collective steps taken by the EU, while presenting its trouble-making and deliberate infringements of rules as if it were the EU that were attacking Hungary. It attempts to earn support at home with this, while currying favour with extreme-right political forces bent on destroying European cooperation. The Fidesz government’s behaviour is dangerous for Hungary, because it poisons relationships with its most important economic and political partners, while putting at risk future financial support from the EU.
In many areas, the EU implements joint governance, in which Hungary plays a part, but the government keeps silent about or even denies the fact that final decisions are agreed jointly by the leaders of the governments of sovereign member states. The most important issues (citizenship, currency, budget, border protection, foreign policy, etc.) are still in, and will continue to be in the hands of national governments. Hungary’s independence and security is increased by being connected to the European transport and energy networks currently under construction. All experiments and adventurist projects that contradict this – notably the Russian-backed expansion of Paks nuclear power plant and the Budapest-Belgrade express railway line to be built using a Chinese loan – are not justified economically and themselves put the country’s sovereignty at risk.
Partly as a result of such policies, Hungarian diplomacy has become ineffective and isolated in recent years. The country today under Orbán has few friends in the world; not even the three other Visegrád countries are unanimous in supporting it. Within the EU, only a few extremist political parties back Hungary’s domestic and foreign policy, including the Lega (Nord) in Italy, FPÖ in Austria, AfD in Germany, RN in France, and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands. When abroad, Hungarian citizens frequently experience for themselves the effect of the government’s political hypocrisy and of the growing level of international disagreement. The favourable image of the Hungarian nation, so strong after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has deteriorated, and its prestige in the world is on the decline.
Conflicts to the west, adventures to the east
Of the various international risk factors, the Fidesz government focuses solely on the subject of immigration from overseas to Europe, and constructs its election campaigns on this platform. Government propaganda paints Hungary as a destination country for migration, despite the fact that it was only a transit country for a brief period in 2015. In fact, Hungary is experiencing outward migration in large numbers. Despite the relentless claims of government propaganda, it is not possible for “Brussels” to “settle” anyone in the country without the consent of the national authorities. Nevertheless this anti-migrant sentiment, whipped up for domestic political gain, has been extremely effective on a large swathe of society. Still very much in play, it, together with the deceitful and unnecessary ‘national consultation’ projects have used up huge state resources. Rather than analyse the real causes of migration, the Fidesz government continually talks of an enormous international conspiracy in which the instigator of this devilish plan is the EU itself. In truth, the EU is striving to hold back migration towards Europe and to apply coordinated efforts to make it possible to supervise the migration issue. The best method of halting illegal immigration is common action taken at the EU level, and indeed, in the last few years the EU has successfully reduced mass immigration.
This stubborn, destructive opposition to the EU has had consequences. It was a factor in the European People’s Party (the family for conservative and Christian Democratic parties in the European Parliament), deciding on 20 March 2019 to suspend the membership of Fidesz, as its rule raised serious concerns about sustaining the norms of democracy and rule of law. This means that there is no one to represent Hungarian interests with adequate clout in the largest political family of Europe – just as decisive changes are underway: the follow-up to Brexit is just about to be decided, a new European Parliament is being elected, a new European Commission is to begin its term, and the debate on the seven-year EU budget to 2027 is reaching its concluding phase.
The Fidesz government has attempted to compensate for worsening relationships with the West with its policy of ‘Opening to the East’, but with little success. Countries, whose politics cannot, by the standards of European democracy, be considered acceptable, have instantly become “friends” of Hungary. The prime minister maintains a close relationship with Russian President Putin; he was also the only EU leader to be present at the inauguration of several leaders with dictatorial tendencies – for example Turkish President Erdoǧan and Brazilian President Bolsonaro – and Orbán is very fond of the former Soviet world of Central Asia. We believe that Hungary can trade with many partners, but should not embrace questionable or reprehensible policies.
Russia is a key power factor in the world, and could become an important market, if its economy stabilises, but its expanding political ambitions today make it a risky partner. For this reason, Hungary’s traditional energy dependence needs to be lessened, not increased, while other long-term business deals and banking connections with Russia should be dealt with carefully. All should recognise the growing role in the world economy of China, India and other rapidly developing economies, but for Hungary geographical distance and the accompanying risks place limitations on closer ties.
Policy for ethnic Hungarians beyond Hungary’s borders, and election trickery
Hungarian foreign and domestic policy pays particular attention to ethnic Hungarians beyond the country’s borders. Hungary has a moral obligation towards the Hungarian minority communities in neighbouring countries, to the Hungarian diaspora spread across the world, and to the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who have recently left the country seeking employment abroad.
Hungary should support those Hungarians living as an ethnic minority in countries bordering Hungary in such a way that their national identity and their citizenship should not come into conflict. Minority rights begin with the free display of Hungarian identity, its symbols, and with the unimpeded use of the Hungarian language. The support that Hungary can provide should in the first instance be sent to institutions that work on the development of Hungarian-language education, on the maintenance of media in Hungarian, on cultural life in Hungarian, and on exercising their religion. The political parties entrenched in the political life of the given country are best placed to formulate and represent the rights of these minorities in an authentic way. Fidesz, however, only enters into dialogue with those parties that in return offer their unconditional support for its policies. Such support, for example, includes efforts to ensure those Hungarians across the borders that hold double citizenship vote for Fidesz in elections in Hungary.
In view of the often troubled histories between Hungary and its neighbours, the issue of how Budapest deals with its minorities in the near abroad is sensitive for all concerned. Achieving historical reconciliation with neighbours is likely to improve the lot in life of minority Hungarian communities, but this should not mean curtailing the rightful claims of these people. Equally, the government in Budapest needs to be aware of emotions and perceptions entrenched in the national conscious of each host nation to achieve better relations all round.
Sadly, the Orbán government tends to shirk away from real problems rather than look for solutions when dealing with its neighbours. Examples include the situation facing Hungarian educational institutions and the issue of the restitution of property in Romania, and how to deal with the issue of dual citizenship in Slovakia. Probably the most damaging and counter-productive example involves the subject of Hungarian-language education in Ukraine after the government in Kiev enacted a restrictive language law. This is a genuine grievance for ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine. Instead of calmly initiating bilateral negotiations with Kiev, the Fidesz government immediately reacted aggressively, effectively trying to blackmail the Ukrainian side by blocking that country’s efforts to come closer to NATO. Given that Ukraine is struggling to contain Russian-backed insurgency in its eastern territories, Budapest’s policy is obviously favourable to Russian interests.
Granting Hungarian citizenship to members of ethnic Hungarian communities in neighbouring countries and to those in the Hungarian diaspora is one way of strengthening their Hungarian national identity. We believe it is the duty of the Hungarian state to create conditions that allow dual citizenship to be freely used and enjoyed. But dual citizens from communities beyond Hungary’s borders must not be granted more favourable treatment than native Hungarian citizens who live, work and pay tax in Hungary. It is also important that Hungarians working in the West should be able to submit postal ballots in elections in Hungary – just as those from minority communities in neighbouring countries can. Hungarian citizenship should not become a marketable commodity that can be bought for money by those who are not eligible for it. In short, dual citizenship should not be a means of obtaining votes for any political party in Hungary.
For Hungarians around the world, the behaviour of the motherland, its achievements and its international reputation act as important reference points; it is with awareness of this that politics in Hungary should be conducted with responsibility and to the highest standards. The Fidesz system, however, hiding behind a handful of nationalist slogans, does exactly the opposite. Today, Hungary is infamous for its rejection of the European idea, for its xenophobia, for its economic performance falling behind that of its region, and for its increasing corruption. The unity of the whole Hungarian nation can only be achieved within the framework of European unity. Our fellow Hungarians in the states neighbouring Hungary have the best chance to stay in the countries of their birth and of preserving their national identity if they can freely travel and work in a Europe without border controls, and if they can keep their native language and their culture as citizens of the European Union.