“Interest comes first, but we can never take steps contradicting our values,” says Balázs

The Foreign Policy Debate. Photo credit: ELTE Online.

On February 23, the JÖSz (Jogászhallgatók Önképző Szervezete, an organization of law students) at the Law Faculty of the Eötvös Loránd University organized an open debate between Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and Péter Balázs, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and director of the CEU Center for EU Enlargement Studies (CENS). The debate, chaired by JÖSz representative Dávid Surjányi, covered the most pressing topics of Hungarian foreign policy ranging from relations with Russia, the US and the “Eastern Opening” of Hungary after 2010 as well as its consequences on its relations with the West.

In his opening statement, Szijjártó highlighted that foreign policy has never been such a present part of internal political communication and assessed it as a previously rather calm policy area. In his view, however, the world is changing so rapidly now that a new approach has become necessary which can guarantee quick reactions.

Balázs pointed out that we indeed live in turbulent times referring to two crises: the one in Ukraine that questions the post-Cold War status quo, and the one in the Middle East incited by the Islamic State that questions and threatens Western values. Nevertheless, citing just a few cases occurring during his time in office (the murder of Eduardo Rózsa-Flores, the Slovak language law, the ban on President László Sólyom to enter Slovakia), Balázs underlined that calmness had not characterized foreign policy before either.

Evaluating differences in foreign policy before and after 2010, Balázs noted that the trend of an “Eastern opening” started well before the Orbán-government: PM Ferenc Gyurcsány was also committed to building ties in the East, but the emphasis nowadays is certainly stronger. Compared to today’s policy, the neighboring countries received more attention before 2010 and the V4 was a powerful group within the EU, especially under the leadership of Polish PM Donald Tusk and Hungarian PM Gordon Bajnai. After 2010, however, the explanation of Hungarian internal politics has risen to the forefront of foreign policy as one of its main foci.

Szijjártó evaluated the changes very positively, focusing especially on the restructuring of the foreign ministry in 2014 that increased the profile of external trade in foreign affairs, and concentrated cultural diplomacy under the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade while moving EU affairs to the Prime Minister’s Office. Emphasizing that only a pragmatic foreign policy can serve the Hungarian interest, Szijjártó outlined the five main goals of Hungary as follows: 1) strengthening the cooperation with Germany; 2) normalizing political cooperation with the US; 3) maintaining pragmatic relations with Russia; 4) achieving peace in Ukraine respecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; 5) building a strong Central European cooperation based on the Visegrad Group.

Balázs emphasized that external trade has a place in the portfolio, but not as the first priority. In his view, security always has to occupy the first place. “Only if security is guaranteed can we concentrate on economic growth,” said Balázs. With regards to the 5 priorities, Balázs welcomed the attention to German and American relations, but voiced criticism concerning the practical implementation of the remaining three fields. He highlighted that adding to Hungary’s gas import dependence on Russia with the Paks2 nuclear plant investment is a problematic solution. Furthermore, “pragmatic friendship” with Russia is in conflict with the priorities in Ukraine. Referring to President Vladimir Putin’s visit and press conference in Budapest on February 17, Balázs strongly criticized the silence of PM Viktor Orbán in face of Putin’s public call for Ukrainian soldiers in Debaltseve to put down their arms. He expressed his views that Orbán missed an opportunity to voice his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and cautioned that this would have severe consequences, as we already see in the worsening relations with Poland becoming apparent after Orbán’s meeting with PM Ewa Kopacz in Warsaw on February 19.

In response to this criticism, Szijjártó ensured the audience about the Hungarian government’s and personally Orbán’s support to Ukraine referring to the humanitarian aid and reverse gas flow Hungary provided in 2014. With regards to energy diversification, he reiterated that Paks2 was a good solution given the current environment: the North-South energy corridor is still not ready, and both the Nabucco and South Stream pipeline projects, which could have given some security to Central Europe, have failed.

Another round of the debate concerned the conflict between the “Eastern Opening” and the alliance with the West. Put it differently, the conflict between values and interests. “Interest comes first as we need to act, but we can never take a step that contradicts our values,” said Balázs. Such values should rest deeply in our civilization, and the protection of human life is certainly among them. In international politics the main values are territorial integrity, sovereignty, respect for borders and the self-determination of people. When these values are violated, one needs to dare to step up for them. Cooperation is not out of limits, but there are limits one cannot cross. With regards to energy, Russia is and will remain the main source for quite a while. Especially for this reason should we be cautious with other matters like Paks2. At this stage much should be invested into energy saving.

Talking about values and interests, Szijjártó highlighted the fight against the Islamic State, a group that poses a great threat to our values. For this reason, Hungary is invested in supporting the fight against the IS, and consultations about increasing Hungarian presence in the region are ongoing. He added that he based on how much big European powers are focusing their trade outside the EU, Hungary’s pragmatic trade orientation is well-supported by other examples. With regards to energy, the new challenge and new competition is how resources can be brought from Turkey to the region and how this can contribute to Central Europe’s energy security.

The discussion continued with a Q&A session where question raised by the student audience were addressed. The entry ban issued by the US on 6 Hungarian officials due to corruption allegations was raised as a new topic. Szijjártó argued that since the American party did not present any evidence and the Hungarian government exhausted all possible channels, the government considers the matter closed and seeks to strengthen political ties with the US now that both parties have ambassadors in the two capitals. In his response, Balázs noted that the Hungarian government rather backed out from the confrontation, which the US allowed it to do, but the matter has definitely not been resolved.



A photo report about the well-attended debate is available here, and a short video here.