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Hungary at the threshold of the European Union

Interview with Geza Jeszenszky, Former Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs

On the 1st May Hungary joined, along with 9 other Central European and Mediterranean countries, the European Union. May I ask you for your first impressions concerning this historical event?

It is, I think, too early to say what these impressions are, because we are waiting for this marriage to be consummated. Nobody is expecting immediate benefits or tragedies. Sugar prices went up, Romania has many Hungarians buying some goods there because they are far cheaper than in Hungary, etc. But I think we should go beyond those immediate and temporary results. For my generation the basic task has been to make the changes which started 15 years ago irreversible, to tie Hungary to the West politically, military, economically, as much as possible.
With our NATO membership all our traditional security dangers came to an end. We should now concentrate on the non-security aspects of European integration.

Is your country pleased with the final terms of Hungarian accession to the UE?

The government of course says that they have reached the best possible deal, but the opposition argues that Hungary should have negotiated better terms. My personal view is that probably it would have been possible to get a little of bit better terms, especially if the Visegrad countries would have been able to stick together, but this did not happen. If several countries present a common front then they are more likely to achieve the desired results. The lesson is that we should not give up our solidarity for some immediate benefits. Sooner or later, hopefully soon enough, we will get the benefits as well. In the years ahead the newcomers from the former communist-dominated countries can have an impact on Western Europe, not so much on economic decisions (although we will have our "say" there, too,) but I hope that we can bring some lessons, some of our experiences on, let's say, the "mental" level.

What kind of impact you are talking about? Related to our history, our place on the European map, or our relations with the east, especially with Russia?

All of it is of course involved. I hope we can influence the West Europeans so that they had a more realistic picture of Russia-not in the sense simply to be critical, but rather not to be overoptimistic about Russia. We should certainly appreciate that there are some good developments in the potentially most powerful country in Europe, but the EU should not be blind to the dangers like the aggressive economic policy of Russia. This is something which concerns the countries neighboring Russia, like Poland, not to mention the Baltic States. We in Hungary also perceive this economic buildup. When we see the French- -German-Russian love affair, then we are obliged to say a warning. Then there is the case of relations with the United States. Of course this question is very complicated. I do not want to say that we should be blindly pro-American: the United States- right or wrong. No. But I often see in Western Europe a kind of trendy hostility to the sole superpower. Anti-American feelings may have economical reasons, sometimes political ones, but, as I understand it, it is also an attitude, a kind of play, to make fun of the clumsy giant, to provoke those simpleton Americans just for fun,-and we should not participate in this game. When I am asked which side we should take, the U.S. or the EU, my answer is that obviously we wanted to become members of the EU, not of the U.S. But I continue to believe in the necessity of preserving the transatlantic link. If we want to deal successfully with the major challenges that the world is facing then we, the two sides of the Atlantic, must work together.

In which way Hungary, Hungary alone, would and should contribute to the development of the EU?

You, the Poles have your geopolitical position and your interests related to it. We, the Hungarians, have another one, and this is the Balkan area. This area is still unstable; one should not pretend it is not. Hungary proved its strategic and intellectual value in handling the crises over last 10 or 15 years. This crisis is not solved yet, so in this field we have a role to play. The question of minorities is not specifically Hungarian, it is not even a solely Central European problem. When Hungary is advocating the inclusion of the protection of historic minorities into the European Constitution we are not simply pursuing the special Hungarian case but an all-European problem, in fact a serious world problem, since most of the states of Asia and Africa are multi-national with serious ethnic tensions. So in those two related issues, the Balkans and minorities, Hungary can make an important contribution to a common European thinking. But if we want to have an impact we have to line up with other countries.

One of the main topics discussed in today's Europe is the project of so-called European Constitution proposed by the Convent chaired by former president of France Giscard d'Estaing. Despite of months if not years of intense discussion there are still at least two points of major disagreement among 25 members of the enlarged Union-on is related to the preamble of the proposed Constitution, which did not mention neither Christians values nor those traditions, the other-deals with the voting system in the European Council which favors big countries of the Union at the expense of medium ones-like Poland, Spain and, in the future-Rumania. Do you see here any realistic solutions?

Let's take the second question. The solution depends on the wisdom and the moderation of the countries involved in the debate. It is not for me to propose the solution but I would like to remark that European Union is proud to have always been able to find compromise solutions to the many disputes in its history. Also here we have to find a compromise. Every country thinks about its own interests. Large countries, like Germany, do not want to have a situation when small or medium size countries can dictate them what they do not want to accept. It is also essential that no country should feel that the EU could impose its will because this country is small. I hope that a solution will be found where no country will ever find itself in a situation when it will feel that its basic interests have been overridden. If we, the Central European countries, had presented a common front in this particular dispute over voting rights, then the final outcome would have been different. Sadly, it was not the case, and we paid the price for that. The Central Europeans should have a basic common position in so many issues.
As far the preamble is concerned it is hard for me to understand how people with any knowledge of history can oppose the inclusion of a reference to Christianity in the Constitution. Anybody who is European, who lives in a European country, can see and enjoy all the reminders: monuments, churches, books, literature and the arts-all of them have so much relation with Christian traditions-we must acknowledge the religious roots of our culture, even of our politics. I do not understand why some countries are against those facts. Such a reference would not impose the Christian faith on them, it would not threaten their secular traditions. We should not forget our history just to please some countries or because of certain fears concerning Muslim minorities in Western Europe.

Two speeds Europe

What EU is facing after its enlargement is so-called "the two speeds Europe", which means, briefly speaking, division of Union in two or more groups of countries or, in other words, creation of powerful center of the Union and dependent on this center Union's peripheries. Do you agree with it?

If we accept this division, that is the end of the European Union. It will break down because two speeds bring some basic differences. The most ambitious countries in the process of integration should slow down their speed and try to convince the others. If they are successful in this they will meet their objectives with just a little delay. Forced integration is a real danger. Internally the most advanced countries can do as they please in many issues, but on the European scale they have to look for compromise. It the case of the common currency, the Euro, there is no decision that all countries have to accept it. Perhaps in the future every country will be convinced about the value of this common currency. Not now. Personally I favor that. But we should not press for such a solution. Those countries, which want further closer integration, must convince of it the others…

...yet, there is a clear tendency among the stronger countries, like Germany and France, to impose their own solutions (i.e. corporate taxes) on new members. Those countries working together can really force such developments in the EU…

...I share this concern and I sympathize with members like Poland or Spain, which would like to receive the votes within the European Council that had been agreed to in Nice. That would give some kind of guarantee that two or three countries, with the strong views and positions, cannot impose their will on the rest. I would be the last to compare the U.S. or the French-German combination to the Soviet Union, but if one big power tries to impose its will on others it is unacceptable. We were ready to surrender part of our sovereignty, which we had just regained, but only on issues where we feel that they would bring benefits for us. I am of course strongly in favor of the European Union (after all it was me who submitted the application of Hungary for membership on 1 April 1994), but I do not think that the Union will likely lead to anything like a United States of Europe.

War in Iraq poisoned relationship between EU and US. Recently Security Council of UN adopted the resolution concerning the future of Iraq, which was accepted by both sides. Where-in your opinion-we are heading for: to the end of differences between the old friends, or just to postponement for the time being of the real, deeply rooted conflict?

I always had some unfashionable views about the situation in Iraq. I very much welcomed the liberation of that unfortunate country. Today most Iraqis rightly feel very unhappy about the lack of security but it is not the U.S. to be blamed for it, but the terrorists and the extremists, who do not want different ethnic and religious groups in Iraq to live in peace, each according to its preferred customs. With the removal of Saddam Hussein that became possible, but now an armed and fanatic minority tries to prevent a decent and peaceful life for the population of that much-suffered country.
Of course every country is entitled to have its own views about the right course to be taken in Iraq, but often it is just a welcome pretext for expressing individual grudges about the U.S. I am very pleased that now we have this agreement, a new resolution in the UN, but the whole Arab world is a difficult case to deal with. The next step should be done not in Iraq but in the Middle East. I mean in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Europeans have a chance here to work together with the United States and to propose a solution which is not new-once Rabin and Arafat came to an agreement about most of the debated points -, but the present Israeli government is not too close to such a solution.
Divisions between Europeans and Americans or rather between some Europeans and some Americans are very dangerous because Al-Kaida, or some other organizations, can utilize these divisions. We have to stick together. If America and the European Union will go it alone then there is no chance that we will reach substantial progress in the Middle East or elsewhere.

Some critics of current American administration are saying that nothing will change in US-European relations until president G.W. Bush leaves the office. Do you share this view?

Not really. A change of administration would offer a new beginning and would pave the way for reconciliation between some Europeans and America. But it is an illusion to think that the U.S. will conduct a totally or even substantially different foreign policy. If somebody has very strong reservations about the present policy of the U.S. and hopes for a dramatic change, he or she makes a mistake.

Central European co-operation

Before the end of communist years Poland as well as Hungary attached a great role to the memberships in such organization as Pentagonale (today: Central European Initiative) or later-to Visehegrad Group. What kind of role and future do you predict for them now, after our accession to the EU?

The Visehegrad Group, working together, most probably would have achieved better accessions terms with the EU. I do not want to say that we should form a newcomers' bloc in every issue. But we share so much in terms of our history, culture, recent experiences, basic aims, etc., so it is quite natural that we should form not only ad hoc alliances for some aims, but also something more lasting. Formulation of a new, special group would be perhaps not well received by the old EU members, but fortunately we have something already existing-Visehegrad Group, therefore we should not disband this cooperation. Personally I would be not against the enlargement of it, although there should be a limit-I think there is still a place for 2-3 new members. The Central European Initiative is a loose economic, transportation, cultural cooperation, and it has its own value.
When I was Ambassador in Washington the Visehrad Group, the Baltic countries, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Croatia could work very well, acting together. We were more active than other European countries. We understand each other, we instinctively have more to agree upon.

There are no major conflicts or problems between Poland and Hungary. Yet, in my opinion, we did not coordinate our policies in a sufficient way towards European Union in the pre-accession period. Do you see now any real chance and ground for common politics when we are member of this organization?

There is a chance, more-I would rather say, there is a necessity for it. I am sorry to say that we Hungarians are mainly to blame for not working together closely enough. It was a fault of the present government, because in 1999, when Fides won the election, there was a very welcome revival of the Visehrad cooperation. Unfortunately the present government does not pay too much attention to the close cooperation, particularly to the Polish-Hungarian one, in which Hungary can only gain. I am sorry to say that Hungary did not support the Polish position in certain issues during the last few weeks or months.

What kind of policy Hungary is developing towards Ukraine and its ambitions to become future member of NATO and the European Union?

I have very warm feelings towards this country. Poles, Hungarians and other nations should work closely together to help Ukraine becoming a modern European country. But I must say that the process of transformation in Ukraine is very disappointing-in some fields there are some improvements, but in others on the contrary, we have deterioration. It is extremely difficult for neighbors, for trusted friends, to prescribe what they should do, whom to elect, etc. The performance of Ukraine under the present leadership was not very good at all. With all our sympathy and interest we must hope for better leaders and better Ukrainian politics. It is not enough to say that they want to joint NATO; they have to qualify for this membership, to meet given criteria like democracy, market economy, freedom of the media, civilian control of the army, etc. There is still a long way to go for Ukraine.

June 2004 is an election month for European Parliament. How important is this election in your country?

In all countries, old and new ones, this election will not concentrate on specific European issues; it will be rather a vote of non-confidence on the present governments. It will be a huge, very reliable opinion pool. For most people the European Union is not yet a reality. For Hungarians it would be nice to be able to vote, to be in this European institution, but it is quite understandable that we will look at the recent performance of our politicians, keeping in mind the internal issues.

Thank you very much for your time and attention.

Words received by Ryszard Bobrowski

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