Péter Balázs: Nationalism is still alive in Europe

peter_balazs_big.jpg

Hungary and Slovakia must make a major effort to overcome nationalist tension, Péter Balázs, recently appointed as Hungary’s new foreign minister, told EURACTIV Hungary in an exclusive interview.

Péter Balázs, who took office on 14 April in the cabinet of Gordon Bajnai, was Hungary’s first European commissioner, serving from his country’s accession to the EU on 1 May 2004 until the end of the Romano Prodi’s Commission in November that same year. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

What can the Ministry of Foreign Affairs do to cope with the economic crisis on a national and international level? 

The ministry’s playground is mainly international. We have a crystal clear task: to communicate the government’s programme, the measures taken according to the programme, and finally the results of these measures. The entire diplomatic army is working to reach to our counterparts and to make them realise that that Hungary has a clear, concrete, realistic and doable programme. We are on it! I am convinced that finally we have a real programme. This does not beat about the bush; we calculated it accurately, so it is capable of restoring trust in Hungary. 

The only remaining question is whether really the content of the programme will be implemented. If the words and the deeds are in accord, then comes the third point of trigonometry: the result. 

The weakening of the Hungarian Forint stopped. This could be already seen as a tiny result, but it might just be the swing of the seismograph. It is a sign of trust. This is what we have to communicate. 

As a former EU commissioner, are you going to focus more on EU affairs, or are you in favour of a more transatlantic foreign policy? 

We are in Europe, we are living in Europe and we belong to Europe. The mechanisms of the European Commission allow a very tight co-existence: dozens of experts travel to Brussels every week, the ministers of foreign affairs meet monthly, etc. We are an organic part of Europe. 

I do not like it when this [European approach] is confronted in any way with Atlantic policy. This is like asking a child which parent does it prefer. 

It is huge error to distinguish them in an artificial way. NATO and the USA are the most reliable in security policy questions; however, [in this field] the EU has noble intentions with quite modest results. The EU is our environment in economic cooperation questions. Nothing can replace it, because the EU market share is around 80% in Hungary. The outside world does not hold our salvation, only an EU which is headed in the right direction. 

Do you see Hungary as a small or a medium-sized EU country? 

Medium-sized. 

Karel de Gucht, the Belgian minister of foreign affairs, recently complained thet the Union is increasingly governed by an “executive board of big countries”. Do you subscribe to this view? 

There are three categories [of countries] now, not two. There are six large member states [France, Poland, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain], and a number of small ones, and there is also a medium-sized category. I consider a country small [if its population is] under five million. I think even Denmark is medium-sized, because of its strength, self-awareness and influence. Slovakia as well belongs to this middle group. The next [special case] is the Netherlands. with a 15 million population. Romania is a borderline case, as it is not considered as a large country. 

As the representative of the government I was present at the European Convention. There were two different fears: the small states were afraid of the large ones, and the large states were afraid of the small ones. The small member states did not want the large ones to dominate them, and decide behind their backs, while the six large states were worried about the majority of the 21 small states. 

When the European Communities were founded, there were three small and three large member states. With the northern integration, the number of large ones increased to five and the number of small ones duplicated to ten. Now there are three-and-a-half times more small member states than large ones. 

In many [international] institutions, the member states are represented with no regard to their size, the principle one state-one chair applying. Therefore Malta has equal opportunity to speak as Germany. It is true that the weight of its statements is different, but the opportunity is the same. 

This has lead to a problem – which I have sensed with Germany already two years ago – that the large states are about to back out of the EU. 

In an economic or a political sense? 

They have always had this opportunity in the economic sense. Germany knowingly has been working on it since 2007 to seize the economic institutions and to strengthen the G20. The decisions of the London [G20] summit on 2 April were the results of a long preparation. The point of this was to leave the small member states behind and to deal with states which have similar influence and weight. 

You mentioned that you would like to have France and Germany as Hungary’s main partners within the EU. However, these two member states do not have a harmonious relationship. During the preparations of the April G20, Sarkozy and Merkel had several disagreements. What kind of role can Budapest have within the Paris-Berlin axis? 

The Paris-Berlin axis provides the basis of the EU. It is very difficult to achieve anything in the EU without France or Germany. If they do not support us or even oppose us, we have little chance left. It is difficult to establish a supportive coalition even with other large states. The support of Spain, Italy or Great Britain is just not the same. It can be competitive, but success is not guaranteed. 

I am accepted both in Germany and in France: in France because I speak French, in Germany not just because I speak German but because I was [my country’s] ambassador there. 

Their relationship does not concern us. You do not stand between wrestling elephants! It is still a mortal danger if they love each other and they dance care freely around. It is not our duty to mediate. 

In spite of the official statements, the Czech Presidency has not been successful, although it had to face several unexpected situations. A series of diplomatic blunders and failure in domestic policy worsened the situation. How will the Hungarian Presidency, due for the first half of 2011, prepare for the unexpected? 

The Czech Presidency is not over yet, so I do not want to evaluate it. They had the bad luck of having a government crisis during the presidency period. 

The same rule applies to the presidency of the European Council as to the foreign policy: you have to plan very carefully. You have to build on permanent values and be on constant alert as to what kind of unexpected events will occur. The true value of foreign policy is measured of the efficiency with which it treats unexpected situations. 

The Hungarian presidency can be prepared technically. Young professionals are already being trained. I do not see any problem at the expert level. 

The question is the competence of the minister who finally voices [in Brussels] the materials prepared by the experts. This cannot be forseen because we do not know who the ministers will be in 2011 [elections are due in April or May 2010]. 

The first weeks of the Czech Presidency were influenced by the gas crisis. What kind of strategy would you suggest for the EU towards Russia: stick or carrot? Or let me put it this way: Nabucco or South Stream? 

First and foremost, I can suggest to the EU to emphasise unity. But nothing could be more difficult than this! Russia is not a transparent partner. The problem in the MOL business [the Hungarian oil company facing hostile takeover bids from Russian firms] is the same: we don’t know who is behind the case. Their traditions don’t favour this way either, as Russian methods are based on Byzantine traditions and not on Protestant ethics. In the latter case, we call a spade a spade, in the previous one, they are not following this method. It is really difficult to negotiate with this culture. First of all, we should know what is going on in Russia, then we should be aware of their interests. 

In the conflict theory, there are different levels, and according to my opinion, for the time being the EU and Russia are playing a game. This means that we are smiling, but at the same time, we are looking for the ways to hinder each other’s way. Theoretically, after this, the level of the negotiation would come, where we openly show our cards, expressing what we are giving and what we ask for in exchange. 

The problem is that EU member countries are treating Russian relations either on the basis of national egoism or – which is even worse – emotion, like the Latvians and the Poles, or the Estonians. It is impossible to create unity like this. 

The Eastern Partnership also seems to irk Moscow. You said that you would like to develop good bilateral relations with the Russian Federation. Putting forward such initiatives, doesn’t this sound contradictory in a way? 

The Eastern Partnership has its support in the EU, but it won’t be an easy job to harmonise it with the EU-Russian relations. The whole of post-Soviet Eastern Europe is taking part in this initiation, except Russia. 

We could say that the Eastern Partnership corresponds to Russians’ desires, because Moscow keeps on telling us that it doesn’t want to join the EU, but to be a partner. But in this case, this partnership should work in a way that the Russians could find in it what they want. 

Moscow refused to be part of Eastern Partnership because it wanted its relations with Brussels on a bilateral basis. 

Exactly. But for this, the tone with the Russians should be found. 

At my inauguration, I found in the foreign ministry that the last meeting of the Hungarian and Russian foreign ministers had taken place in 2005. The relations were functioning, as there were plenty of meetings [at the level] of prime ministers, maybe a little bit more than necessary. 

Now I would like to make it up for the foreign ministers’ meetings. Exceeding the ‘getting to know’ process and hopefully confidence-building, we are starting to look after what can be done. 

Campaigns for the European elections are overwhelmingly dominated by domestic political issues. How can the Ministry for Foreign Affairs help raise awareness about this poll and European issues? 

The European Parliament has been elected directly for thirty years. We joined this process five years ago. The current phenomenon [of low turnout] is probably not just our fault, as for thirty years, the participation rate has been declining constantly, but we toed the line too. We have almost turned our back on the aim and we use these elections for internal purposes. 

However, the European elections have to be about the future, democracy, enlargement, competitiveness, internal infrastructure and the energy supply of the EU. 

You stressed several times that you would like to place more emphasis on the ‘Hungarian neighbourhood policy’, addressing problems with those countries with which relations are not cloudless. How would you expect to improve Budapest-Bratislava relations? Will you cooperate with th  [ultra-nationalist, anti-Hungarian] Slovak National Party? 

I am not seeking to cooperate with the Slovak National Party. 

But it is part of the Slovak government too… 

I don’t want to cooperate with one party, but with Slovakia, in the name of Hungary. The 1,000-year-old common sort is given, and we have to see the new-born – existing since 1 January 1993 – Slovak state’s emerging dynamism. 

These national identification frameworks characterise the revival or the miracle of birth. The fact that the country exists, that it can be found on the map, is a source of power. It didn’t happen by accident that the Slovaks put the double cross on the euro coins earlier than the Hungarians [Slovakia adopted the euro as of 1 January 2009, while Hungary is far from meeting the eurozone criteria. The double cross is a symbol of Christianity from the 9th century, which arrived in current-day Slovakia with the mission of Cyril and Methodius to Great Moravia]. 

They didn’t run away from the reforms, they have an amazing dynamism inside, but at the same time a huge sensitiveness too. They don’t have a history, 1,000 years are missing, as at that time we ruled them [Magyar tribes occupied the present-day Slovak territory around 896 A.D. Slovakia seceded from Hungary only after the First World War]. And they assume that they have a bone to pick with us. 

It is a complex situation and they haven’t reached that point of the identification process where they can settle history wisely and look to the future. 

When each side has its own extremists, these people provoke each other. I know from the media as well that the ‘Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement’ [a radical far-right nationalist movement in Hungary, advocating the revision of the Trianon Treaty of 1920] is recruiting members in Slovakia from Thursday. The harm they will cause is something we will have to heal for half a year. 

Now a Hungarian organisation is provoking, but it is the same situation as when Ján Slota [president of the Slovak National Party] says something really evil. 

Is it really the same level? A provocation at state level compared to one from an extremist organisation? 

Well, we can analyse it, but it is rather self-mystification from our side referring to that, like it wasn’t us, but the provokers. A country has to know how to handle its own extremists, either by legal or by police instruments. 

It would be great if it didn’t deteriorate to a level where it could cause a diplomatic scandal. And this is the responsibility of the state. 

Haven’t we already reached this point? The recently held Slovak presidential elections had a really strong anti-Hungarian aspect. It appeared indirectly in the results, directly in the campaign against Radicova [Iveta Radicova from the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union, now in opposition, who ran for the presidency and lost on 4 April against incumbent President Ivan Gasparovic]. 

The anti-Hungarian behaviour has not been born nowadays; it has already existed amidst the oppressed Slovaks. The Hungarian language was hammered into Slovak children’s head by ‘rattans’ during the years of the Monarchy, because the poor kids didn’t know a word of Hungarian when they started school at the age of six. That’s how the relationship started. 

We have to treat them with eternal patience, but the current Slovak government is not an ideal partner for this. But by the time there is a better one, maybe we will have a government in Hungary which does not follow this way. Endless patience and comprehension are necessary. If it is needed, one has to be determined and hard, but it is not always the best solution. 

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe