"This is a country where people are friendly, they are open, and this is also a country that is never boring and this is a country that you have to visit,” says Foreign Minister János Martonyi in an interview he recently gave to Diplomacy & Trade.
“It is very different – the facts have changed a lot in the meantime.” That is how Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi recalls his first term as foreign minister between 1998 and 2002. “The situation at that time was very different, especially from the European perspective. The main job was to negotiate the conditions of EU accession and the primary goal was to conduct these negotiations successfully and lead Hungary to EU membership as soon as possible,” he explains to Diplomacy & Trade.
As for the present, he says “we are members now, happy members, celebrating our 10th anniversary next year.” The first challenge upon coming into his present term in office also concerned the European Union: preparation for the country’s first EU Presidency. “It was a completely new exercise never done before. It was a huge challenge and most see it as a successful job,” he adds.
EU: challenges and regulations
He admits that that there have been and there still are challenges in Hungary’s relationship with the European Union. “We’ve had a very difficult period because of all the constitutional regulatory changes. There were many acts and laws adopted, many of them were misperceived in the EU, but there have also been several mistakes on our side, we’ve admitted that. However, this difficult period is now essentially over, the politically sensitive issues have now practically almost all been settled. Most of them were with the European Commission (EC) or the European Union and some with the Council of Europe. However, as the Secretary General of the latter has recently said, most of the debated issues, media, justice, etc. have been or are being settled. The forced early retirement of judges has also been settled with new legislation.”
What remain are the infringement procedures concerning different tax issues. There are 22 of these infringement procedures with the EC, in different phases and of different degrees of importance, the Foreign Minister says, pointing out that the EU average is 37. “Sometimes, these procedures are unavoidable. I agree that the Union should regulate a lot of things but many believe that the EU is overregulated. That creates an issue, a gap between the Brussels bureaucrats and the public opinion. Our policy is that we try to settle infringement procedures in the earliest possible phase and only the last resort should be that the Commission brings the issue to the European Court of Justice. There, of course, we defend ourselves because we think we’re right.”
Regarding idea of a closer European integration to make the EU more competitive, the Foreign Minister says, “I don’t think there’ll ever be a ‘United States of Europe’. I used to be a deeply committed federalist. However, now, I believe that we need to develop a much closer, a much stronger integration in certain areas only. For instance, the common currency requires a much better functioning budgetary framework, a much better coordination of economic policies and if we want to do all this, then, we also have to make some movements in the direction of a political union, which is the most sensitive thing. I fully agree with those who say that if you want to confer more competencies onto the Union, you have to give more political and democratic legitimacy to the Union. Otherwise, the gap I just mentioned will be deeper and wider.”
This European integration began six decades ago and “I believe it has been an enormous success. However, having the same rules for everyone does not make the EU more competitive. Why? Because we are different. The level of economic development is different. There is also a political reality, that of people’s thinking. They stick to their nation, their language, their identity. The lack of respect towards these sentiments would be hugely counterproductive. So, we have to respect these things while moving in directions where we have to and where we can.”
Opening to the world
Changes have also happened globally. There has been a great economic and political shift with China and the other BRICS countries emerging. “So, we are living in a completely different world in which we try to identify the basic directions of our foreign policies geared towards successful membership, like the negotiations of the multi-annual financial framework, the new budget of the EU for the next seven years. The political agreement is already there,” the Foreign Minister points out.
He is of the opinion that “another direction, perhaps the most important, is the global move, which is, in fact, being done by everyone. What we call now the ‘Eastern opening’, is an all-European project. The share of trade within the EU compared to the overall foreign trade volume of all 27 EU members dropped by 3% as member states turned outwards in the crisis and increased their non-EU trade to make up for that loss. Hungary’s exports to the non-EU countries increased in the last two years by exactly 3%, the EU average.”
He says this is now a global tendency that each country, including Hungary, tries to open up to new trade partners. “It’s a long process and it’s not just the East, also the South, more exactly Africa. There are more and more visits from our Foreign Ministry made to that continent whose importance has been discovered by others, as well. For instance, China’s trade with Africa increased by 1,000% in the last couple of years. All that shows that we have to react to all these changes. It is our firm intention that Hungary will have to become a much more open country in every respect and we have to not just react to all these changes but we need to be proactive and develop relations with the emerging countries.”
The human element of diplomacy
In recent conflicts in the Arab world, Hungarian diplomacy was widely recognized for maintaining a presence in Tripoli and Damascus and representing the European Union as well as countries like the United States, Canada and Australia when most other embassies had already been evacuated. Foreign Minister Martonyi says it is not just the question of bravery but in such a situation, a minister has to take into account what the given ambassador is suggesting because he is the one who knows the local situation, the security conditions, how useful he can be there. “For instance, I told our ambassador in Tripoli, Béla Marton, that he can come home any time he wants, he does not even have to make a call to the Foreign Ministry, let alone get the authorization that is required in normal cases. He has been lucky and extremely successful there. He even helped two American journalists to get across the border to Tunisia. We did not want to give the impression of supporting Kaddafi’s or Assad’s regime. However, I believe diplomacy is not just high politics, in some situations, it is just humanitarian, whenever and wherever you can help, just do it!”
When asked about the most pleasant, most proud or most difficult moments of being a foreign minister, his answer is truly diplomatic: “I have to say that I enjoy every moment of my job but – at the same time – each and every moment is a challenge.” A less pleasant moment in his life was his recent illness during which he received a lot of best wishes for recovery from members of the diplomatic community in Budapest. “I appreciated these friendly gestures very much, I was really moved. I want to express my gratitude for all these gestures of sympathy.”
If he was a foreign ambassador, himself, in Budapest, his message about Hungary would be that “this is a country where people are friendly, they are open, they have a lively political and intellectual life discussing and debating with each other. This is also a country that is never boring and this is a country that you have to visit!”
Central European message
János Martonyi’s personal priority for two decades has been a successful neighborhood policy and “what we now call Central European policy – neighborhood in a wider sense, not just our immediate neighbors but also the Czech Republic, Poland and the Western Balkans. My basic tenet when we started was that we would like to be best friends with everyone, primarily with our neighbors. In times of trouble, you need your neighbors first, they can help you even if they’re not the best neighbors.”
He believes the Central European framework is strengthened with the ongoing Hungarian presidency of the Central European Initiative and the Hungarian Presidency of the Visegrád Group (from July 1), constituting a Year of Central Europe in Hungary. “We have to further develop and put on a non-qualitative basis regional policy. In the past 2-2,5 years – which were not the best from the Hungarian perspective – this neighborhood policy worked! We probably have the best relations ever with the Slovaks, Rumanians and Serbs. All in all, this was a policy, which bore its fruits.”
Still, there are debated issues. In case of Slovakia, for instance, one difference is that Hungary recognizes so-called collective rights of minorities of any kind. Slovakia also recognizes such rights but only on the level of individuals, having an effect on ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia trying to acquire a second, Hungarian citizenship without being forced to abandon their Slovak citizenship.
“This is something we discuss with Slovakia and the negotiations are on the level of experts to try to find the way out of this legal and political ‘imbroglio’. Both sides try to ‘sell’ their opinion, discussions are going on but please, don’t try to restrict Hungarian-Slovak relations to these couple of issues. We have so many things in common: it’s not just energy, interconnection, railways, pipeline, tourism or joint ventures – it’s everything. We’re neighbors and as such, we have strategic interests. That is the Central European message: we try to make everyone understand not only in the relationship with Slovakia but also in relationships on a European level: we should get away with those centuries when our peoples were fighting each other and were trying to find a ‘big bother’ somewhere outside the region for help. The message is that we should stick together and represent our own interest and then, we will be taken seriously! If we run to outside partners to complain about the neighbor and satisfy our own interests against the others, that will be a ‘lose-lose’ story,” the Foreign Minister points out.
He adds that – say – in the issue of the multi-annual financial framework, the Polish prime minister, for instance, stands up and speaks on behalf of the Visegrád Four group of countries, people will listen, they’ll take it seriously. “If we stick together, we realize – and that’s not just a slogan – that we have much more in common than those issues, which separate us, despite daily issues that come and go. As long as we discuss them, that is the normal solution. Sometimes, Western European countries have much more serious issues between them.”