Joint infrastructure projects, such as the restoration of the Belgrade-Budapest railway, are one of the aspects of economic cooperation between Hungary and Serbia, which is developing on the foundations of “never better” political relations between the two countries, says Hungarian Ambassador in Belgrade, H.E. Attila Pintér. As he explains in this interview for CorD Magazine, the two countries are not only strengthening bilateral relations, but rather elaborating a strategy for joint appearances on third markets, where China will be the first challenge.
Your Excellency, could you tell us more about our two countries’ joint business strategy?
– Relations between our two countries have never been as good as they are now. We would like to use these present harmonious political relations to expand our economic cooperation. The geographical proximity of our countries and their similarities, easy accessibility, as well as our complementary tourist attractions (beautiful capitals and other cities, spas, wine routes, historical ruins), create the possibility for joint action and a joint presence on third country markets. Since January 2017, Serbia, in the case of short-term stays of up to 30 days, provides visa free entry for Chinese citizens. We would like to develop joint tourism offers, with special tours across both countries, which could be really interesting and attractive not only for tourists, but also for businessmen arriving from the Far East. We share these goals, because our two countries together can be more successful and attractive for new investments.
There is a lot of talk in Serbia about the modernisation of the railway and connecting Budapest and Belgrade, under the auspices of China’s “One Belt, One Road” investment project. The media recently reported that the construction of that 350km-long section has now come under the scrutiny of the European Commission, which is checking whether the financial arrangements with China are in accordance with European regulations. What is Hungary’s response?
– As a European Union member state, Hungary is not in an enviable position, because it must find balance a between fulfilling of its obligations defined by EU legislation and meeting the expectations of the Chinese side, which can sometimes be really difficult. From that aspect, Serbia is in a slightly easier situation, which is why Minister Zorana Mihajlović was able to sign the commercial agreement for the reconstruction of the first section in Serbia last year in Riga. We tried to find a solution by forming a joint company with our Chinese partner, bearing in mind the legal obligations towards the EU. We are waiting now and shall see what the Commission has to say, but we are optimistic.
Could the project to construct the railway that would connect Serbia and Hungary with Greece end up sharing the fate of the South Stream gas pipeline, which was scrapped due to noncompliance with European regulations?
– I don’t believe that could happen. In the case of the South Stream, the issue had a slightly different origin. The EU couldn’t accept the fact that the constructor of the pipeline should be the same company, which would also provide the transportation services after the completion of the project, as the purpose of construction of new gas pipelines today is not only to create new routes, but also to ensure the diversification of sources. However the existing Nord Stream project proves that there can be always exceptions. In the case of the railway line, the Commission could have problems with the conditions of funding and those of the construction provided by the Chinese side, but it is evident and there is no doubt that the railway line would serve not only the interests of all countries concerned, but also the whole of the EU. In addition, the project has many benefits, including environmental ones, as it will reduce gas emissions and is more cost effective, so it offers a very advantageous transportation alternative that fits in the European road networks.
When it comes to relations between Hungary and the EU, is the new round of “National Consultations” – some kind of referendum that has been organised by the Government since 2011 in order to check the views of citizens regarding current issues – an introduction to new clashes with the EU, given that the questions for citizens are entitled “stop Brussels”?
– Relations between EU Member States and EU institutions should fully respect the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Hungary believes social standards cannot be uniform and social progress should follow economic growth. As the Commission does not share our view in this regard, there is no consensus between Brussels and Budapest concerning several policy issues. Therefore, the Hungarian Government decided that it is timely for the public to voice its opinion through a new National Consultation. The consultation will touch the topics of migration and taxation policy, job-creating measures and the regulation of public utility charges, and the operation of NGOs in Hungary.
Relations between EU Member States and EU institutions should fully respect the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Hungary believes social standards cannot be uniform and social progress should follow economic growth
Critics of these consultations see them as government populism, which question the European principle of the free market and equal conditions for all, trying to present the issue as an EU attempt to interfere in Hungary’s internal affairs?
– Against all the criticism, the Hungarian Government believes very much in Europe and in the European Union as envisaged by its Founding Fathers. As Robert Schuman wrote in 1963, “European cooperation (…) does not diminish or absorb (the nation), but confers on it a broader and higher field of action”. The Founding Fathers of the European Union sought to create a united Europe on the foundations of cooperation and mutual trust among strong nation states and the democratic equality of the European peoples. That is in the interest of preserving peace, economic and social development and, last but not least, the raising of living standards. We think we must safeguard the greatest achievements of the EU. At the same time, we need a strong Europe capable of acting and responding to Member States’ interests and citizens’ needs to regain their trust.
This is what the Heads of Governments of the Visegrad 4 Countries declared before the Rome summit, in their Joint Statement “Strong Europe – Union of Action and Trust”. The Visegrad countries are very keen to contribute to the discussion about the future of Europe. That is why the motto of the incoming Hungarian V4 presidency starting in July 2017, will be “V4 connects”. Furthermore, the priorities of our Presidency are closely connected to the EU and its future, as well as to the issues of security and migration, competitiveness, digitisation and the global and regional role of the V4 cooperation.
Has the continued existence of the Central European University in Budapest, founded by American of Hungarian origin George Soros, been called into question?
– As regards the amendment of the Act on Higher Education, a new framework and regulatory system are required for foreign institutions of higher education in Hungary. The reason behind this was that the Education Authority, during a regular review in 2016, discovered several discrepancies and serious irregularities in the operations of foreign institutions of higher education in Hungary. Based on the new regulations, foreign institutions of higher education can operate in Hungary on the basis of an agreement between the two states, which provides reasonable conditions for the issuing of academic degrees that are valid across the entire European Union.
As regards the CEU, from the legal perspective there are currently two separate universities operating in Hungary – Közép-európai Egyetem (KEE or, in English, Central European University) and the Central European University, New York (CEU).
The CEU was established in the United States in 1991 as an institution of higher education, but it provides no teaching programmes in the U.S. Rather, it operates solely in Budapest, though under U.S. law. The CEU is featured in the Hungarian register as a foreign institution of higher education.
The KEE is a privately-operated Hungarian institution of higher education recognised by the state and operating under Hungarian law.
However, technically the two universities are the same, as they maintain the same teaching programmes, while their staff and study departments overlap. This joint operation of the institutions has resulted in the fact that today the CEU (New York) and KEE (Budapest) cannot be clearly separated even as far as the institutions themselves are concerned. Thanks to that, the students are only required to attend a single course for the university to be able to issue them with two degrees – Hungarian and American.
The new regulations would not impact on the Közép-európai Egyetem KEE, while the future operations of the CEU must be settled via an international agreement. The Hungarian government is ready to negotiate the CEU case with the United States Government or leaders of the federal state involved.
In Hungary’s evaluation, building Europe’s security solely on the migration deal with Turkey, whilst criticising the Turks and doing nothing in the interest of reinforcing protection of our borders, is an unreasonable policy, which might fail any time soon
A recent survey by the Nezopont Research Institute suggests that 61 per cent of respondents in Hungary fear a new migrant crisis and believe that another million migrants will pass through Hungary towards Europe. Is that fear justified?
– In Hungary’s evaluation, building Europe’s security solely on the migration deal with Turkey, whilst criticising the Turks and doing nothing in the interest of reinforcing protection of our borders, is an unreasonable policy, which might fail any time soon. If thousands of migrants appear at our borders once again, the EU will be unable to do anything, just like two years ago.
There are 13.5 million people in Syria and 21.2 million people in Yemen living on humanitarian aid, and the mass migration passing through Libya is causing increasing social and economic tension. The number of migrants arriving in Europe via the central Mediterranean has increased since the beginning of this year, and Italy has registered 18,000 immigrants, mostly arriving from Libya.
There are also worrying signs along the Balkans migrant route. An unstable situation has emerged in Macedonia as a result of external intervention, which is preventing the country from establishing a government capable of making decisions. The fact that the previous Macedonian decision concerning the state of emergency in border territories will expire at the end of July means that without political stability it will be impossible to extend the military’s participation in guarding the border. To support Macedonia, Hungary is sending a new contingent of police to Macedonia. This is the fourth unit of thirty police officers, which contributes to joint border management operations.
How do you see the roles of Hungary and Serbia, as next-door-neighbours and countries along the so-called Balkans migrant route?
– Protecting the external Schengen borders is an EU requirement and Hungary is complying with EU regulations on protecting the European Union’s external borders. Serbia is currently bearing a bigger burden in the migrant crisis than some EU Member States. Serbia is taking care of about 7,000 migrants and simultaneously fighting illegal migration on its borders.
Hungary and Serbia have developed successful cooperation in fighting illegal migration and human trafficking. Hungarian police officers supported the work of the Serbian police in the summer of 2015, at the Serbian-Macedonian border, and between October and December 2016, at the Serbian-Bulgarian border. Hungary is willing to continue providing all possible forms of support to Serbia in order to keep the migrant situation stable, and to protect Serbia’s borders.
During last month’s Rome summit, marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the EU, the member states from Eastern Europe criticised the idea of a “Multi-speed Europe”. How is that idea interpreted in Hungary?
– Hungary believes that the EU remains the best instrument to address the challenges we are facing. We also agree that, in order to ensure the necessary flexibility, we can take advantage of enhanced cooperation, as stipulated in the Treaties. Yet any form of enhanced cooperation should be open to every Member State, and should strictly avoid any kind of disintegration of the Single Market, the Schengen zone and the European Union itself. Based on the same idea, the EU should remain open to those countries that share our values, including the countries of the Western Balkans and our Eastern neighbours.
Hungary believes that the EU remains the best instrument to address the challenges we are facing. We also agree that, in order to ensure the necessary flexibility, we can take advantage of enhanced cooperation, as stipulated in the Treaties
Hungary is Serbia’s fifth largest economic partner. In which areas do you see opportunities to develop cooperation further?
– Last year saw the trade turnover between our countries reach nearly €2 billion, though the commodity structure has been greatly transformed. The main traded goods between our countries became almost the same, mostly energy resources (oil and its derivates, electricity), processed products, industrial machinery, electrical machinery and vehicles, mainly thanks to the realisation of a larger number of foreign investments in Serbia and the opening of new production facilities in the country. The Serbian Government’s efforts aimed at sustaining macroeconomic stability and improving the business climate have started to pay off, which is why most imported and exported goods are no longer raw materials, but more processed, higher added value products. That’s why we should focus the accent of our future economic cooperation on knowledge and technology transfer, mostly in areas and sectors in which Hungary has a lot to offer, such as energy efficiency, ecology, water management, wastewater treatment, agriculture technologies, knowhow transfer and ICT. Many Hungarian companies are considering new investments in Serbia, while we also have great plans in the field of infrastructure development, as it is no secret that some Hungarian companies are really interested in the construction of the “Fruska Gora corridor” between Ruma and Novi Sad, but we are also ready to provide financial solutions for the realisation of this project. We would also like to open a new border crossing between our two countries this summer, while the aforementioned cooperation in tourism is also of great importance.
What kind of impact on strengthening economic cooperation did the joint session of the governments of Serbia and Hungary, held last year in Niš, have; given that it was followed by a meeting of businessmen from both countries?
– Niš was chosen as the venue of the joint session of our two governments specifically for the development of our economic relations, because we wanted to divert the attention of Hungarian companies that have plenty of opportunities waiting for them not only in Vojvodina, but throughout the whole of Serbia, so why not South Serbia? Although the majority of companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, like to operate in an approx. 200 km radius and are comfortable in envirnoments they know well, and are also afraid of language barriers, the Business Forum in Niš was a great opportunity to change those habits and for them to enlarge their business networks, interact in a different setting with new potential partners and new opportunities, and I can now surely evaluate it as having been a very sucessful meeting.