I think there is no alternative to full EU membership for Serbia and the Western Balkans. I think we should present the same terms and benefits to prospective partners, not give them “second hand” alternatives. Serbia has proven itself as a valuable partner for us, and especially for Hungary, and we therefore do not consider alternatives when it comes to EU enlargement ~ Attila Pintér
In elaborating ways to avoid being hit by the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, the governments of Hungary and Serbia recently agreed that Serbia can store 500 million cubic metres of gas with its neighbour, thereby increasing its reserves. This arrangement is one in a series that confirm the high level of bilateral cooperation that was discussed recently in Novi Sad, at the Agriculture Fair that was opened by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Speaking in this interview for CorD Magazine, Ambassador Attila Pintér says he doesn’t believe the two countries, with their strong agriculture, will be hit by food shortages, though he adds that the situation is more complex on the wider European and world markets.
Your Excellency, given that Hungary strongly supports Serbia’s European integration, how are your country’s current relations with its partners within the EU?
The question is ever relevant and I want to stress that we firmly believe that the EU can only benefit from the membership of Serbia. We use every forum to spread the word and convince our partners in the EU that this is the way to go. Serbia is important from the perspective of geopolitics, being the key state in the Western Balkans. We believe that the stability and future progress of the region cannot be ensured without Serbia I usually explain to my partners that the discourse within the EU might seem chaotic and complicated – and sometimes it is – but that does not stop us from cooperating effectively. The member states understand the importance of the Western Balkans and many share our views about the immediate need for enlargement. Certainly, there are sceptical positions, but I consider that as a perspective that can be changed. This is a long debate. I don’t believe that it will be concluded now, but that shouldn’t discourage anyone from taking part. We need to emphasise our efforts in support of Serbia and the Western Balkans, because we need to present a credible route to EU accession for them.
The President of France, who is currently presiding over the EU, has proposed the creation of a “European political community” that would extend beyond the EU and allow non-member countries to attach themselves to the Union. How do you view this idea? Could it become an alternative to membership enlargement?
As for the French plans, I think we need to look at this as a proposal. From the Hungarian perspective, this does not seem to be a credible alternative for the Western Balkans. Such a political community would not have all the benefits of the EU and, as such, it wouldn’t appear to be a holistic alternative for candidates. I consider it more as a reaction to the present political situation in Europe, which would only solve problems in the short term.
I think that there’s no alternative to full membership for Serbia and the Western Balkans. I think we should present the same terms and benefits to prospective partners, not give them “second hand” alternatives. Serbia has proven itself as a valuable partner for us, and especially for Hungary, and we therefore don’t consider alternatives when it comes to enlargement.
During his most recent visit to Serbia in March, Prime Minister Orbán spoke of the need to “reconsider the joint plans” of Serbia and Hungary. How did you interpret that message?
Personally, I wouldn’t venture to interpret the message of the Prime Minister, but I can share my views here. It is evident that the international situation has changed drastically over the last three months. As Ambassador to Serbia, I need to find ways to maintain and extend our bilateral ties even in very complicated and challenging situations – of which we’ve had many recently. Solidarity and understanding prevailed between Serbia and Hungary during the darkest times of the Covid-19 pandemic and, based on that, I think we can find common ground even during difficult times.
The war has shifted the energy landscape of Europe – most notably gas and oil infrastructure – and we thus need to adapt. Serbia is obviously crucial to this. As an EU membership candidate country, as our neighbour, and as a friend, we have the responsibility to cooperate closely
The war has shifted the energy landscape of Europe – most notably gas and oil infrastructure – and we thus need to adapt. Serbia is obviously crucial to this. As an EU membership candidate country, as our neighbour, and as a friend, we have the responsibility to cooperate closely. I am certain that the good relations between our two countries will remain and that we can do more together to benefit our people.
The reconstructed Belgrade-Novi Sad railway is already in operation, while works have now commenced on the section up to the Hungarian border. What is being done on your side of the border? Will the railway’s complete reconstruction – despite delays – be completed by 2025, as announced by President Orbán?
Considering the importance of the project and the magnitude of the investment, both the Hungarian and Serbian governments are exerting great efforts to ensure this railway line is operational as soon as possible. Being neighbouring countries, infrastructure developments are of paramount importance in our bilateral relations. This is one of the most important shipping routes on the continent, with plenty of goods and millions of people passing through every year. Once completed, this railway line will offer the fastest transport route for Chinese goods between Greek ports and Western Europe. In recent months, the situation in Ukraine has further enhanced the importance of this railway line, as significant transport routes have become unusable due to the conflict. However, this project is important not only for freight traffic, but rather also for transporting passengers, as it creates the opportunity for a high-speed rail link between Belgrade, Budapest and Vienna. In addition to a reducing travel time, this could also help reduce waiting times at borders, as more people are expected to choose the train. If the full connection is established, we hope that the number of tourists visiting the two capitals will also increase, as Budapest and Belgrade can be made significantly closer to one another.
As you mentioned, the works on the Hungarian side have commenced and the cornerstone of the Hungarian section was laid on 15th October 2021 at Kiskunhalas. The works are going according to plan and are on schedule, and I therefore don’t see any reason to doubt that the Budapest-Belgrade railway line will be completed in 2025.
Hungarian and Serbian officials insist on the importance of strengthening economic cooperation between our two countries. Are there any specific plans to continue Hungarian investments beyond the Serbian province of Vojvodina, which would represent a new trend in economic cooperation?
Hungarian companies are well aware that, in recent years, Serbia has had an impressive economic recovery that led the way to growing stability and competitiveness, making Serbia an extremely attractive investment destination.
Historically, Hungarian companies were more interested in fostering business ties with the northern part of Serbia, owing to its close proximity to Hungary and the Hungarian minority living in the region. The situation has changed visibly over recent years as a result of two factors. The first is that highway infrastructure has developed significantly in the southern part of the country, and now Niš, Čačak or Kragujevac can be reached from Budapest within a few hours. A second and very important reason is the clear goal and dedication of the Hungarian Government in fostering business relations to the south of Belgrade. Prime Minister Orbán has been clear about this strategic direction and has been advocating it consistently.
In terms of capital allocation, Serbia is today a priority target country for Hungarian enterprises. On this note, in November 2019 the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade launched a specialised financial instrument, the Western Balkans Investment Scheme, with the specific aim of fostering the economic development of the Balkan region – including Serbia – by strengthening the presence and role of Hungarian companies. The programme was considered highly successful and prompted the Hungarian Government to continue the initiative of promoting Hungarian investments abroad with a new programme called the Foreign Market Growth Incentive, which has a global scope. These new investments will have visible results in the coming years.
Could the ongoing energy supply crisis, to which both Hungary and Serbia are exposed, threaten bilateral economic relations between our two countries?
Economic relations between Hungary and Serbia have developed on a historical scale over the past ten years. This fact makes it possible, and the Covid-19 crisis has shown that economic synergies between our countries should be crisis-proof in the face of global economic difficulties. The international economic consequences of the Ukraine war and its impact on energy markets have put both countries in a difficult and precarious position. Shipping and manufacturing costs for companies have risen, while governments in both countries are working to alleviate the difficulties. All this in order to keep our economies competitive and also ease the pressure on household budgets from the soaring inflation worldwide.
Indeed, the recent Covid-19 crisis and armed conflict in our neighbourhood have highlighted the fact that global food supply chains are far too fragile, and that food systems should therefore be built on a regional basis
Hungary and Serbia have jointly recognised that the economic growth of their countries, and the living standards of their populations, could be jeopardised if we completely abandon energy sources of Russian origin. Such a move would instantly nullify the economic results of recent years, both nationally and bilaterally. That’s why we are working to ensure that both the public and the companies are shielded against the consequences of the worldwide energy crisis. Thus, the energy crisis is currently a difficult factor in the development of economic relations, but it is not an obstacle to those relations. We do hope that, despite the challenges, the two countries will still achieve a record foreign trade turnover this year.
One of the directions through which Hungary is supplied with Russian gas is the Turk Stream gas pipeline, which runs through Bulgaria and Serbia. How is it functioning at present, given the tension between Russia and Bulgaria over payments?
Gas deliveries between Hungary and Serbia, through the infrastructure that is part of Balkan Stream (Turk- Stream), are taking place without any interruption.
As two countries that depend heavily on their own agricultural production, can Hungary and Serbia avoid the dark scenario of food shortages that’s been mentioned; and, if so, how?
First of all, there is no reason to be worried about food shortages in either Hungary or Serbia. Both countries have favourable conditions for food production, moreover the export of food, animal feed and agricultural products represent a significant value in our export figures. However, the food security situation isn’t the same at the global level. There are several countries that rely heavily on food imports and, unless the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is resolved, food shortages will become a challenging issue for them. Taking into consideration Hungary’s well established agricultural traditions and Hungarian agri-business potential, our country was invited to be the partner country of the 89th Novi Sad International Agriculture Fair this year. And given the excellent bilateral cooperation between Hungary and Serbia, we were happy to participate and take on the role of special partner to the event. The Fair was opened jointly by PM Viktor Orbán and President Aleksandar Vučić on 21st May, which signals the importance of both bilateral cooperation and farmers, who were mentioned in the opening address of the Hungarian PM as the heroes of current times.
Indeed, the recent Covid-19 crisis and armed conflict in our neighbourhood have highlighted the fact that global food supply chains are far too fragile, and that food systems should therefore be built on a regional basis. That’s why Hungary and Serbia agreed at the highest level to help each other avoid any future disruption of their food supply chains. While there is no immediate danger of food shortages in our countries, we are being hit by significant inflation. In order to protect consumers, both governments decided to set an upper limit on prices for essential food products. The impact of this measure is being fully monitored and regular consultations are being held between our professionals, universities and researchers on its effects and results.
When it comes to agriculture, Serbian and Hungarian companies have established several joint ventures and participate in joint projects to create quality products. One example of this is the new feed mill to be established in Šid by UBM Ltd., which is currently under construction. The basic concept of this investment is to use raw material produced in Serbia to create higher added value that will benefit both countries. The two Governments have therefore also given financial support to joint projects to encourage investment in agriculture and reach new markets with processed food products from the region.
Alongside joint ventures, there are also several technical issues providing common ground for cooperation between Hungary and Serbia in the field of agriculture. Both countries follow GMO-free production. An exchange of legislative solutions and plant breeding results, in this regard, is among the areas where our countries have lively cooperation. Furthermore, as an EU member state, Hungary is sharing the knowledge and best practices we gained when joining the EU, so in this way we can also help Serbia speed up its accession negotiation process.
I want to stress that we firmly believe that the EU can only benefit from the membership of Serbia. We use every forum to spread the word and convince our partners in the EU that this is the way to go
Being neighbouring countries, infrastructure developments are of paramount importance in our bilateral relations. This is one of the most important shipping routes on the continent
Both countries follow GMO-free production. An exchange of legislative solutions and plant breeding results, in this regard, is among the areas where our countries have lively cooperation