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H.E. Jozsef Zoltan Magyar, Ambassador of Hungary to Serbia

Security, Enlargement, Responding to Demographic Challenges…

There’s no doubt that the idyllic world of peaceful EU development and its coordinated strengthening with the inflow of new members is unfortunately a thing of the past. Europe has never previously experienced a period with so many difficult challenges. The loss of rhythm in the post-Covid economic recovery, significantly strengthened global competition and wars raging in the neighbourhood all require increased efforts from EU leaders and member states, both when it comes to internal European issues and at the external level, when it comes to international issues ~ Jozsef Zoltan Magyar

The struggle for the common interest of a strong Europe, “able to restore the European economy and EU competitiveness at the global level”, will be the priority of the Hungarian presidency of the European Union that gets underway in July. As a country that supports Serbia’s European integration strongly, the six-month period of the Hungarian presidency will see it advocate for the issue of Western Balkan enlargement to remain high on the EU’s agenda. When it comes to recognising Serbia’s progress on reforms, the best measure would be the opening of a new cluster. This requires a unanimous stance among member states, so lobbying in support of enlargement will be a serious task for us, but also for future presidencies,” says Ambassador Jozsef Zoltan Magyar in this CorD Magazine interview.

Your Excellency, what will be the priorities of Hungary’s EU presidency, which begins in July?

— Hungary’s presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2024 is viewed through two frameworks. Hungary will assume the role of the presiding country, within the trio of Spain, Belgium and Hungary, for a second time. According to the defined programme of June 2023, the goals of cooperation in our trio are based on four pillars: economy and competitiveness; freedom and security of EU citizens; a greener and more just Europe; and interests and values in EU foreign policy.

The second framework will be marked by the narrower six-month period of the Hungarian presidency, the priorities of which will be specified upon the conclusion of the Belgian presidency in June. The priority focuses of the Hungarian presidency will be strengthening competitiveness, enlargement, the future of the EU’s defence and cohesion policies and addressing demographic challenges and illegal migration. We all agree that we have an interest in a strong Europe; in a community with strong nations as member states, a community that will be able to restore the European economy and Europe’s competitiveness at the global level; a community that doesn’t want to use unilateral solutions to deal with the green transition of Europe and the wellbeing of its citizens, and which formulates the interests of our common future on the basis of its own values; a community that will be interested in eliminating the “stains” on the Balkan Peninsula and integrating the economies of these countries into the common market, removing today’s internal borders for citizens and hauliers. At the same time, we will strengthen Europe’s new external borders and protect them from the challenge of illegal migration. We want a Europe that addresses demographic challenges seriously and offers a solution to the problem of Europe’s shrinking population. One warning sign of this is the fact that the population of Europe today accounts for 6% of the world’s population, while the latest forecasts are that it will fall to just 4% over the next 50 years.

Your presidency comes at a very challenging time for the EU, immediately after elections for the European Parliament and at a time when a new European Commission will be constituted. To what extent will these events influence the plans of your presidency?

— There’s no doubt that the idyllic world of peaceful EU development and its coordinated strengthening with the inflow of new members is unfortunately a thing of the past. Europe has never previously experienced a period with so many difficult challenges. The loss of rhythm in the post-Covid economic recovery, significantly strengthened global competition and wars raging in the neighbourhood all require increased efforts from EU leaders and member states, both when it comes to internal European issues and at the external level, when it comes to international issues. Although the continuation of the joint 18-month programme of the trio forms a single framework, it will be divided by the timeline, because after June’s elections for the European Parliament, the selection process will begin for the leadership of EU institutions and will be completed by autumn, during the mandate of the Hungarian presidency.

Economic cooperation is also very important, considering that we achieved a mutual trade turnover of 5.8 billion euros in 2022 and 4.8 billion euros in 2023, despite the drop in energy prices

Our presidency can thus be considered unusual. Our clear goal and task is to smoothly manage the transition to the EU’s next legislative cycle, considering that 150 chapters have been opened. Given that the new EU cycle begins under the Hungarian presidency, building a constructive relationship with the new leaders of institutions will also be an important goal. In the meantime, of course, our main goal is to complement the calendar of our presidency with the holding of formal and informal ministerial and expert meetings, with around 170 events. However, the most important question for the Balkan region is perhaps how we will be able to give new impetus to the enlargement process in this transition.

It has already been stated that Hungary supports Serbia’s EU accession. How can that support be expressed during Hungary’s presidency?

— In such challenging times, Hungary believes even more strongly that the EU cannot be complete without the accession of the Western Balkans, which would equally benefit the Union from an economic, security and geopolitical perspective.

Serbia is our immediate neighbour and has the strongest non-EU economy in the region and a market of seven million people. What’s more, your country is home to the best organised community of Hungarians, numbering a quarter of a million people, which is a reliable coalition partner to the Government of Serbia. With the borders that separate us, we obviously have more shortcomings than advantages. As such, with a view to the Hungarian-Serbian strategic partnership and the welfare of the Hungarian and Serbian minorities residing in the two countries, we want to provide momentum to the accession process during the Hungarian presidency. When it comes to recognising Serbia’s progress on reforms, the best measure would be the opening of a new cluster. This requires a unanimous stance among member states, so lobbying in support of enlargement will be a serious task for us, but also for future presidencies. It would be very important for the European Commission to adopt a positive assessment in the autumn that acknowledges the gradual fulfilling of conditions for Serbia’s accession.

Hungary would also like to contribute to the establishing of an EU-Western Balkans summit during its presidency. It would also be good to hold a successful intergovernmental conference with Serbia and other countries of the Western Balkans, at which we could provide a solid framework for the dynamics of accession negotiations. It is also important for the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans to be adopted during the current institutional cycle, which would enable the shaping of plans to begin during the Hungarian presidency.

Following the adoption of the European Parliament Resolution on Serbia, with reference to the post-election crisis and allegations of election irregularities, we heard assessments that Serbia’s image in the EU had been damaged and that this will hinder further progress in the EU integration process. How are such assessments viewed in Hungary?

— I’ve been the Hungarian ambassador in Belgrade for a year and it doesn’t seem to me that there’s a crisis related to elections in Serbia. State institutions functioned prior to 17th December and continue to function. This is all illustrated well by the fact that, since the end of October, the Serbian police have blocked the migration route through the Hungarian-Serbian border on the territory of Vojvodina and have taken effective measures against human traffickers both in the intervening period and after the elections. Both the Serbian President and Prime Minister cooperate fully regarding recommendations related to the electoral standards of European institutions and organisations, and addressing observed objections to the electoral system is also underway. If no actual case exists, then there mustn’t be a reason for Serbia’s image or international perception to negatively impact its EU accession process. The greatest importance is ascribed to compliance and harmonisation with standards, benchmarks formulated in the chapters, as well as the annual progress report, all of which are important parts of the accession negotiation process.

It was almost a year ago that the first session of the Strategic Council for Cooperation Between Hungary and Serbia was held. Are there any plans for the next session or new activities on this front?

— Hungary and Serbia are seriously approaching the continuation of their strategic cooperation. When the Council for Strategic Cooperation was established last June, we signed 11 agreements and formed 12 working groups that are chaired by ministers. This year’s second meeting will be organised by Hungary. As soon as the new Serbian government is formed in Belgrade, we will launch preparations and evaluate the extent to which signed agreements have been fulfilled. In the more than half a year that has passed since the first session, many results have been achieved and will serve us in continuing to build our relationship.

Serbia is our immediate neighbour and has the strongest non-EU economy in the region and a market of seven million people. What’s more, your country is home to the best organised community of Hungarians, numbering a quarter of a million people, which is a reliable coalition partner to the Government of Serbia

Among the results achieved, it is noteworthy that our gas supply was secured in continuity through cooperation between our two countries. Via Serbia, some 10 million cubic metres of natural gas arrives in Hungary and heads further north on a daily basis. Hungary is prepared to store Serbia’s strategic supplies until more natural gas is delivered to Serbia via the new Bulgarian- Serbian interconnector or until it expands its gas storage facilities. We will soon conclude our agreement on the construction of a new transmission line between the two countries, while we have also decided to jointly coordinate the Hungarian-Serbian-Slovenian market in the supply of electricity through a joint regional electricity exchange from 2024.

With the aim of diversifying petroleum sources, the oil companies of our two countries are negotiating the construction of an oil pipeline between us. Since November, after a break of nine years, Szeged and Subotica are once again connected by rail. The border police have also extended working hours at two of the nine existing border crossings, which remain open after 7pm. We have started planning new Hungarian and Serbian expressways and associated border border points, with which new crossings will be built or expanded and renovated at Hercegszántó-Bački Breg, Tompa-Kelebija and Röszke-Horgoš. We have also launched negotiations on the possibilities of collaboration between the defence industries of the two countries, while the Hungarian police will this year continue joint patrols with their Serbian colleagues on the Serbian side of the border between Serbia and North Macedonia. Economic cooperation is also very important, considering that we achieved a mutual trade turnover of 5.8 billion euros in 2022 and 4.8 billion euros in 2023, despite the drop in energy prices. It is also very important that our country is Serbia’s fourth largest foreign trade partner.

Hungary and Serbia are strengthening their cooperation in the area of energy. In your opinion, what significance will the formation of SERBHUNGAS, as the joint gas trading company of Srbijagas and Hungary’s MVM, have?

— SERBHUNGAS is the first company with two co-owners that are the most important state-owned gas companies of two countries. This relates primarily to safeguarding gas supplies, but it is equally important from the point of view of the functioning of the gas market, because a company that operates under EU regulations and beyond the EU must, from a commercial perspective, secure supplies that achieve results on the basis of market expectations. Trust between the two countries in the area of energy supplies is important and could be extended to the areas of electricity and oil supplies in the near future.

EU PRESIDENCY

The goals of cooperation in our trio are based on four pillars: economy and competitiveness; freedom and security of EU citizens; a greener and more just Europe; and interests and values in EU foreign policy

WARNING

One warning sign is the fact that the population of Europe today accounts for 6% of the world’s population, while the latest forecasts are that it will fall to just 4% over the next 50 years

EU ACCESSION

With a view to the Hungarian-Serbian strategic partnership, we want to provide momentum to the accession process during the Hungarian presidency

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