Mutual respect has helped us shape a better future for our peoples. Our efforts to bring our countries and peoples together have resulted in the exceptional growth of our bilateral and economic ties and secured rights for our minorities
There is probably no other EU country with which Serbia’s bilateral relations have experienced such stellar progress as is the case with Hungary. The scope of cooperation extends far beyond minority issues, encompassing everything from investments to migrant policy and culture. Yet the friendship is confronted by controversy, with Hungary – as an agile supporter of Serbia’s accession process – facing harsh criticism from Brussels for undermining the very idea of Europe.
We discussed all of these issues thoroughly with Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade H.E. Péter Szijjártó, who was recently decorated with the Order of the Serbian Flag, First Class, in recognition of his extrordinary efforts in developing and strengthening cooperation and friendly relations between Serbia and Hungary.
Hungary supports the fast-tracking of Serbia’s EU accession, while it is often very critical of the EU administration. Why, then, do you think Serbia has to join the EU, and which EU should it join: the current one, or the one envisaged by PM Orbán?
Hungary has always been clear about one thing: Serbia must be admitted into the European Union, especially given that the EU could only benefit from that. We face very similar problems to Belgrade, such as illegal immigration, geopolitical projects and our efforts to fight the virus. I believe that the difficult situation in the
Western Balkans cannot be solved without Serbia. There is no other way; we need Serbia in order to maintain peace and stability in the region.
If the EU does not make the move for Serbia, someone else will. It is in our interest to cooperate with a strong and successful country and, honestly, Serbia has exerted huge efforts to join the EU. It would be a shame to lose such a reliable partner just because we don’t speed up the Serbian integration process.
PM Orbán’s visit to Serbia coincides with the campaign to promote his vision for the future of the EU, while at the same time he has been criticised by other EU member states, with some even calling for Hungary’s expulsion from the Union. To what extent might this controversy, from the perspective of Brussels, impact on Serbia’s accession progress?
Basically, we are under continuous attack from the institutions in Brussels, because, whatever we decide, European Institutions find a way to put some pressure on us and try to blackmail us to change our decisions and stop taking advantage of the opportunities that come from our national competences. The reason why the debate is so harsh is that the EU’s future is at the centre of the debate. There are two major approaches with regard to the EU’s future. One is a federalist type approach, which is represented by the institutions themselves and would result in a kind of United States of Europe, which we definitely oppose.
Then there is another approach, which, to be honest, is in the minority and which we represent: we need a strong European Union, but a strong European Union must be based on strong member states. This is why we do not support the notion that any other competences be taken away from the member states and given to Brussels, and this is the core of the issue. In terms of enlargement, Serbia has exerted significant efforts to become a member state of the EU and we need to give credit where credit is due.
One of the most important elements of Hungarian foreign policy is the enlargement of the European Union, as those of us who live in the neighbourhood of the Western Balkans know exactly how important the security, peace and development of the region is. We also know for sure that the best and shortest way to do this is through European integration, i.e., through the enlargement of the European Union. Unfortunately, as I stated previously, this approach is in the minority in the European Union today. It is interesting how, in theory, everyone says that they are in favour of enlargement, but there are only a very few of us left when it comes to actions.
How would you explain the constant growth of bilateral relations between Serbia and Hungary, and in which areas is this upsurge most visible and palpable?
Our efforts to bring our countries and peoples together have resulted in exceptional growth of our bilateral ties. We have managed to establish very high-level political discourse, enlargement of the European Union.
with no open issues left between us. Meetings between our leaders and senior officials take place regularly and we hold intergovernmental summits, which are all signs of successful cooperation at the highest levels.
We support the idea that a strong European Union must be based on strong member states. That’s why we are under constant pressure from Brussels
Aside from foreign policy issues, our economic ties have also become much closer. I would like to highlight the work of the Hungarian-Serbian Joint Economic Commission, which is like a vehicle to encourage bilateral trade and investments. Our cooperation is also fuelled by joint infrastructure projects, such as the Budapest- Belgrade and Szeged-Subotica railways. There are institutions to support these efforts, like the Hungarian Export Import Bank, the Hungarian Export Promotion Agency and the Central European Economic Development Network, all of which have opened offices in Serbia.
Another important thing to mention is the improvement of the situation regarding Serbian and Hungarian minorities, and I’m happy to say that the situation has never been as good as it is now. Mutual respect has helped us shape a better future for our peoples. Aside from all of these areas, educational ties, scholarship programmes and cultural activities have become frequent between our countries. It is hard to imagine a more active partnership than the one we have with Serbia.
You were recently decorated by Serbian PM Brnabić for your contribution to these positive developments. In which areas have you provided the most support to cooperation between the two countries?
I am very grateful for this very honourable award, for sure. However, if we want to be totally fair, I must share the recognition with my fellow ministers. Minister Selaković and Minister Joksimović are fighting courageously for Serbian membership, the Hungarian standpoint on which is crystal clear. We believe that the EU cannot be complete without the Western Balkans and Serbia, and we also know that there is no vacant space in geopolitics. If we, as the European Union, fail to integrate the Western Balkans, someone else will grab the opportunity. We have lost the United Kingdom and we do not wish to lose the Western Balkans. You can be absolutely certain that I will fight even harder for Serbia’s membership in the European Union.
Among numerous impressive results are those achieved in trade, where we expect to surpass a trade exchange total of two billion euros in 2021. Which sectors of industry have provided the greatest contributions to these results?
Over the past five years, bilateral trade has increased by 50%, with 2019 considered a record year in terms of bilateral trade, and in 2020 – when COVID-19 pushed the global economy into an unprecedented recession – our bilateral trade remained on its successful path.
The trade turnover worldwide fell by nine per cent last year, while the trade turnover between Hungary and Serbia was able to grow by three per cent, and this year it has already shown a further increase of 16 per cent. Thanks to a successful vaccination programme, the economy can now return to the centre of attention.
Last year, the most important export product from Hungary to Serbia was electricity, but we also had a significant export turnover in electrical machinery, appliances and instruments, as well as crude oil and petroleum products. Processed products also account for a significant share of our exports.
What is the present total when it comes to Hungarian investments in Vojvodina and Central Serbia?
In terms of capital allocation, today Serbia is a priority target country for Hungarian enterprises. It is known that Serbia has gone through an impressive economic recovery in recent years that has led the way to growing competitiveness. Accordingly, the investments of Hungarian companies in Serbia have risen to an unprecedented level, and the success of these Hungarian companies in Serbia will also contribute to the further growth of the Hungarian economy. Thanks to another bank acquisition, OTP has now become the second largest player on the Serbian banking market, and MOL has a 20 per cent share of the fuel market, while interest in investment opportunities in Serbia among Hungarian companies is not declining. The Hungarian government provided a total of HUF 20 billion in support of 16 Hungarian companies to implement investments in Serbia after the pandemic, and these 16 Hungarian companies are investing a total of HUF 38 billion in coal processing, the food industry, the building materials industry, crop production and public utilities. The Vojvodina Economic Development Programme has so far provided development and investment support to more than 14,000 businesses.
I understand that Serbia does not want to be a harbour for migrants, which can strain the resources of the police and immigration authorities. There is regular coordination between our interior ministers, so I am confident that all possible situations can be managed
Are there any issues still outstanding between our two countries today when it comes to the status of the Hungarian minority in Serbia, or the Serbian minority in Hungary?
The political representation of the Hungarian minority is ensured by the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, both at a national level and in Vojvodina. The work of Mr István Pásztor guarantees that we can discuss all relevant issues with the Serbian government and solve any issues that might arise. We want the Hungarian minority to prosper in Serbia, so they can be an integral part of society. To support their endeavours, the Prosperitati Foundation offers funding for company development, job creation and business expansion, mainly in the agricultural sector.
As for the Serbian minority in Hungary, we offer wide ranging support so they can preserve their culture and language. To cite a good example, the Nikola Tesla Serbian Nursery, Primary and Secondary School received funding from the Hungarian government in 2016, and further funds were allocated to start a new Serbian school in Szeged, which will open in 2022. Educational institutions in Lórév, Deszk and Battonya have also benefited from government support. The good relations between Hungary and Serbia aid both sides and this is also felt by our minorities, who act as a link between our two countries.
Hungary and Serbia previously had contrasting policies with regard to migrants, with the latter perceived as being more humane and friendly. Now that we are again expecting an upsurge in migrant numbers, what common positions do our countries share?
I want to make one thing clear: Hungary and Serbia coordinate and act together to stop illegal migration. Our decision to build a fence at the border was accepted by Serbia, and it steered the flow of migration away from the country. No illegal migrant can enter Hungary. I understand that Serbia does not want to be a harbour for migrants, which can strain the resources of the police and immigration authorities. There is regular coordination between our interior ministries, so I am confident that all possible situations can be managed.
At the same time, I would like to stress another important thing: the Hungarian government works together with Serbia to open as many bordercrossing points as possible in order to facilitate the legal and controlled passage of our citizens.
If we, as the European Union, fail to integrate the Western Balkans, someone else will grab the opportunity
The good relations between Hungary and Serbia aid both sides and this is also felt by our minorities, who act as a link between our two countries
It is interesting how, in theory, everyone says that they are in favour of enlargement, but when it comes to actions, there are only a very few of us left