Back to Europe

By Martin Stier

The main and dominating feature of modern policy of Central and South-East European states during last 20 years has been about the intention to “return to Europe”. Exactly with this return not only politicians but also most of population of region’s country related main hopes for better life and assurance of democratic foundations of society.

This unbiased intention was incited also in relation with weakening of Russia, losing its weight in European and international policy. In the beginning of 90-s of the twentieth century Russia practically has lost influence in Central and South Europe. By that time the change of Russian foreign policy had taken place, which initially staked on priority cooperation with Euro-Atlantic world.  The role of such states as Hungary, Poland possessing geopolitical natural link between East and West remained not demanded.

However, they had no desire of such mission. By that time the prospects of entering West European world opened for them. And they determined only one choice – in the benefit of united Europe. Exactly this pushed the states of Central European region initially to follow the way of establishing subregional and regional forms of cooperation as an intermediate stage on the way to “Big Europe”.

The logic of such cooperation development, as well as geopolitical choice, was also simple:

- within the framework of smaller group of neighboring states there is always a natural trend to unification, which is defined with the homogeneity of interests and values;
- political, economic, social unanimity is reached easier inside limited geographic space;
- regional, economic cooperation gives great response, rather than the efforts of each individual state;
- with the help of processes of regionalism the states could join efforts in all spheres of activity (political, economic, social, etc.) to achieve the best result by development of democratic political systems.
- Intention for subregional cooperation grew while great transformation European processes were developing. During 80-s and first half of 90-s of the twentieth century countries of Central and South-East Europe made first practical steps to overcome the break of Europe by creating small integrational groupings as transitional forms for general European cooperation. And by the beginning of a new century they almost achieved the demanded result. The intention to join Euro-Atlantic structures was successful. Although not yet for all states, but long-term modality of the process was set.

Within the frameworks of the formats of regional interaction the countries gained and still gain not only real political support but also financial and economic aid. Although not that sufficient. It comes through bilateral as well as multilateral lines. From the European Union, as well as from its states (in particular, towards Hungary this aid is most significant from Austria, Germany, France, Great Britain), and also sufficient financial subsidies from the United States of America.

As for state priorities of Hungary its orientation is quite traditional and historically predetermined. From individual European states primarily Austria, the Government of which observes Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia as natural and future closest economic partners. Vienna has never hidden its involvement within the development of Central and South of Europe and even suffered more of bank crisis in the countries of young democracies, where it had significant financial assets. According to experts, actual integration (and not formal, which has already happened) into European structures of the states of Central and especially Eastern Europe, will mainly depend on how successful they will be able to develop their political, economic and other relations with the closest European neighbor - Austria. Exactly thanks to its support they will be able to solve internal and interstate problems, to overcome economic and social barriers between East and West of Europe, to promote between them constructive cooperation, also on a multilateral basis.

By this it is noted that the traditions of mutual, joint approach in this region have existed for a long time. In Visegrad Castle yet in the fourteenth century historic meetings of three European Leaders took place – kings of Poland, Bohemia and Hungary. Then we can say the fundamental aims of the future corporation, its imperatives were set: to cooperate for the sake of assurance of peace, security and flourishing of their states. Internal regional impulse has been observed here during a long history, about which almost everybody who covers regional cooperation remind.

We can recollect, that the first attempt to establish interaction of states at subregional level independently from the rates of democratization, economic reforms, and also the problems of ethnic and territorial character and social-political situation, was the uniting of Balkan states, organizationally formalized in February of 1993. And already then Hungary played a significant role, having undertaken the responsibility on the first political meeting arrangement. Then in Budapest a meeting of Foreign Ministers of Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Albany and Yugoslavia was held. Let’s note that the Conference in Budapest became the result of more than ten years of preparatory meetings and conferences at various levels, in course of which they were creating the conditions for the establishment of closer contacts and development of regional cooperation in practical spheres. Today we can admit that this was the first experiment after the Second World War which gathered small states of the region round one table – the representatives of not only earlier confronting military-political blocks, but also the states that had complicated interstate agendas.

Gradually a regional role of Hungary has become more evident. The peculiarity of its activity was not only the intention to solve the main foreign policy task – to join NATO and the EU, but also the attention to economic regional cooperation, issue of Hungarian national minorities, disseminated throughout different states of the region.
Project V-4

The most expressive project from the view of “getting back to Europe” is naturally the Visegrad Four.

Analysts suggested that the V-4 will end its existence pretty soon, after solving main issues, defined in the beginning of 90-s of the previous century. However, the Four existing almost two centuries has remained, and tries to find a new niche, to shape a new agenda, having finalized the previous one related to the promotion of the Four states to NATO and the EU.

Today Hungarian experts state that the Visegrad Group, that will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2011, is one of the most efficient subregional groupings in Europe. Although for many experts this looks too obvious exaggeration.  From the other hand the kind of enthusiasm illustrates the intention of Budapest to maintain the role of a leading state in this format, the role earlier shared with Poland, after joining of the last one to the V-4. Lately Warsaw has a bit slowed down in this direction.

But, it’s not really rational to deny prospects for the V-4. Any regional cooperation is itself essential and helpful. In the EU since long they have made regional cooperation a part of a general strategy of industrial modernization, division of industrial orientation and promotion of common market, and the overcoming of artificial and European drama history heritage barriers. This everything can be also related to the Visegrad regional cooperation.

But it’s understood that now the state work in the frames of the EU and NATO – it is another cooperation quality.

Budapest still pursues an active line in V-4, probably in reality realizing its possibilities and limits. The line of Hungary in V-4 is comprised in several main directions:
1. intensification of economic cooperation in the region;
2. defending of joint interests within the EU frames;
3. support of further extension of the EU and NATO;
4. assurance of energy security of the region;
5. development of the institutes of collective diplomacy;
6. solution of issues in the sphere of Hungarian minority rights observance.

This is an official hierarchy of priorities, although recently two subjects can be named as main – the problems of energy security and national minorities.

From the economic development point of view, for the whole Four and for Hungary in particularly, which found itself in the most unenviable situation as a result of international economic crisis, an additional instrument of modernization and development become big regional projects. Some of them have been already launched, others are being projected. The main limit here is the deficiency of financial resources, which can’t be overcome within the frames of V-4 project.

In relation to general regional position in the EU everything is more or less understandable. This is about emphasizing and promotion of regional subject in the agenda, and especially, in the budget EU policy. Now there is an agreement on the implementation of the mechanism of solidary (so-called principle a priori) support of the country, which is included into V-4 in its disagreements with the Third Party, also with political figures, bodies of Brussels.

V-4 states remain to be almost main enthusiasm of the EU extension to the east of Europe, and also to Western Balkans. Symbolic is that the program “Eastern Partnership” as a Polish initiative officially adopted in the period of Czech Chairmanship in the EU. The second Summit of “Eastern Partnership” was decided to postpone from May (the period of Chairmanship of Hungary) till autumn, when Poland will be the next Chairman of the EU. In general Warsaw calls 2011 the year of “Eastern Partnership”.

Hungary has always actively supported joining of Ukraine, Moldova and Balkan states to the EU. Budapest today counts for real promotion of the issue of joining of Croatia in the period of its Chairmanship in the EU in the first half of the current year.

The line of Hungary on the issue of energy security is known. This is a key subject for Budapest. In the frames of V-4 Hungary is trying to finalize logically the development and adoption of institutionalized system of cooperation, covering transit states and resources supplying states. Analysts consider that that is why Hungary reveals special interest to the states of Caucasus and Central Asia, former USSR Republics, initiate discussion of the projects at the top level. A new plot that has occurred recent years is the implementation of nuclear energy in the region of Central Europe.

Initiatives within the sphere of collective diplomacy appeared in 2009. Hungary supports them. Minister of Foreign Affairs P.Balash admitted that economic crisis speeded up the development of this measure. Hungary was forced to close down embassies and consulates accredited in eight states. Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have to do the same. The idea is that joint embassies and mission will solve the problem dividing the expenses in four.

Mostly thanks to the line of Hungary international relations were firmly included into the problem circle of questions of all subregional institutions. Despite definite successes V-4 independent experts always point out the existence of serious disagreements between the states of these bodies. In the format V-4 Hungary has definite troubles with Slovakia and Romania. Reason – the status of living in these states Hungarian national minorities.

During last twenty years Budapest has held a pretty logic course, aimed at mutually acceptable regulation of the situation with neighbor states. But it does it sometimes pretty peculiarly. In due course there were many disputes over the project “Law of Hungarians Status” that already incited negative reaction in neighbor states as well as in the EU. Eventually the project was sufficiently revised and was named “Law on Hungarians Privileges”. Hungarian Government held active talks with the authorities of Romania and Slovakia on a possible implementation in this states of the given law. The efforts resulted into that Hungary managed mostly to find mutually acceptable solutions with partners and also to gain the recognition of the new legal act by the European Union. But still they didn’t manage to eliminate completely tension within the relations with Romania and Slovakia.

Referring to this problem the experts note that it was often preconditioned by the actions of radical representatives of Hungarian minorities. In Romania these representatives prepared and in 2004 officially claimed the demand of national autonomy for three regions of this state, inhabited mostly by ethnic Hungarians. In Bucharest this suggestion was qualified as a threat for territorial integrity of the country and was categorically rejected. But as it turned out this was what the autonomy initiators tried to achieve, trying to influence the inclusion of Romania into the European Union, imaging the violation of national minorities rights. The remains of such initiatives still presents within Hungary-Romania relations.

The situation with Slovakia is not better. Old problems still maintain here. For example the unsolved Hungary-Slovakia disagreements over the hydro-power system Gabchikovo-Nadmarosh.

Another Hungarian initiative was the idea of development of the institution of double citizenship as one of the forms of support of ethnic Hungarians in neighbor states. However this activity had quite ambiguous consequences. First of all, this incited perplexity in Brussels. Neighbor states also didn’t perceive it. Even in Kiev it was fully rejected as a contradicting to Ukrainian Constitutions. In 1990 Ukraine and Hungary signed a Minority Rights Declaration – an important aspect for Budapest, as 160 thousand Hungarians live in Ukraine.

In relation with this initiative an ambiguous prospect was observed in Hungary itself due to the revealed intention of the representatives of significant part of Hungarian minorities with the help of the double citizenship institution to move to Hungary or to gain additional social preferences. As a result this initiative also declined gradually.

The problems over the status of national minorities do not seem today as antagonistic contradiction, but from time to time they remind of themselves, especially during the period of electoral campaigns. Probably the kind of situation will exist for a pretty long time.

Today’s agenda for the Visegrad Group is considered to be logic and rational, the role of Budapest remains to be a key one, however the possibilities of this format are really moderate. As some observers write, in the near future it can be preserved only in the format of consultative meetings. Either Budapest or other capitals of the Four practically have no resources for the promotion of other interaction directions.