By Antoine de Longevialle.
Hungary – ‘For seven years I’ve been working to build a foreign policy based on our national interests, rather than on the mentality and logic of a reluctant ally. We’re doing well, but there’s one piece of the puzzle that’s not yet in the place: it’s called Brussels.’
This is what Viktor Orbán declared at a summer meeting with students, in 2017, and it probably didn’t sound good to Jean-Claude Juncker.
When talking about any kind of one’s country’s policy, we always come back to the question of national interests. What is a national interest? I believe in a realist point of view, as expressed by Derek S. Reveron and Nikolas K. Gvosdev in an article talking about National Interests and Grand Strategy (2017). In their views, national interests would be ‘a concept that enables national security policymakers to articulate what matters to the country and how a nation should set its priorities. National interests are enduring, such as protecting the integrity of the state and promoting economic prosperity’.
Even though Hungary, as a E.U. member state, has progressively given up some part of its sovereignty, it keeps the right, in many fields, to decide what it considers to be the best for its citizens. However, how far can Hungary go without going against the E.U. interests is one of the main reasons to explain the gap and the lack of understanding between the Commission and Budapest. When talking about energy, this issue is particularly true.
Like Poland and ten other states, Hungary is part of the Three Seas Initiative. If the Commission is not officially against this new regional cooperation, Hungary is one of its main actors, which is seen from Brussels as a factor of destabilisation. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Hungary threw itself into a pro-Western policy, mainly driven to adopt the market-economy system. However, since its election in 2010, Orbán seems to be much more conciliatory towards Russia, which tends to irritate the Commission. Hungary, which has already four Russian-built reactors that power a third of its power consumption, made a deal in 2014 with Russian company Rosatom for the construction of two nuclear power plants, for a total cost of 12.5 billion euros (financed with a €10bn Russian loan).
Despite the green light from Brussels after three years of discussions, the E.U. Commission still looks unfavourably on this project which is mainly Russia-funded. In its 2017 Hungary energy overview, the International Energy Agency mentioned that Hungary’s gross inland consumption originated from 31% from gas. This gas came from 95% from Russia. Oil, which accounted for 27% of its final consumption, was a product of 76.2% from the Russian Federation too. Looking at these data, we can see that Hungary’s energy security is highly dependent on Russia. Its national interest is then not to distance itself from Moscow in dealing with the energetic issue. In a time of high tensions between the E.U. and Russia, Hungary doesn’t deviate from its strategy of good relationship with Moscow. Despite the fact that Hungary voted in favour of the sanctions towards Russia, it has constantly been trying to lobby for their suppression, which creates tension with the Commission and even Poland, which totally disagrees. For example, Budapest has always wanted more cooperation between NATO and Russia to deal with the Syrian conflict, but it has never got a positive answer from Washington. During a press conference in Budapest with Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán called for the ‘normalisation of relations between the EU and Russia and underlined that co-operation with Moscow is an indispensable condition in order to maintain the competitiveness of the EU’s economy’. He also praised Russia for ‘contributing to solving the conflict in Syria and limiting the migration to Europe’.
We have seen that Brussels and Budapest deeply misunderstand on the energy policy. What Hungary thinks to be a matter of national interests is considered to be against the E.U. ones at the Commission. On both sides, a better understanding of the other should be enhanced in order to improve mutual respect.