This article has been published online by the Magyar Nemzet on May 22, 2021.
“We will try to use the Hungarian Presidency to promote the rights of national minorities and provide strong support to Hungarian communities outside of our borders” – said Péter Sztáray, Minister of State for Security Policy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in his interview with Magyar Nemzet. Hungary has taken over the Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of Strasbourg’s European Council made up of 47 European countries for the promotion of rule of law, human rights and democracy. We questioned Péter Sztáray about Ukrainian-Hungarian relations, the Eu’s Western Balkan enlargement, and Western Europe’s doublespeak.
– One of the priorities of the Hungarian Council of Europe Presidency is to protect and promote national minorities. What kind of specific support can the Hungarians outside of our borders count on?
– The Council of Europe (CoE) is one of the most important European organizations for guaranteeing the rights of national minorities. After the Minority SafePack (European Citizens Initiative for the Protection of Indigenous Minorities ed.) was rejected by the European Commission, we decided to try to use the Hungarian Presidency to promote the rights of national minorities from the Council of Europe and provide strong support to Hungarian communities outside of our borders. We cannot imagine Hungarian foreign policy without Hungarian national policy. We are organizing four conferences on this topic: two in Hungary and two in Strasbourg. Their goal is to document the state of the rights of national minorities throughout Europe. In addition, we will consider how to move forward because the Council of Europe has a role in setting standards.
– From the perspective of Hungarian national minorities, those in Transcarpathia probably need the most support as the Ukrainian leadership has curtailed their language rights, and local Hungarians and their leaders are regularly pushed around by state authorities and threatened by nationalist organizations. Do you see any chance in the near future of Hungarian-Ukrainian relations easing and thereby improving the situation of Hungarians there?
– Since September 2017, when the Ukrainian parliament adopted the education law, we have indeed witnessed setbacks in the enforcement of minority rights – especially in the areas of languages and education rights. It is in the interest of the Hungarian government and the Hungarian community in Transcarpathia to come to some kind of agreement with Ukraine to regain these rights because,
if the central leadership puts pressure on given minorities, their leaders and educational institutions in other areas, they will soon be left without any perspective.
Over the past year, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó has regularly met with his Ukrainian counterpart in an effort to find common points to bridge the difficulties of our relations. Some of these are practical issues (such as infrastructure and construction reaching across both borders) that require cooperation, but it is just as important to make progress with national minority rights. This past week has been significant in this respect as the joint committee on education met in Budapest and debates are taking place in a constructive atmosphere regarding a number of issues. We are certain that this will provide results. This gives us cause for optimism, but we are still a long way from finding a truly reassuring, long-term solution for the Hungarians of Transcarpathia.
– Hungary is blocking Ukrainian membership of NATO by veto due to the conditions of the Hungarians in Transcarpathia. Has this been successful in putting pressure on Ukraine to find a solution?
– I would emphasize that before September 2017, Hungary was one of the strongest supporters of Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic rapprochement, in terms of visa liberalization or a comprehensive agreement with the EU. Unfortunately, we are forced to veto meetings between the NATO-Ukraine Commission at ministerial and head of state and government levels until Ukraine can guarantee the rights of minorities as before. It is important for Hungary that Ukraine is a stable, developing country, so I believe, if there is political will – and there is on our side – then we can achieve results by continuing negotiations.
– Ukraine has been struggling with security policy challenges: fighting in Eastern Ukraine has resumed, Russia deployed troops along Ukraine’s borders and then withdrew them. Meanwhile, there is strong political pressure from the United States on Ukraine’s leadership. How do these factors affect Hungary’s relationship with Ukraine?
– The Ukrainian state is in a precarious situation with a protracted conflict in its eastern territories and Russia annexing Crimea. Since 2014 Hungary has expressed its solidarity with Ukraine in a number of forums and forms; we have also affirmed our support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We believe that despite Ukraine’s difficult situation, they are not justified in undermining the rights of minorities in the name of accelerated nation-building. These two issues must be separated. This is why Hungary supports practical cooperation with Ukraine in NATO but does not support Ukraine’s institutional rapprochement.
– The Western Balkan region is important to Hungary for, in part, security policy reasons. Hungary has been pushing for candidate countries to be able to join the EU as soon as possible to achieve greater stability in the region; however, this enlargement process seems to have slowed down. Could these countries turn away from Europe eventually?
– From the perspective of Hungarian interests, it is of fundamental importance that the countries of the Western Balkans join the Euro-Atlantic organizations as soon as possible and in as large a number as possible because this will stabilize the region in the long run. Decades- and centuries-long conflicts support the fact that
when there was uncertainty in the Western Balkans, our security was affected as well.
Three countries have already joined NATO which is a huge success. However, the process of joining the EU has slowed down. It would be important that Albania and North Macedonia could have the opportunity to start accession negotiations during the Portugal presidency. It is just as important that the negotiations underway with Montenegro and Serbia be sped up. Candidate countries must of course, fulfill the conditions set by the EU, however there is a strategic advantage as well: the region’s stability and security will only be guaranteed in the long term if these countries actually join. If there is no clear vision for them, the given society will not commit itself to integrating and there could be alternative players who gain influence in the region. If the EU falls behind in this respect, it’s acting against its own interests.
– Another significant factor in Western Balkan security and stability is the renewed pressure from migration along that route. The number of illegal crossings has also risen in Hungary within the past year. There is still no common European solution to this problem. What can Hungary do in this situation?
– Hungary has faced the fact that the foremost and hardest challenge is posed by migration. Large masses tried to pass through Hungary unchecked. We have seen the consequences of this and therefore built up the defense system on our southern border that provides effective protection. However, this alone is not enough. The defense lines have to be moved farther south; working closely with the countries of the Western Balkans and through Hungary Helps and other programs, we are trying to help the source countries of migrants encourage them to stay rather than emigrate.
For us, it is most important that there be no mandatory migrant quotas. Attempts have come up from time to time, but so far, they have been defended against.
There are countless forms of solidarity. For example, we defend the southern and south-eastern borders of the Schengen zone and we devote serious resources to this endeavor. With enough political commitment, uncontrolled immigration can be stopped: we proved this by protecting the land borders while Matteo Salvini did so with the maritime borders.
– In connection with migration, there is another priority of the Hungarian presidency: the interreligious dialogue. This is especially relevant now given that French generals and military officers recently warned President Emannuel Macron in an open letter of the dangers posed by Islamism and the outbreak of civil war; and in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, multiple anti-Semitic incidents have occurred in various Western European countries. These problems do not affect Central Europe. How can Hungary contribute to this dialogue?
– One of the most pressing issues today is how to ensure the coexistence of religions so that everyone can live according to their own beliefs, but not to the detriment of followers of the other religion. In Europe, we are seeing very serious and disturbing incidents that we want to avoid. So, we want to put these issues on the agenda, confronting certain countries with the fact that these problems are very real and cannot be swept under the rug.
– What Hungary considers a problem may not be seen that way in Western Europe.
– There are two doublespeak messages in Europe. In the spirit of political correctness, many people feel that these problems need to be covered up. If on the other hand, we look around Western European cities, we face problems stemming from migration which compound anti-Semitism. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict for example, erupts in Western Europe with anti-Semitic marches and the burning of Israeli flags. This is unacceptable to us.
Compared to what is happening in Western Europe, Hungary is an island of peace.
In the countries that consider themselves to be among the most advanced democracies, the most serious crimes are being committed that we cannot even imagine. During our presidency we will also put these on display. In addition to promoting interreligious dialogue, one of our priorities is to draw Europe’s attention to the persecution of Christians, which is very widespread throughout the world but the mainstream media barely addresses it.
– If we are on the topic of doublespeak: the Council of Europe and its advisory body, the Venice Commission, have criticized Hungary on several occasions in recent years for rule of law and human rights issues. How is the relationship between the Hungarian Presidency and the CoE’s leadership?
– Personal relations are excellent. Péter Szijjártó has met multiple times with Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić, Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovics, President of the Parliamentary Assembly Rik Daems, and President of the European Court of Human Rights Róbert Ragnar Spanó. We have prepared very consciously to maintain these close connections so that if there are disagreements, we can work them out. We drew the CoE’s attention to the fact that it is important they approach us if they sense a conflict. We can tell you what the reality is. Unfortunately, I have had experiences before where
they were informed on the basis of superficial information, from biased sources, and therefore the steps they took were not in line with what the true situation in Hungary would have justified.
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó and Minister of Justice Judit Varga frequently inform the CoE of the reality in Hungary. We have to continue this work and dispel the misinformation and politically motivated accusations that emerge on occasion.
– Another priority of the Hungarian presidency is representing the interest of the next generation. Why should this issue be addressed separately?
– It is extremely important to the government what conditions the next generation will live in – the CoE provides an adequate platform for negotiating this. It is not just about young people, but about the future of families, about equal opportunities for minority Roma communities. This is a complex package that is also important for the long-term prosperity of Europe as it will be up to our children what kind of Europe they create and in what direction it progresses. The Hungarian Presidency of the CoE will also be a suitable tool to promote this.