Principal objectives and instruments of the current Hungarian foreign policy in the Western Balkans region

Orientation and reflection of continuity: the permanent strategic features of Hungarian foreign policy with respect to the Western Balkans

The last official comprehensive Hungarian foreign policy strategy – published 8 years ago, right after the Hungarian EU Presidency in 2011 – declared that Hungary intended to extend its assistance to the countries of the Western Balkans region “by sharing experiences regarding EU accession, the use of EU funds, institutional capacity building and democratic transition”. In the context of EU enlargement into the Western Balkans, Hungary stressed the importance of the accession of Serbia and Montenegro while recognizing the urgency of the integration process of Macedonia for safeguarding the security and stability of the region.

It also deemed the NATO membership of Montenegro desirable and realistic in order to enclose the entire Adriatic area under the Transatlantic security umbrella. The stability and consolidation of market economies and democratic political institutions, the improvement of the investment environment, including legal certainty, were all expressly determined as Hungary foreign policy interests and as the interests of the Hungarian minority living in Vojvodina, the northern province of Serbia.

Hungarian foreign policy toward its Western Balkans neighbourhood has reflected the conviction that the possibility of enlargement, the extension of the perspective of membership, remains the only truly effective instrument of EU foreign and security policy toward South Eastern Europe. Decisive external influence over the political, social, and economic conditions in the remaining cluster of Western Balkans countries outside the Union can be efficiently exercised by the EU solely through the incentive of the ultimate rewards of possible admission in exchange for sustained pacification, coexistence, and cooperation across the still fragmented area. For this reason, Hungary continues to maintain its political endorsement of the EU aspirations of states in the region.

With respect to the security of the region and sustainable efforts towards conflict resolution, Hungary stated its commitment to continued participation in the multinational peace support operations in the Western Balkans within the framework of KFOR and EULEX in Kosovo as well as EUFOR ALTHEA in Bosnia and Herzegovina.[1]

 

Hungarian support for Western Balkans’ EU accession endeavours

 

In contrast to its consistent opposition to further federalization within the Union, Hungary consistently supports the expansion of the Union and stays more committed to enlargement than many other EU Member States (MS). Any unjustifiable, therefore unnecessary delay in EU enlargement into the Western Balkans is considered by the Hungarian government a politically short-sighted approach and the manifestation of collective inability of the Union as a political alliance to assume responsibility for shaping its own immediate strategic environment.

In recent years, Hungary has proven that it may occasionally be a difficult partner in pursuit of unanimity in – particularly in Common Foreign and Security Policy – decision-making. This is perceived by several other EU members as a warning sign and instructive experience against further increase in the number of participants involved in the difficult search for compromise and common denominator underlying EU consensus on its joint position and course of action with a membership of growing number and diversity. EU enlargement, by definition, implies the inclusion of further countries in the decision-making procedure, potentially making consensus-building even more complicated. For that very reason, certain EU members – most notably and vocally, France – intend to carry out adjustments in the institutional and procedural rules of decision making (resulting in the expansion of the scope of qualified majority voting) which should precede the admission of new members to the Union.

With regard to the preparation of the European Union for its further growth in terms of its members and size, Hungary clearly opposes the proposition that the admission of Western Balkans states could be made contingent upon the completion of EU institutional reform prior to the next round of enlargement. Any comprehensive internal EU reform procedure requiring treaty revision will probably lead to sensitive and complex questions which would inevitably obstruct and postpone the conclusion of already ongoing and prospective accession negotiations with future members from South Eastern Europe.

Hungary is also viewed, by a number of other Member States, as the most obvious example (or possibly even worse, as a role model for candidates in the Balkans) of controversial domestic political, constitutional and legal practices. It is claimed by those EU members that the acceptance or accommodation of the Hungarian example of alleged “illiberal” and “undemocratic” deviations could discredit or undermine the demand for uniform and uncompromising compliance by Western Balkans states with the requisite standards of the rule of law and liberal democracy set out as indispensable political conditions of EU membership. The political efforts undertaken in 2018 to exert pressure on Hungary through the initiation of the corrective procedure under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) are intended to enforce the revision of its practices and set the example of uncompromising requirements of EU standards for governments in some Western Balkans states with supposedly undemocratic inclinations or authoritarian tendencies.

In pursuit of practical support and assistance for the EU integration aspirations and Western Balkans efforts, successive Hungarian governments in the last 15 years have offered to share the country’s experience in administrative, legal as well as institutional adaptation for EU membership as a form of practical assistance through the transfer of knowledge and insights of accession preparations. Besides the diplomatic and political means of endorsement within diverse formats (for instance EU summits) and fora (such as the Visegrad Group or the Council of the EU) for policy coordination of the European Union, capacity-building initiatives have also been used by Hungary as pragmatic and targeted tools to bolster certain state structures and functions necessary for the implementation of EU accession tasks in each country of the Western Balkans.

The parliamentary dimension of institutional capacity building represents one of the areas where Hungary has gained prominence and demonstrated effective support for the preparation of respective national institutions in various states of the region. As the result of successful applications for the implementation of EU-financed Twinning projects, the Hungarian National Assembly has led and accomplished a number of parliamentary capacity-building programmes – in partnership with several parliaments from other EU Member States – in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Kosovo often in sequence through years of systematic and continued engagement.

As another visible and distinct instrument and representative of effective and practical assistance from the Hungarian government to its partners in the Western Balkans, Hungarian diplomats as EU integration advisers have been assigned to the Foreign Ministries or other governmental units in charge of the coordination of legislative and policy measures required for EU accession preparations in each state (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North-Macedonia, and Serbia) of the region in the last couple of years. In the course of their daily and direct collaboration with the host governmental institutions, these EU advisers are meant to provide a direct channel for the transfer of Hungarian experience, knowledge and perspectives in support of all (diplomatic, legal, and technical) aspects of national preparations for the pursuit of EU membership of the host countries.

 

Reinforcement of core state functions in the Western Balkans as Hungarian foreign policy interest: assistance in border control against illegal migration

 

In the light of the dramatic experience of the highly uncontrollable flood of migrants in 2015, it became an eminent part of Hungarian foreign policy interests to provide actual support – by bilateral means and also through the allocation of potential EU resources – for the performance of vital state functions by Western Balkan states. In the southern security foreground of Hungary, the institutional capabilities of each state to mount effective control and protection of their respective borders constitute the prerequisite for the prevention and containment of another wave of potential migrant invasion through the Balkans trail into the European Union across Hungary. Therefore, from the perspective of Hungarian border protection and national security, it is essential that all of its southern neighbours should maintain and enhance their efficient border control capacities. The Hungarian foreign policy aim of support for stable and cooperative partners in the Western Balkans region assumed a new dimension and required the employment of adaptive new means to reinforce vital state functions in its neighbourhood with potentially fragile floodgates against mass illegal migration.

By its own means, Hungary undertook to deliver technical assistance and dispatch police contingents both as part of coordinated reinforcement by the Visegrad Group and also on bilateral terms in several rounds following the acute migrant crisis in 2015. In the last few years, Hungary demonstrated on several occasions the consistency of its active support, by means of recurrent deployments of police forces, for the border protection efforts of Western Balkans countries straddling the migration route through the Eastern Mediterranean and South Eastern Europe. After the deluge of migrants in 2015, a new pattern for illegal flow of people emerged in the region leading from Greece via Albania and Macedonia through Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria.[2] Even if the trail of uncontrolled migration appeared to be mainly diverted from Hungary, the risk of another wave or surge of unwanted and large-scale population movement has been perceived as real source of possible threat to Hungarian sovereignty and security.

In order to create a forward line of protection for Hungarian societal security, the reinforcement of national borders and their control in the southern neighbourhood of Hungary became a priority in its foreign policy towards the countries eminently exposed to the perils of relentless mass movement of people across their territories. The frontiers for the containment of illegal migration in the Western Balkans could be bolstered both by technical assistance and also by the deployment of extra personnel at the borders under increased threat and pressure. Hungary was willing to provide actual human and psychological reinforcement for the overstretched capacities of the affected states. In demonstration of its commitment, Hungary has sent police contingents to Serbia and North Macedonia as the extension of preventive and protective measures to the southern borders of its neighbours constituting an extended zone of Hungarian security perimeter in the last three years.

In line with its stated national security interest in strengthening the performance of control and protection capabilities, Hungary repeatedly sent police units to its immediate southern neighbour, Serbia and also further “upstream” into North Macedonia with difficult frontier in the chain of national borders along the migratory path from the EU gateway (Greece) towards the centres of migrant gravitation within the European Union. In a sequence of reinforcement assistance measures, Hungary has dispatched contingents of its police officers to “frontline countries” of the Western Balkans as small auxiliary forces of law and order deployed in response to the anticipated danger of a new wave of migrants across the South East European “front yard” of Hungarian and EU security.[3] Hungarian police officers take part in joint operations with their host countries by performing patrol duties to prevent and uncover attempts of illegal border crossings and also assisting the apprehension of people smugglers and illegal immigrants within the territory of Macedonia and Serbia. In carrying out their assigned duties, they rely on their own service equipment and exercise their right to take police action under the supervision of the local police authorities.[4]

During the years since 2015, it has evolved into a permanent feature of Hungarian foreign assistance towards both countries to regularly dispatch Hungarian police units to undertake joint operative tasks with local forces. These contingents contribute to the protection of borders between Serbia and North Macedonia as well as North Macedonia and Greece by investigating and preventing illegal entry into Serbian or Macedonian territory. The provision of limited, but actual complementary constabulary capabilities in the Western Balkans neighbourhood of Hungary as a particular and targeted form of capacity-building is intended to enable more efficient performance of vital state functions (border control) in Serbia and in North Macedonia which are deemed critical for Hungarian national security.[5]

Beyond its support on the basis of bilateral collaborative arrangements with its direct or indirect neighbours, Hungary also sought to achieve the reinforcement for state capacities in the Western Balkans through cooperative initiatives and offers from Central European countries. In 2016, the governments of the Visegrad Group (V4) countries declared “their willingness to provide the most exposed countries of the Balkans region, in general, with adequate means of practical support based on the actual needs”.[6] Aligned with possible occasional partners, the V4 continues to prove the most convenient and primary choice for the mobilization of political support and available resources of like-minded Central European partners in the pursuit of the Hungarian foreign policy aim of strengthened external border protection in the Western Balkans region. At their summit in 2018, the V4 and Austria agreed on their coordinated and joint efforts to “provide the necessary human resources and technical support pool in order to implement targeted border policing activities with the countries of the Western Balkans”.[7]

 

Hungarian contribution to sustained stabilization and security in the Western Balkans as foreign policy instrument

 

Hungary has declaredly and consistently conducted an active policy of direct participation in multilateral endeavours to sustain the conditions of pacification and security in its southern neighbourhood in order to prevent conflagration and deterioration in potentially (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and actually (Kosovo) volatile situations in the most difficult former conflict zones of the Western Balkans. Hungarian contributions to NATO and EU operations in the region represent the most tangible measures of assistance and the tools of effective pursuit of its own security interests towards the maintenance of regional security and post-conflict stabilization.

In the planning of future Hungarian foreign military deployments in crisis management operations, the Western Balkans region is expected to remain the main area of engagement for the Hungarian defence force in the performance of peacekeeping responsibilities. In Kosovo and in Bosnia and Herzegovina already more than 500 Hungarian soldiers serve in the respective peace support operations under NATO and EU flags.[8] With the completion of Hungarian military deployment in Afghanistan, the former Western Balkans conflict zones will stay at the foreseeable centre of Hungarian expeditionary security missions representing direct benefits for and added value to the foreign policy objectives of Hungary in its immediate neighbourhood.

 

Bosnia and Herzegovina

From the perspective of Hungarian foreign policy, peace and security in the Western Balkans has been consensually identified as a fundamental interest of Hungary. The stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) remains one of the decisive elements in the regional fabric of security – besides Kosovo – as considered still the most vulnerable in the region from both a political and economic perspective. In the long term, the inclusion of BiH into the organizational structures of European and Transatlantic integration – namely NATO and the EU – would underwrite its security and stability as a viable multinational and sustainable state entity. In the meantime until its integration is accomplished, external multinational guarantees – in the form of military operations on the ground – remain necessary together with active engagement and support of both organizations as well as their willing and able Member States. Among them, Hungary has become one of the most reliable and prominent contributing states to the continued stabilizing presence of the European Union (EUFOR) in collaboration with NATO.

For several years, Hungary has been one of the participating countries with uninterrupted presence in the BiH theatre of international military operations first under NATO, then EU command. The Hungarian proportion and significance expanded over the years. Currently, Hungary furnishes the second largest contribution to the EU Operation ALTHEA and regularly holds positions (such as chief of staff) in the operational command hierarchy. By virtue of its continuous and significant contribution, Hungary intends to demonstrate its active commitment to the preservation of stability and state unity in BiH which extends well beyond political and diplomatic declarations. Within the EUFOR military contingent, its central component, the manoeuvre unit – Multinational Battalion (MNBN) – representing its rapid response capacity is currently comprised of Hungarian, Austrian, and Turkish troops.[9]

Through sustained engagement in the provision of military means of security in the longest running CSDP operation, the direct “investment” of Hungary by military personnel and resources in the pacification and stabilization in its southern neighbourhood represents a rewarding course of action with tangible returns for Hungarian foreign policy and external security priorities.[10]

 

Kosovo

In the other theatre of peace support deployment in the Western Balkans, Hungary has also been actively involved through its sustained contribution to the forces under NATO command (KFOR) in Kosovo. For years, the Hungarian Defence Forces has participated in KFOR with its Tactical Reserve Battalion (KFOR Tactical Manoeuvrable Unit, KTM) placed under the direct control of the KFOR Commander as emergency response unit. In case of any eruption of disturbance or critical situation in Kosovo, the Hungarian troops are the first to be deployed. Therefore, those soldiers have been called upon in almost every operation of the KFOR with Albanian or Serbian extremists in the past couple of years.[11]

In addition to its responsibility and readiness within Kosovo, the Hungarian forces provide reserve capabilities not only for KFOR but also for the EU military crisis management operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Interestingly, the tactical reinforcement unit which happens to be comprised of solely Hungarian troops is also assigned to shore up the military units serving in Operation ALTHEA – coincidentally with large component of Hungarian soldiers – in case of deterioration or destabilization of security in BiH. While the size of KFOR has been decreased as the situations improved and NATO priorities changed, Hungary not only maintained its engagement, but the stabilization mission in Kosovo even became more significant for Hungary as the focus of Hungarian contribution to international peace support operations shifted on to the Western Balkans in recent years.[12]

The Deputy Commander of KFOR is a Hungarian person in the second half of every year in recognition of the increased importance of Hungarian contribution. Furthermore, the KFOR Commander has been also supported by Hungarian political advisors for years.[13]

After the significant reduction of Hungarian military presence in Afghanistan within ISAF and besides the Hungarian unit participating in the international training mission in Iraq, the Western Balkans clearly remained the consistent area for active and distinct Hungarian engagements in multilateral post-conflict operations, under EU and NATO flags, in accordance with the stated strategic foreign policy objectives of Hungary in the region.

 

Energy security objectives in Hungarian foreign policy with its immediate neighbours in the Western Balkans

 

Security of energy supplies is among the persistent complex security challenges not only for Hungary, but also for the larger Central European region. Energy security evidently and eminently requires the diversification of supply routes and supply sources as much as possible. In case of Hungary, currently no supply lines are connected to its energy networks and reserve capacities from the south through the Western Balkans.

The evident Russian strategy for the redirection of its gas export to Europe intended to circumvent Ukraine and the still open question of the eventual renewal of its agreement with Ukraine leaves Central Europe in a precarious situation with regard to its energy import from Russia via Ukraine after the expiry of their current arrangement after 2020. Due to the centrality of natural gas within Hungarian external energy supplies and the sustained provision of Russian gas export to Hungary through Ukraine, the uncertain continuation of gas flow to the east by the same transit channel prompted the Hungarian government to seek possible alternative solutions.[14]

In search of substitution for the Ukrainian transit route likely to be shut down after the end of 2019, Hungary turned to the South as another potential region where it could be able to connect to the same sources but through a different energy corridor. Transit dependency on the Ukrainian pipeline route is declaredly perceived by the Hungarian government as vulnerability and risk in energy supply security which must be rectified in anticipation of potential future disruptions.[15] Consequently, the Hungarian response to the foreseeable predicament in Russian gas delivery through Ukraine was formulated on basis of the relocation of supply lines into the Balkans rather than a shift to other possible supply sources.

Hungarian energy exposure is not limited to the stable dominance of Russian natural gas supplies. Hungary experienced another sort of constrain which reinforces, hopefully only temporarily, its continued “addiction” to the steady flow of carbohydrate molecules from Russia: the possible detachment of Hungarian natural gas needs from its Russian source depends entirely on the possible development of energy exploration and production in its immediate eastern (Romania) as well as energy delivery and transit capacities in its south western (Croatia) neighbourhood. In its assessment of those desirable developments, the Hungarian government concluded that any real prospect of natural gas import from either new sources or via new routes represent reliable or available options currently or in future. Further diversification of sources and directions of energy flows into Hungary directly depends on the envisaged, but currently non-existent Croatian LNG terminal and/or the future extraction and transport of reserves from the gas fields under the Black Sea in Romania[16]. Until both of these conceivable avenues for natural gas import would eventually open up access routes to sufficient complementary sources of natural gas, Hungary stated that it was compelled to concentrate on the development of a new transport route from its established Russian supplier through the Balkans.[17]

 

The Serbian link in an emerging south-eastern gas corridor to Hungary

In parallel with endeavours to extend the range of conceivable gas supply options through Romania and Croatia, Hungary chose to focus on the maintenance of its transactional energy relations with its Russian partner as long as other competitive and reliable energy transport solutions cannot be safely linked to different sources. The perceived strategic necessity to sustain Hungarian reliance on Russian natural gas added another reason for the increased currency and relevance of enhanced collaboration with Serbia as the gateway to the south- eastern “energy bridge” for Hungary to connect to the Russian gas transport network across the Black Sea.

One possible scenario for opening a new energy corridor for Hungary through the Balkans implies the construction of connecting sections of a supply channel through Bulgaria and Serbia to the pipeline from Russia to Turkey. In addition to the already exiting South Stream pipeline, the second undersea route of natural gas delivery from Russia to Turkey – the so-called Turk Stream – could be extended to carry natural gas across South Eastern Europe to Serbia and Hungary. Therefore, a ramification of the Turk Stream to Bulgaria is planned to be accomplished by Gazprom by the end of 2020.[18] Further development of the internal network of new pipelines and compressors in Bulgaria and Serbia is presumed to reach completion in the near future.[19] Together with its complementary infrastructure developments at home, the Hungarian government expects that all these planned new transport and delivery capacities would enable the arrival of natural gas through the new south-eastern European route to Hungary but even further into Central Europe by 2022.[20]

The forthcoming Balkans gas supply route via Turkey, Bulgaria, and Serbia is clearly perceived by Hungary to “represent a long-term gas transport opportunity”. In the summer of 2019, Hungary and Serbia signed an intergovernmental cooperation agreement on the construction and operation of a gas interconnector between the countries to contribute to the systematic extension of cross-border lifelines to the energy networks of neighbouring states around Hungary.[21] As the necessary piece in the chain of transit inks, the construction of the Hungarian-Serbian gas interconnector pipeline is foreseen to commence in the summer of 2020 and to be completed next year.[22] The real significance of the connecting link is assured by the possibility of Hungarian access to the flow of natural gas which arrives in Serbia and passes through its gas transportation system further to the north.

The importance of the prospect of an alternative energy transit corridor from a new – previously planned, but never utilized – direction ensuring the diversification of supply lines, unfortunately without the diversification of sources conveyed strategic relevance and further premium on the cooperative relations of Hungary with its immediate southern neighbour in the Western Balkans region. As one of the pillars in the envisaged Hungarian strategy of diversification of energy sources and supply routes through the Western Balkans, Serbia has become an indispensable supporting and facilitating partner in the quest for Hungarian external energy security during the recent years – in addition to other matters – constituting the foundations for an increasingly important partnership between the two countries. 

 

Croatia as future Western Balkans LNG gateway to Hungary

The other direction of the external energy strategy component of Hungarian foreign policy towards the Western Balkans is related to the support for the creation of a novel entry point for overseas natural gas to Central Europe through Croatia. The construction of the Croatian liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on the island of Krk in Croatia has been clearly recognized and repeatedly confirmed as an energy infrastructure initiative that could directly bolster Hungarian national objectives in the reliable diversification of its future energy supplies.[23] From the perspective of the Hungarian quest for new transport routes and natural gas sources from the south, the Croatian gateway enabling the shipment of 1.7 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Hungary each year conveyed additional currency and significance for Hungarian relations with its 2nd largest neighbour in the Western Balkans region[24].

In demonstration of its express interest in the launch and successful completion of the construction of the LNG terminal in Croatia, the Hungarian government decided to make an offer for the purchase of a 25% share in the company that would own and operate the new natural gas delivery site. It would certainly represent strategic Hungarian investment in the financial and technical facilitation of the intended diversification of energy supply routes through its south-western neighbour. Partial Hungarian ownership may well serve as an instrument of foreign policy in pursuit of external energy security by means of closer energy transport cooperation with Croatia. From the perspective of economic viability of that expensive piece of infrastructure in the foreseeable future, the operational capacity of the planned terminal could be fully utilized only on the basis of steady and predictable demand for its output for national and foreign natural gas markets. Accordingly, the purchase of ownership in the LNG terminal cannot guarantee in itself the necessary economic stimulation for the instalment of the connecting link for overseas natural gas imports to Central Europe. In line with the assessment of the Croatian government, advance orders should be placed on the production capacity of the terminal in order to ensure the economic rationale for the implementation of such a large-scale strategic infrastructure investment.[25]

The acceptance of the Hungarian offer of shared ownership was made conditional on commitments to the assured exploitation of production capacities necessary for the sustainable operation of the Croatian LNG terminal. Since the Hungarian government concluded that it was not feasible on the basis of market operations with the initial calculated price (much higher than the price of natural gas available for Hungary from other sources), Hungary proposed even closer energy cooperation through the integration of their respective natural gas markets. In a combined and larger gas market without shipment and transaction fees between two national systems, the costs and prices could be made reasonable and the resulting higher consumer demands could sustain the long-term viability of the envisaged LNG terminal. In view of the possible integration in a specific market sector of strategic significance, Hungary and Croatia agreed to set up a joint bilateral government working group to assess all issues and implications of the potential integration of the Hungarian and Croatian gas markets.[26]

The awaited construction of the LNG terminal by the beginning of 2021 will be able to open an entry door for liquefied gas import from various sources in different parts of the world. Besides the USA, possible new energy relations could be developed with partners such as Qatar as the primary exporter of LNG from the Gulf region.[27] The initiation of natural gas deliveries from countries way beyond the current energy horizon of Central Europe could introduce an entirely novel dimension and additional element into the determinants of energy security for Hungary, but potentially for its neighbourhood where countries in the region notoriously rely only on a single source of natural gas traded by the Russian state-owned monopoly company. The inauguration of the Croatian LNG station would exert transformative effects on the energy security calculations and available options for Hungary and also for its neighbours for whom existing cross-border interconnectors ensure the possible delivery of natural gas pumped into the pipeline at the terminal off the coast of Krk island.

The pragmatic and effective coordination of Hungary with Croatia has been the requisite condition for the adoption of the Croatian decision on its strategic investment in the LNG terminal. Hungary will certainly not be the only beneficiary of the new energy reception facility, but its demonstrated interest and preparatory measures (such as the establishment of Croatian-Hungarian interconnecting pipeline) in cooperation with Croatia was indispensable for the launch and the forthcoming completion of the entire grand enterprise. Besides the direct beneficial impact on the natural gas market, prices, and security of supplies in Hungary, the first LNG terminal in the Western Balkans expands the horizon of Hungarian energy supply possibilities into unexplored domains and directions beyond the limitations and means of dependency on Russian sources and deliveries. 

 

The Western Balkans-link of Hungary to a new emerging Silk Road: Budapest-Belgrade railway

 

Besides the energy security dimension, the Western Balkans region has also assumed significance for Hungary as an emerging transport corridor within a larger scheme. In pursuit of successful participation in the strategic Chinese transcontinental project of Belt and Road Initiative, Hungary decided to undertake the construction of a crucial piece in the interlocking railway connections from China to the heart of the single European market. With a view to the expected flow of Chinese goods and products by land through Serbia into the European Union from its southern entry point in Greece, Hungary adopted its concept for the establishment of its assured position as a crucial connecting link in the emerging future transport trail through the Western Balkans. Even in the absence of any significant current initiative at the southern end of the envisaged corridor[28], the Hungarian government anticipates great potential benefits from the construction of an advanced railroad connection to the capital of its southern neighbour as the necessary piece of a future chain which would “represent the fastest transport route from South-eastern Europe towards the interior of the continent”.[29]

On the grounds of a trilateral political agreement with China already in 2013, Hungary and Serbia decided on the renewal of the railway line between their capitals on the basis of shared expectations of future political and economic positional and transactional gains from participation in the emerging design of new connectivity between Europe and China.[30] Accordingly, the Hungarian government resolved to begin the ambitious and expensive infrastructure project of the planned upgraded railway route from Belgrade to Budapest within few years.

After years of coordination, preparation, and negotiations with its Serbian, Chinese, and EU partners (such as the European Commission), the Hungarian government in the summer of 2019 eventually announced its application for a massive loan to finance the implementation of the Hungarian section of the Budapest-Belgrade high-tech railway line from the Chinese Exim Bank. The entire investment – amounting to approximately 3 billion Euros – depends on a credit line to be approved by the bank, which would provide a large loan (for 20 years) to cover 85% of the investment costs while the remaining 15% will be financed from Hungarian state budgetary resources. The expected date of completion was set for 2023 as the result of expedited implementation through simplified procedures for the approval and authorization of the entire construction project by all competent state authorities. The envisaged improvements of Budapest-Belgrade rail line is considered by the Hungarian government as “one of the most important infrastructure investments in Central and Eastern Europe” with reliance on Chinese financial means and technical participation without any actual financial investment risk for China.[31]

Placing the massive infrastructure undertaking in the context of larger regional implications, the Hungarian government stressed the expected benefits of the new railway link as significant contribution to the extension of scarce North-South railway links in Central and Eastern Europe. The grand investment in railroad building towards the Western Balkans is clearly conceived as the connecting link of Hungary “to one of the most significant routes of world trade as part of the Belt and Road Initiative”.[32]

As illustrated by the forthcoming reconstruction of tracks for rolling stocks from and to the Serbian capital, the South Eastern European neighbourhood represents an indispensable direction in the foreign policy and economic ambitions of Hungary to become the primary Central European connecting point for westward trade from China overland to the integrated European market space. Besides its crucial location as transit corridor for gas supplies to Hungary, the location and collaboration of Serbia has assumed considerable additional significance from the perspective of Hungarian aspirations and objectives pursued through the Western Balkans but pointing far beyond the region. The envisaged energy and railroad connections through Serbia clearly underlined and reinforced the value of its positon and collaboration as the largest and strategically most important southern partner of Hungary in the region.

 

The following brief overview and explanation represents only the opinion and assessment of the author in his capacity as an associate professor at the Faculty of Law of the Karoli Gaspar University of the Reformed Church in Hungary.

 

[1] Hungary’s Foreign Policy after the Hungarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, MFA, 2011, pp. 22-23

[2] Hungary supports border protection efforts of countries lying on new migration route, 7 June 2018, https://www.kormany.hu/en/news/hungary-supports-border-protection-efforts-of-countries-lying-on-new-migration-route

[3] Hungary to send 20 police officers to patrol Serbian border, 4 October 2016, http://abouthungary.hu/news-in-brief/hungary-to-send-20-police-officers-to-patrol-serbian-border/

[4] Hungarian police officers sent to Serbia and Macedonia to patrol borders, 3 May 2017, http://abouthungary.hu/news-in-brief/hungarian-police-officers-sent-to-serbia-and-macedonia-to-patrol-borders

[5] Hungarian police force continues to help North Macedonia and Serbia tackle migrant crisis, 3 April 2019, http://abouthungary.hu/news-in-brief/hungarian-police-force-continues-to-help-north-macedonia-and-serbia-tackle-migrant-crisis/

[6] Joint Statement on Migration of the Prime Ministers of the Visegrad Group, Prague, 15 February 2016

[7]  Visegrad Group and Austria Summit Declaration  on „setting up a mechanism for assistance in protecting the borders of the western balkan countries” protecting the borders of the Western Balkan countries”, Budapest, 18 June 2018

[8] Western Balkans region continues to remain main area of peacekeeping responsibilities, 2 July 2019, https://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-defence/news/western-balkans-region-continues-to-remain-main-area-of-peacekeeping-responsibilities

[9] EUFOR Operation ALTHEA European Union Military Operation Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Mission Factsheet, July 2019, http://www.euforbih.org/eufor/images/pdfs/Mission_Factsheet_0719.pdf

[10] The peace and stability of Bosnia-Hercegovina is in the fundamental security interests of Hungary, 17 May 2016, https://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-foreign-affairs-and-trade/news/the-peace-and-stability-of-bosnia-hercegovina-is-in-the-fundamental-security-interests-of-hungary

[11] KFOR Tactical Reserve Battalion, https://jfcnaples.nato.int/kfor/about-us/units/ktm

[12] Hungary will be increasing the number of its military personnel in the KFOR, 15 November 2018, https://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-foreign-affairs-and-trade/news/hungary-will-be-increasing-the-number-of-its-military-personnel-in-the-kfor

[13] ‘Crisis Management in the Balkan: the Kosovo mission’, Daily News Hungary, 19 July 2018, https://dailynewshungary.com/crisis-management-in-the-balkan-the-kosovo-mission/

[14] Hungary is prepared to meet the energy security challenges it will be facing, 3 June 2019 https://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-foreign-affairs-and-trade/news/hungary-is-prepared-to-meet-the-energy-security-challenges-it-will-be-facing

[15] ‘Orban defends Hungary’s good relations with Russia’, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL), 30 October 2019,  https://www.rferl.org/a/putin-to-visit-eu-nation-hungary-as-russian-presence-grows/30243531.html?ltflags=mailer

[16] Exxon’s decision could influence Hungarian gas imports, 16 May 2019, https://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-foreign-affairs-and-trade/news/exxon-s-decision-could-influence-hungarian-gas-imports

[17] ‘Erwin Seba: Hungary will have to buy Russian natural gas if Exxon waits on offshore project’, Reuters, 16 May 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hungary-energy/hungary-will-have-to-buy-russian-natural-gas-if-exxon-waits-on-offshore-project-minister-idUSKCN1SL2XN

[18] ‘Russia says Bulgaria to complete pipeline stretch of Turk Stream by 2020, Tsvetelia TsolovaVladimir Soldatkin’, Reuters, 21 October 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bulgaria-gas-turkstream/russia-says-bulgaria-to-complete-pipeline-stretch-of-turkstream-by-2020-idUSKBN1X01F8

[19] Vucic says Serbian leg Of TurkStream pipeline almost finished, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL), December 04, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/serbian-president-to-meet-putin-in-wake-of-russian-spy-scandal/30306809.html?ltflags=mailer

[20]Georgi Gotev: Russia says second leg of Turkish Stream will go via Bulgaria, not Greece’, Euractiv, 26 July 2019, https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy/news/russia-says-second-leg-of-turkish-stream-will-go-via-bulgaria-not-greece/

[21] ‘Hungary, Serbia agree to build gas interconnector’, Daily News Hungary, 14 June 2019, https://dailynewshungary.com/hungary-serbia-agree-to-build-gas-interconnector/

[22] Péter Szijjártó signs agreement with Serbia on cooperation to construct a gas pipeline, 17 June 2019, https://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-foreign-affairs-and-trade/news/peter-szijjarto-signs-agreement-with-serbia-on-cooperation-to-construct-a-gas-pipeline

[23] Péter Szijjártó holds talks with Croatian Minister for Energy, 7 March 2019, https://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-foreign-affairs-and-trade/news/peter-szijjarto-holds-talks-with-croatian-minister-for-energy

[24] The two governments will be turning to the EC with relation to Croatian-Hungarian gas shipment tariffs, 2

October 2018, https://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-foreign-affairs-and-trade/news/the-two-governments-will-be-turning-to-the-ec-with-relation-to-croatian-hungarian-gas-shipment-tariffs

[25] The construction of the Croatian liquid natural gas terminal is in Hungary’s interests, 19 June 2019, https://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-foreign-affairs-and-trade/news/the-construction-of-the-croatian-liquid-natural-gas-terminal-is-in-hungary-s-interests

[26] ‘Hungary, Croatia mull gas market integration’, Budapest Business Journal, 20 June 2019, https://bbj.hu/energy-environment/hungary-croatia-mull-gas-market-integration_167297

[27] Natural gas could begin arriving in Hungary from January 2021, 22 October 2019, https://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-foreign-affairs-and-trade/news/natural-gas-could-begin-arriving-in-hungary-from-january-2021

[28] Hungary ponders pitfalls of Chinese rail line, Asia Times, 15 April 2019, https://www.asiatimes.com/2019/04/article/hungary-ponders-pitfalls-of-chinese-rail-line/

[29] The Budapest-Belgrade railway line will be the fastest route from Southeastern Europe towards the interior of the continent, 29 April 2019, https://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-foreign-affairs-and-trade/news/the-budapest-belgrade-railway-line-will-be-the-fastest-route-from-southeastern-europe-towards-the-interior-of-the-continent

[30] China, Hungary, Serbia: reach agreement on railway project, 26 November 2013, https://dailynewshungary.com/china-hungary-serbia-reach-agreement-on-railway-project/

[31] Govt Applies for Chinese Loan, Budapest-Belgrade Rail Construction about to Start, MTI-Hungary Today, 7 June 2019, https://hungarytoday.hu/budapest-belgrade-railway-construction-china-loan/

[32] Construction of Budapest–Belgrade railway line could begin soon, 7 June 2019, https://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-for-national-economy/news/construction-of-budapest-belgrade-railway-line-could-begin-soon