No space for rational dialogue is a huge problem in Europe: Hungarian FM
Published: Oct 19, 2023 10:56 AM

Editor's Note:

Hungary was one of the very first countries to join the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó (Szijjártó) came to Beijing to attend the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. For him, BRI cooperation has benefited Hungary through Chinese investments and the modernization of Hungary's national economy. During his China visit, Global Times (GT) reporters spoke to the foreign minister about Hungary's participation in the BRI and the country's "Look East" policy.

GT: What changes has the BRI brought to Hungary?

I have to tell you that I'm personally proud of being the first foreign minister in the European Union to sign the implementation agreement of the BRI, which was called "One Belt, One Road" at the time. Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited me in Hungary in the summer of 2015 when we signed this agreement. 

In the last eight years, we have taken a lot of profits out of this cooperation. First, we are now reconstructing the railway line between the Serbian capital of Belgrade and the Hungarian capital of Budapest, through which they will be able to offer the quickest delivery route from the Greek ports to the western part of Europe. The quantity of Chinese goods shipped to the Greek ports is increasing exponentially. 

There have also been massive investments from China. 2020 and 2023 are the two years when China brought the most investments to Hungary. These investments are state of the art, the most modern impossible technology, creating tens of thousands of new jobs. These investments and the modernization of our national economy are all outcomes of the BRI.

GT: Hungary is known for its "Look East" policy. What areas were considered when coming up with this strategic decision?

While the world has been changing a lot, it became obvious that the West has lost its competitive advantage toward the East. Eastern economies are developing very rapidly. They have huge financial reserves. There is a large work force and highly developed technologies. So it's obvious that a country cannot operate economically successfully if it doesn't have cooperation with the East. And that has paid off a lot over the last 13 years. We have increased our exports and trade a lot, and the investments coming from the East to Hungary have increased a lot as well.

GT: Does this policy have a demonstration effect on other European countries?

Common sense and rationality is now lacking from Europe. It's very complicated to carry out a respectful and rational dialogue in Europe, especially since the war in Ukraine broke out. All questions are over idealized and over politicized. If you speak out of the mainstream or even a bit differently than the liberal mainstream, then you are immediately attacked, and then you are stigmatized; you are labeled a dictator, autocratic, even a Russian spy. 

There's no space for rational dialogue. This is a huge problem in Europe. This used to be the case before the war as well, but since the war has broken out, this is an extremely frustrating situation. Most of the others are neither ready nor willing to look at the issue of cooperation with China in a practical way. They would rather look at it in an ideological and political way.

We have made huge efforts to make Hungary a meeting point of Eastern and Western investment. We are one of the three countries in the world; the other two are China and Germany, where the three German premium top carmakers are present. In the meantime, we were able to attract five of the top 10 global battery producers in the world, including the biggest. 

This meeting point shows that it's not only possible, but it also makes a country successful. So the Eastern investors and the Western investors are meeting in Hungary in order to shorten the supply chain and work next to each other and inspire each other. That shows that this is a huge success for a country. If it had not happened, we would not have been able to keep the country's economy on a growth path, especially under such turbulent circumstances of the global economy. So Hungary can serve as a good example.

GT: More and more Chinese companies see Hungary as the bridgehead to the European market and set up branches in Hungary. What advantages does Hungary have to sustain the long-term development of Chinese companies?

The global economy is going through a huge transformation, and this transformation is being led by the revolutionary changes of the automotive industry as the traditional combustion engineering is over and the new era of electric mobility is coming down.

The fact that the biggest electric battery manufacturers of the world committed themselves to set up their first European factories in Hungary gives us the chance to be a front runner of this technological revolution and for a country which has only 10 million inhabitants.

So ranking No.95 globally when it comes to population, this is a huge chance because it's very rare that such small countries can be front runners of such significant technological revolutions. Most of the small countries are just lagging behind in such kind of issues and being at the very end of the supply chain, if at all. But Hungary is at the top of the supply chain, because we have the electric automotive companies, the electric battery manufacturers and all of their suppliers. The presence of the Chinese companies does not only contribute to the growth path to be maintained, but it contributes to preserving a leading role of ours when it comes to this new technological revolution of the world.

GT: How do you view negative narratives such as "debt trap," "economic dependence" and that "BRI projects are not sustainable"? 

I do believe that politics is a job based on experience, so I can just offer my experience. I have never ever experienced any political pressure from Chinese counterparts. I have never been faced with the political expectations combined with economic decisions. We have never faced the problem of a Chinese investment not being modern or sustainable enough. 

"Debt trap" this kind of expression can fly very well in liberal media where China should be described as an evil. But every country has the right to take loans. Nobody stands there with a gun and says, "Sign this agreement." If a country would like to take a loan, it can take it according to circumstances and conditions and make negotiations. If the circumstances and conditions are not preferable or sound, then they should not sign the agreement.

Those countries which criticize the BRI and China with this debt trap and loans and all this kind of stuff do not consider the other countries mature enough to make decisions on their own. When European politicians speak like this, I always tell them, "Look, I've been a foreign minister for 9 years now, currently, the second-longest foreign minister in Europe. Over the years, I have experienced a great deal, and I can tell you that I've been never confronted with such a problem. While talking to our Western partners, they always like to put pressure on us, trying to tell us what to do, what not to do, who to cooperate with, what kind of legislation to make. I have never heard from anybody in China saying to us not to cooperate with someone else, while our Western friends often say, 'Don't cooperate with this, don't cooperate with that because it's bad.'" 

The Europeans should change their way of thinking, otherwise we will be lagging behind. No wonder China took over second place from the European Union last year when it comes to the share of global GDP, closing further the gap between it and the US.

GT: Hungary sticks to friendly China policies. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and yourself often speak up for China, which triggers some criticisms and pressures from politicians of certain countries. How do you cope with such pressures?

To be honest, we don't really care because we are responsible for our country, and we are responsible for our own voters. Our job is not to satisfy other countries. What we regret, though, is that the EU is now applying a kind of financial sanction against Hungary now, because of two reasons.

First, our pro-peace policy in Ukraine, because we have a very clear position that peace must be made now. The other reason is our China policy, because we argue in favor of pragmatic and respect-based EU-China relations. This cannot be forgiven by those who are arguing the other way around.

GT: The conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the conflict between Palestine and Israel have increasingly highlighted a trend: Western countries very much hope that China can stand up and speak out, but they do not accept China's voice that is different from their own, and even think that China is favoring a certain party. However, China has always advocated peaceful dialogue and opposed the use of force and violence to resolve disputes. Hungary and China have similar positions on this issue. Both believe that war cannot solve problems and will only intensify them. How pragmatic and precious is this path, especially against the backdrop of the ever tense international situation?

We Hungarians are very grateful for President Xi and the Chinese government to put forward the peace plan and put so much effort into promoting peace in the region. We are doing the same. The Hungarians are in favor of peace. We firmly believe that this war does not have a solution on the battlefield. The more people die and the more destruction takes place, the harder and more difficult it will be to come to peaceful circumstances. 

Unfortunately, European politicians have entered a race with the US to see who delivers more weapons to Ukraine. We are the only member state in NATO and one of the very few in the EU which has never delivered weapons to Ukraine. We think that instead of weapon deliveries, peace talks should take place. We do believe that the more weapons are delivered there, the longer the war will take and the more people will die, and this should be avoided. 

Regarding Israel, we do hope that this situation will not escalate. If the situation in Israel and the war in Ukraine were to escalate, this would amount to a big threat to global security.