NATO Summit in Brussels: tangible results for Hungary


NORBERT ÁROK
Senior Research Fellow


There is no question that President Trump’s remarks to the European NATO allies caused a stir. Yet given the political climate surrounding the ongoing trade dispute between Europe and the US, the harsh language from the US President was justifiable from a tactical point of view. Looking behind the veil of his rhetoric, we can see that Donald Trump was advocating that well-known issue that he regards as being of vital interest to the US: an increase in defense spending.

The summit concluded with some tangible results for Hungary. The leaders invited Macedonia to start accession talks with the alliance. For Hungary, the stability of the Western Balkans is of particular importance, and opening the doors to another Western Balkan state significantly improves the security environment of Hungary. The other positive result came with the NATO-Ukraine talks. The alliance is now formally concerned with the Ukrainian Education Act in the context of NATO integration. There is no question that the Hungarian government has adopted a strong and unfaltering position regarding Ukraine. For many years, Hungary has been one of the most vocal supporters of Ukraine as far as the country’s EU and NATO accession is concerned. The central focus in this debate, however, is related to minority rights. The Hungarian government’s position is that, despite its international obligations, with the newly enacted education act Ukraine has imposed major limitations on the rights of the Hungarian minority.

In the past few months, Ukraine has tried to frame the situation by political and diplomatic means in a particular way, insinuating that Hungary is blocking Ukraine’s EU and NATO accession solely in order to serve Russian interests. Moreover, the Ukrainian media has not refrained from distorting certain facts related to the ongoing bilateral negotiations. (The US has played a respectable role in mediating between the involved parties.)

What the Ukrainian government has failed to properly perceive is that though the member states are committed to the country’s EU and NATO integration, they cannot simply sweep aside certain conditions and opt for a fast-track integration. Over the course of the past few years, Ukraine has faced several clear setbacks that, in the Ukrainian reading, should have been perceived as a great obstacle to the accession process. For example, the Netherlands in 2016 delayed the ratification of the EU-Ukraine partnership agreement for almost a year due to a public referendum. In a memorandum sent to all NATO member states at the end of May, the Hungarian government made it clear: if Ukraine exempts the minority groups belonging to NATO member states from the scope of the education act, it will pave the way to the continuation of the integration process. (Notably, the Hungarian government did not block the summit between the NATO heads of state.) Hungary is undoubtedly the most vocal in pointing to certain conditions to be fulfilled as a prerequisite for the integration, but it does not stand alone in this sense. NATO has sent a clear message in this regard, as it did not invite Ukraine into the Enhanced Opportunity Program. Georgia, which has also been at war with Russia, has been a partner country since 2014.

 

TRUMP–PUTIN SUMMIT IN HELSINKI

 

The bilateral meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin cannot be regarded as ground-breaking based on the information available. Some media outlets later reported on Russia-US coordination in some WTO disputes. The critical points, however, remain unresolved for the time being. After the two-hour face-to-face meeting, the US sanctions are still in place, Russia will continue to support the breakaway regions in Eastern Ukraine and the Assad regime in Syria, while the United States will actively engage in a crusade against Iran.

Much attention was given to President Trump’s sharp criticism regarding the US intelligence services and the Mueller investigation in particular. Various Hungarian commentators have seen this as a sign that the President has openly sided with Russia concerning alleged interference in the US elections, therefore discrediting the intelligence community. These commentators concluded that this is proof of a widening fault line between the President and his administration. At the same time, other experts have pointed to the fact that Donald Trump has been critical of the investigation since the very beginning. It is only now that he has made use of the increased media attention to advocate his point regarding the investigation and to highlight the very much domestic political motives underlying it.

However, the overall tone of the summit leaves us waiting for the respective leaders to embark upon a new kind of strategic engagement, though with some significant limitations. Some major polls were released in the follow up period after the meeting. They almost unanimously suggest that the public support for President Trump’s Russia policy has added to the popularity of the President (notably, with much greater support among Republicans). This leads us to the conclusion that the continuation of the Russia policy on these terms will largely depend on the upcoming Congressional elections