Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu refrained from criticizing the situation of rule of law in Hungary or Budapest's actions in torpedoing NATO-Ukraine relations in an interview to ERR. He described as a pointless question whether Estonia should tie itself to Hungary on the international arena in a situation where the country's domestic policy has come under criticism in the EU and where it has painted itself into various corners in international organizations.
The following are Reinsalu's answers to questions by ERR's Brussels correspondent Epp Ehand.
Let us talk about your Hungary utterances. I read a foreign ministry press release on Monday the headline of which said Hungary and Estonia see eye-to-eye when it comes to NATO and transatlantic matters. Coverage in the Hungarian media also suggested Hungary is a close friend to Estonia. That was a little surprising, considering that Hungary is a great friend to Putin's Russia and is currently blocking several policies in the EU and NATO that seems to suit Russia's interests. How did Hungary become a friend?
As concerns EU enlargement, for example, our diagnosis and that of Hungary coincide completely. We have also signed a joint letter, along with the Visegrad countries and Austria in support of enlargement. We remember Hungary's motorized company from when it visited Estonia in 2017. Hungary is also willing to contribute to Baltic air policing from 2022. As concerns consistency in NATO and EU policy, Russia's annexation in Ukraine and Georgia, it is also very important, and I discussed these topics with my Hungarian colleague.
The political views of NATO and EU partners do not always coincide when it comes to relations with third countries, while mutual relations are truly positive, whether we're talking about cultural relations or the fact Hungary decided to support its companies and their Estonian exports with €300 million on the eve of my visit.
Did you tell your Hungarian colleague that European Union sanctions for Russia are necessary and that you hope Hungary will support them in the future?
Yes, I did. And one very complicated topic that has created a lot of tension is Hungary-Ukraine relations. A very sensitive and delicate topic for both countries and one that concerns Ukrainian education law. I urged my Hungarian colleague to contribute to dialogue to find solutions in this matter that does not translate into relations in other environments.
(The NATO-Ukraine ministers' committee has been unable to meet for over two years because Hungary has been boycotting the meeting, pointing to efforts to protect the rights of Hungarians living in Ukraine. NATO has also been unable to make joint statements in support of Ukraine, with Hungary last blocking such an attempt in October – ed.)
Other countries have long since agreed on and solved the problems of their minorities in Ukraine. Rather, it seems Hungary wants to block these topics out of friendship with Russia. Do you not see that?
I believe that language issues – what languages are used in school etc. – make for a very sensitive subject in Estonia. And that is also the case in Ukraine and Hungary. It is sensible for us to urge both of our friends to try and find a political solution, dialogue in this matter; it is the only solution. Why do some things take such a long time; look at how long – an entire generation – it took to solve the North Macedonia name dispute. The fate of an entire nation stuck behind a single question and a single name for a generation.
Don't you think the language issue is just an excuse for Hungary in this matter?
My Hungarian colleague told me very clearly that Hungary's political view is no different from the value-based approach to Russia relations that we share, meaning opposition to Russian aggression. That said, Hungary has various economic cooperation projects [with Russia] when it comes to energy and other areas. I emphasized that energy security is very important for Europe; we discussed the Nord Stream 2 project and the problems it has raised and how it is important to maintain allied unity before the NATO summit.
The press release also said you were given an overview of recent developments in Hungary. What were you told and what is the situation of rule of law in Hungary?
It is a European Union topic. The rule of law dialogue was last discussed at the EU General Affairs Council yesterday. All member states have kilograms of information on relevant developments, as do we here in the permanent representation building, I believe.
Topics included Hungary having adopted Europe's lowest corporate income tax rate of just 9 percent and there being conflicting opinions in terms of whether this has helped boost major foreign investments or not. My Hungarian colleague has also talked about how Hungary has created an interesting portfolio for supporting investments by major companies to secure global investments and expressed very positive attitude toward the reform.
We touched on Hungary's rather intense social and family benefits package that makes for a very interesting field. Hungary and Estonia are two countries that are concerned for their birthrate. We really want to contribute to various measures, and I believe it is important to exchange information here.
Allow me to return to rule of law. What is the situation in Hungary in terms of media freedom, civil society, academic freedom etc.?
There are problems and questions. The European Commission has raised them, and the EU has cooperation formats for discussing them. There are different proceedings for these matters, explaining matters through dialogue and finding solutions that way.
Estonian diplomats and politicians have worked for decades, shaping Estonia's reputation as that of a country that respects the rule of law and good international cooperation. Don't you find it a little frivolous to paint Hungary as our best, very close friend in a situation where they have obvious problems with rule of law and have painted themselves into a corner regarding several issues in international organizations?
No, we need to maintain relations with countries that belong to families that share our principles, like NATO and the European Union. Hungary should not be painted in this light, if what you are suggesting is visit Hungary today, betray your country tomorrow.
That was not my question.
That was the idea behind your question. No, it is nonsense and I categorically reject it. We need to communicate. On the contrary – communication is the basis for progress. We are pursuing effective cooperation in matters of defense, also as concerns EU enlargement – there are quite a few interesting topics.
If we need to draw lines in the sand, I will say that all 27 EU member states are dear to me, and should the U.K. leave the union, it will remain a close and valuable ally for Estonia in foreign policy.
I did not ask what you tried to suggest.
You were thinking it, I could see it in your eyes.
Allow me to put the question more simply. Isn't it a little irresponsible to call Hungary a close friend in terms of international political relations?
No, I believe it is a pointless postulate. We are two Finno-Ugric peoples, considering our cultural cooperation, we would be saying to hell with these accords.
I did not say that.
But once again, you were thinking it. Let us realize we can talk to all countries in our region and the European Union.
Talking to someone and calling them a close friend are two different things.
I have yet to come across diplomatic press statements where two ministers meet and refer to each other as close enemies. I will never practice that brand of diplomacy. We would like to see Hungary contribute more to the Three Seas Initiative, I can tell you in secret. That is an area where there is room for improvement in our relations.
Editor: Marcus Turovski