Erdogan’s visit to Budapest: another symbolic meeting
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Budapest on 7 November. Ankara and Budapest seemed to be in full agreement on the Turkish offensive in Northern Syria, which both sides use to underline their own narratives domestically.
- Another inconclusive meeting for Hungary. The two sides did not make any major announcements on their joint press conference, and no announcements were made regarding Hungary’s acquisition of Turkish military hardware. President Erdogan and PM Orbán discussed cooperation in Africa, efforts to improve bilateral trade and the opening of a Maarif Foundation school in Budapest. PM Orbán also announced that Hungary would receive gas through the TurkStream by the end of 2021.
- The meeting benefited Erdogan symbolically. President Erdogan benefited from the fact that he was able to openly praise Ankara’s offensive in Northern Syria and its reconstruction plans there in an EU country, as it shows to his electorate that the EU is not united and he has supporters in the bloc.
- Strong criticism for Western allies. The Turkish president used the joint press conference to criticise the European Union and NATO for their alleged “cooperation” with some terrorists, contrasting their approach with Hungary’s supportive stance. Erdogan once again threatened the EU that he would “open the gates” to refugees if he feels Turkey reached its limits, complaining that Ankara has not received EUR 3 billion from the support Brussels pledged to the country. Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán highlighted that he wants to avoid refugees moving from Turkey to the EU, which is why Hungary supports the security zone Ankara seeks to set up in Northern Syria. The Hungarian premier likely backed the Turkish stance for domestic political purposes, showing that the government remains committed to keeping “illegal immigrants” out of Europe. In the joint press conference, PM Orbán emphasised that – contrary to his previous claims – border protection alone is not sufficient protection against illegal migration, as it “cannot be stopped without Turkey”, which also underlined the narrative on the necessity to support Ankara’s actions.
- There are limits to the importance of this relationship on the EU level. In the weeks leading up to the Erdogan visit, Budapest took several decisions favouring Ankara. First, Hungary delayed and weakened an EU joint statement condemning Turkey for launching an offensive in Syria. Second, the Turkic Council opened its first European office in Budapest. Third, the Hungarian government disseminated the Turkish government’s narrative on the offensive in domestic and international media. On the joint press conference, PM Orbán once again reiterated Hungary’s willingness to help Turkish EU accession and mentioned the importance of the enlargement portfolio – as if it would fall under the Hungarian government’s control. Nevertheless, Turkish capability to achieve its goals in the EU and in Hungary remains limited. On the European level, the Orbán government did not veto European Council conclusions on Turkey and Fidesz MEPs approved an EP resolution on the issue. In Hungary, schools allegedly tied to Fethullah Gülen were not shut down as requested by the Turkish government and authorities did not block anti-Erdogan protests on the day of his visits.
- Hungary’s relationship with authoritarian regimes have common traits. Hungary is offering numerous gestures to authoritarian regimes – mainly Russia, China and Turkey, but others as well – presumably in return for economic benefits, but so far Budapest has failed to achieve tangible results. One of the most important benefits for illiberal leaders is that they can express their own stances in an EU member state, which Putin and Erdogan have done repeatedly. For Orbán, the main benefit of these relations is that pro-government oligarchs can profit from large investment projects from his authoritarian counterparts (e.g., Paks II, Belgrade-Budapest railway). In the Turkish case, the regime might profit from deals between PM Orbán’s circles and those of Turkish businessman Adnan Polat, and the rumoured Hungarian acquisition of Turkish military hardware could bring similar benefits as well.