WASHINGTON (AP) — Hungary’s government built a fence along its southern border, boasts about making Europe great again and says political correctness can’t interfere with fighting terrorism.
It’s a country made for an alliance with President Donald Trump. And its top diplomat is excitedly meeting officials across Washington this week to discuss closer political, economic and military cooperation, and not the U.S. charges of democratic backsliding in Hungary that largely defined the relationship in recent years.
“These critics have basically disappeared since the new president has taken office,” Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Hungary is among the Central European countries to have embraced Trump’s populist message, which in some ways echoes that of its own outspoken head of government: Prime Minsiter Viktor Orban. Unlike Washington’s older European allies that have chafed at Trump’s overtures to Russia and questioning of NATO, leaders in Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere have endorsed elements of Trump’s “America First” as U.S. versions of their own.
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Speaking to the AP after attending a U.S.-hosted meeting of the 68-nation coalition fighting the Islamic State group, Szijjarto lamented what he called a “very bad” U.S.-Hungarian political relationship under President Barack Obama. Whereas American diplomats regularly chided Hungary’s government over allegations of shrinking media freedom, and declining judicial and electoral independence, he said the situation has improved since Trump made clear the “export of democracy” was no longer a focus of U.S. foreign policy.
“We are excited to work together,” Szijjarto said, recounting positive phone conversations he had with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and between Trump and Orban last November.
It’s unclear how dramatic Trump’s shift in foreign policy will end up, but such assessments have been common internationally over the new administration’s early days, with some governments and advocacy groups fearing a U.S. withdrawal from its traditional role as a human rights champion. In China last week, Tillerson avoided the topic entirely. Elsewhere, a lack of senior diplomats in place and the administration’s prioritization of the anti-Islamic State fight have reinforced, for some Western diplomats, their sense of the U.S. relegating democracy, governance and the rule of law to a lower standing on the list of foreign policy priorities.
With Hungary, a U.S. official disputed that account. The U.S. remains troubled by the government’s expanding control over civil society and routinely raises its concerns in diplomatic interactions, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on such discussions and demanded anonymity. Hungary also has been criticized for its tough approach to the refugee crisis, even using water cannons and tear gas on migrants in a Europe overrun by the crisis in 2015.
Szijjarto on Wednesday emphasized Hungary’s commonality with Trump’s U.S.
Although some nations hoped to hear more at the anti-IS conference about the U.S. administration’s new direction, Szijjarto said Hungary was “enthusiastic” about a Trump strategy that aims to “not only to fight against ISIS, but totally eliminate ISIS.” He said Hungary would help by sending 50 additional troops to Iraq, taking its force there to 200. The mandate is now for them to stay through the end of 2019, instead of leaving in December.
While Hungary is among the lowest contributors to NATO, Szijjarto also said his government will consider accelerating its current, 10-year plan to meet the alliance’s military spending requirement of 2 percent of GDP — a central Trump demand. “We absolutely agree with your president that Europe has to do more,” he said. “We’ll absolutely comply with the expectations, which are fair.”
But Szijjarto held out hope for Trump-assisted changes beneficial to his country. One could be an end to some of the economic sanctions the U.S. and European Union began imposing on Russia after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region. Trump had raised such a possibility as a candidate. His administration so far has supported maintaining the penalties.
“We are pushing for an open, non-emotional, but rational debate and evaluation of the impact of the sanctions,” Szijjarto said.
The sanctions have cost Hungary $6.5 billion in lost exports over the last three years, he said, but reiterated Hungary’s line that it wouldn’t break European unity if it is the sole EU member desiring to end the sanctions and repair economic ties with Moscow.
Asked about America’s role in the process, Szijjarto said Hungary had grown accustomed to American officials lobbying for sanctions under Obama.
“Now, we understand, because of the change of administration…” he started answering, before changing course. “We haven’t had any discussion.”
Szijjarto said such talks would occur in the coming days.