Hungary’s Council of Europe presidency provides opportunities for Turkey

Hungary, a consistent partner for Turkey in its dealings with the European Union, has assumed the presidency of the Council of Europe, the human rights confederation that spans from Greenland and Portugal to Russia and Ukraine.

Hungary began its term on May 21, with the country’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó declaring that Budapest’s agenda would focus on promoting minority rights, increasing democratic participation, as well as tackling the environmental and technological challenges facing Europe.

Despite this, Hungary’s presidency has drawn early caution from activists and fellow EU member states mindful of its growing illiberalism at home. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is the poster child for an authoritarian brand of politics that relies on equal amounts of right-wing populism and tightening the political space for any opposition to his rule.

For Turkey, however, Hungary’s tenure represents the rise of an ideological kinsman within both the Council of Europe and EU, two blocs that have progressively soured on it over the years.

Speaking to Ahval’s Turkey Abroad podcast, Dr Tamas Szigetvari, senior research fellow at the Institute of World Economics in Budapest, said that, while the Council of Europe’s powers may be more limited than the EU, Hungary’s presidency still promises some benefits for Turkey.

Svigetvari said Ankara could benefit from less of an emphasis on fundamental rights and freedoms, for example. “From this side, it may be good news for Turkey since (Hungary) will not go so far with human rights issues.”

Like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Orban chafes against what he sees as Western-imposed ideas that undermine traditional values in his country. Both men’s governments have frequently been criticised by both the EU and Council of Europe for curtailing dissent and expanding their own powers.

However, Turkey may no longer face the same level of scrutiny from the council if Hungary is able to furnish it with the same diplomatic cover it has provided at the EU. On more than one occasion, Orban’s government has toned down joint EU condemnations of Turkey over Syria and the eastern Mediterranean, helping Erdoğan’s country avoid harsher action including sanctions.

Szigetvari believes that while the political similarities of the two countries leaders helps draw them together, cold pragmatism also guides the relationship. “There are many external factors that help them grow closer, but closer personal relations are always important,” he said.

Turkey represents an important partner for Orban’s Hungary as it pursues a wider program of cultural outreach to the Turkic world under its “Opening to the East” policy. In 2018, Hungary became an observer to the Turkey-dominated Turkic Council that brings together countries like Azerbaijan and other central Asian nations. The council has since opened a consulate in Budapest, where its representatives are afforded diplomatic status.

Orban has also promoted the Turkic identity of the Hungarian people, even as he paints Hungary as the defender of a traditional Christian identity. Although seemingly anachronistic, Svigetvari said this strategy was another example of Orban seeking to maximise a partnership with Turkey, whose relations in the Turkic world run much deeper.

“This is a practical approach to this Turkic kinship and historical background rather than any real cultural issue behind it,” he said.

As head of the Council of Europe, Svigetvari believes Hungary will remain a “benign partner” to Turkey. But while the role may have its limits, there are real benefits from the partnership for Turkey to make elsewhere. “It is a question of how influential Orban is within the EU, and in many respects, he is very influential,” he said.

“A small country like Hungary is able to shape European policy and have an impact on foreign policy, but it has been able to achieve what other smaller countries have been unable to do.”

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