Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who met with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in Belgrade on Thursday, told Brussels that it must be aware that there will be no European Union accession for Western Balkan countries without the central state of the region - Serbia. Such a message from Orban must be taken seriously considering Hungary has veto rights in the EU and will certainly take advantage of it, especially as the prime minister attempts to position his country as a key player in the region.
Hungary's position within the EU is strengthening because of its independent policy, thus causing immense frustration in Western Europe. Budapest’s position is partly based on cooperation with Visegrad Group members (V4), consisting of four Central European countries - Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Through V4, these countries are furthering Central European integration, including in the economic and energy spheres. Hungary is also becoming a more active regional player in the Balkans, especially through their cooperation with Serbia.
The relations between Serbia and Hungary are at the highest possible level today, whether it be economic, political or cultural. The two countries have a number of regional projects that connect them, perhaps the most important being the Turk Stream gas pipeline, which was only recently realized. With Serbia becoming an energy hub for the Balkans and Central Europe, Hungary has become Serbia’s most reliable partner in the region.
For his part, Vučić said to Orban: “Many say that they support Serbia's path to the EU, but few act bravely and openly, ready to suffer criticism because of Serbia, as you do.”
He also pointed out that Hungary was once Serbia's 13th largest trading partner but today is fifth. This is only going to increase, especially when the construction of the Belgrade to Budapest high-speed railway line is complete. The highspeed railway line between Belgrade and Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city located between Belgrade and Hungary, will be completed by the end of the year. Construction for the section between Novi Sad and Subotica, Serbia’s border city with Hungary, will begin in September.
Both Novi Sad and Subotica are in Serbia’s northern Vojvodina autonomous region, which has a significant Hungarian minority of about 250,000 people, or 13% of the population in the region. The cooperation that Belgrade has with the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina contributes to the trust between Serbia and Hungary as minorities live without persecution or harassment from the state, something that Orban identifies.
The biggest impact of Orban’s visit was his statement: “I understand Serbia and I think that it should be admitted to the EU because it is the central country of the Western Balkans, without whose accession to the EU there will be no admission for others. Serbia is a key country.”
The EU is attempting to fast-track Albania’s and North Macedonia’s accession into the bloc without any consideration for Serbia despite being the economic powerhouse of the Western Balkans.
Greece long objected North Macedonia’s accession because of the name dispute, but with that issue mostly resolved following the 2018 Prespa Agreement, it appeared the path was clear. However, in November 2020, Bulgaria effectively blocked the official start of North Macedonia's EU Accession Negotiations because of Skopje’s violations of the 2017 Friendship Treaty between the two countries, with Sofia claiming its western neighbour is engaging in state-supported hate speech and minority claims against Bulgaria.
Bulgaria even escalated the breakdown in relations by claiming that there is no Macedonian language, but rather the language of North Macedonia is a Bulgarian dialect, a sentiment seemingly shared last week by the Portuguese Deputy Foreign Minister Ana Paula Zacarias, Secretary of State for European Affairs.
The Portuguese official, whose country holds the presidency of the EU, commented that: “Negotiations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria are difficult… obviously related to the language of North Macedonia, which previously was Bulgarian.”
For the North Macedonians and Albanians, Orban’s statement that EU expansion into the Western Balkans is impossible without Serbia will be another blow to their aspirations. With Albania facing resistance from Greece due to persecutions against the Greek National Minority in southern Albania, and North Macedonia facing opposition from Bulgaria, Hungary has added another dimension to the EU’s hopes of expansion into the Western Balkans.
In this way, not only does Orban help strengthen Serbia’s position in Europe, particularly in its relations with Brussels, but he also positions Hungary as the leading state of Central Europe that wields significant influence in not only V4, but also the Balkans. It is likely that this will cause further tensions between Budapest and Brussels as Western Europe becomes increasingly frustrated that they are restricted from expanding their own influence because of a relatively small Central European country.