In a recent interview with Reuters, Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto criticized the EU sanctions regime against Russia, calling it “useless” while pointing out that it has cost his country more than $6 billion in lost export opportunities. He also expressed a sincere hope that relations between his government, which his Prime Minister Viktor Orban proudly characterized as “illiberal”, and the United States would improve with Donald Trump as President.
All of this is of a piece with recent political trends: Brexit and the ascent of Trump have both shaken up European politics, and the various players are jockeying for position given the new realities. But what is more notable, and will have more lasting impact on Europe as a whole, is what Szijjarto said about Hungary’s energy policy:
Szijjarto said Hungary, which will host Putin on Feb. 2, is already looking at ways to extend cooperation on natural gas supplies with Russia beyond 2021.
“We have to start now,” he said, adding Budapest would like to develop alternative energy sources but Russia was far more reliable than European partners, which had failed to build the necessary infrastructure to reduce reliance on Russian gas.
Hungary is also pressing ahead with the construction of two new power blocks at its Paks nuclear plant, a 10 billion euro deal with Moscow that has come under scrutiny from Brussels, with a state aid probe still pending.
Once that probe gives the green light, “we will start (construction) immediately,” Szijjarto said.
The nuclear deal, if it happens, will be significant, but the gas negotiations are even more so. Discussions over increasing Russian gas supplies had already been on a slow boil last year, and look to be kicking up a notch now with Putin’s visit.
At a time when many European countries are busy looking for ways to wean themselves off of Russian energy supplies, whether by constructing LNG import terminals or building out gas pipeline interconnectors, Hungary appears determined to go its own way. A drawn-out fight in the European Commission over its European Energy Union policy looks likely.