Ovidiu Vaida: Western Europe will remain influential in the EU’s East
Cross-Border Talks discussed with the Romanian political scientist and expert on Central Europe a number of contentious issues in the region one year after the start of the war in Ukraine
Cross-Border Talks discussed with the Romanian political scientist and expert on Central Europe a number of contentious issues in the region one year after the start of the war in Ukraine:
– the rise of Poland
– the supposed moving of the center of power in the EU towards the East;
– the role that Czech newly elected president would play;
– the essence of Romanian-Hungarian relationship, based on a strategic partnership;
– the discussions for Bulgarian-Romanian engagement, aiming to overcome the veto of Austria and Netherlands on the two countries’ accession to the Schengen areas or ideas for a Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen area.
The entire transcription of video and audio content is available below.
Welcome to another episode of Cross Border Talks, where we put into practice our established idea to discuss more about Central Europe and Southeastern Europe, our major regions of interest. And today, my partner, Veronika Susova- Salminen, is here with me and our guest is Ovidiu Vaida, lecturer at the Babes-Bolyai University, the best Romanian University. He is an expert in international relations, knowledgeable on Central Europe. We will deal with a number of issues and evolutions in Central Europe, because over the one year after the start of the war in Ukraine, major changes happened. The New York Times recently wrote that the center of gravity of the EU is moving to the east. So we will be trying to find out what this mean from a Romanian or regional perspective.
Let us start with this change. Poland has been affirming itself in the region, establishing closer cooperation with Ukraine. And we are here a little bit to the south, Bulgaria and Romania. So my first question to you, Mr. Vaida, would be: how should this Polish ascent be perceived? Perhaps there is some possibility that a strong Euro-Atlantic bloc appears in the eastern part of the EU…
Yes. Thank you very much for inviting me. With regards to Poland’s position and Poland’s relations with Ukraine, I would say that it’s nothing new there. They have had historical relations for centuries. We know that Poland has a very active foreign policy regarding the Baltic area, regarding Ukraine, regarding Central Europe. So as I said, it’s nothing new there. From the very beginning, I want to stress, we have to bear in mind that every discussion and every judgement of ours is in the context of these extraordinary circumstances, that is the war in Ukraine, which changed basically everything.
Poland and Ukraine have historical ties, economic ties. I’ve just found some figures here. 3.5 million Ukrainians live in Poland at this point. That would be almost 10% of Ukrainians living in Ukraine. Due to the war, a lot of enterprises had to leave Ukraine and most of them were reestablished or were relocated to Poland. Poland hosts the most refugees. More than half of the Ukrainian refugees left for Poland. Curiously, only few came to Romania. The second position would be the Czech Republic. I’m not sure if I answered all your questions. If you want to add something…
I want to add something short – a very current affairs issue: perhaps you’ll be able to provide some perspective. We have just now [9 March] the information or the dispute whether some rocket launched from a Russian ship entered the Romanian airspace or not. The official position of the Romanian Ministry of Defence is that it did not enter the territory or airspace, but Ukraine or Russia seem to suggest otherwise. I wonder, maybe to put it in this way, is Romania fully embracing the Ukrainian position in the war in Ukraine, or is Romania somehow more cautious when dealing with Ukraine? Is Romania having some issues of its own, related to Romanian minority or other issues?
It’s a very good question. I would say that, there is no doubt, at least at political level, that Romania is fully supporting Ukraine, yet there are some views that we should not speak loudly about that. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine thanked Romania for their help. But at some point, President Iohannis was really somehow irritated by these questions. And he said, whatever we do, we should not talk too much about that.
I read the declaration of the Minister of Defense of Romania. I do not know what to say. There were rockets falling, Ukrainian rockets falling in Poland. And in the very beginning it was a rumor that there were Russian rockets. And later we found out that they were Ukrainian. I have no more data regarding this matter of rockets today.
Yes, probably. We must be very careful with this evaluation, especially without data and within the information war, which is going on all the time. But I would return our discussion back to Poland and to Central Europe, because Poland is a member of the Visegrad Group and Visegrad Group is or has been perceived for a very long time as a relatively successful or important regional group of states: Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary. But also there are some changes going on. These changes have different levels. One level is the war in Ukraine, the ascent of Poland and the military and security issues in general, which brought, by the way, the divergence between two very important countries of this bloc, Poland and Hungary. On the other hand, you have the political changes happening in the Czech Republic with the presidential election and with the parliamentary election, predominance of the rightist Atlantist political forces. And finally, of course, Slovakia is now very volatile politically. There are voices, at least in the Czech and also Slovak space, saying that we have to think if really this makes sense in the new conditions to continue with this type of regional cooperation. So what is your take on this, on this discussion? And do you think that the war in Ukraine and the political changes will change the nature of V4 or will change the meaning of it?
For sure it will change the functioning of V4. I don’t think that the V4 will disappear or become obsolete. But even at this point V4, I think, is not that important as it used to be in the 1990s where it worked as a kindergarten for integration and accession negotiations. Nowadays I think the states are not cooperating that much, even though there are regular meetings among ministers, prime ministers and so on.
The situation in Ukraine influenced V4, namely the fact that after 2014 – the invasion of Crimea, V4 states decided positively on the Polish initiative to establish a Visegrad battlegroup which has worked since, I think, 2015. They have different military exercises and around 4000 soldiers are there. V4 must be brought into discussion, taking into consideration the fact that the four states are members of NATO, of the EU and there are two other mechanisms or organizations working somehow in paralel, like the Three Seas Initiative, which is a economic group and B9 (Bucharest nine) initiative, which has only defensive roles. So I would say that the V4 will continue to exist, but at the limited level and as you mentioned.
We have this divide now between Poland and Hungary regarding the relation with Russia, but things here inside the V4 and regarding their cooperation is shaped by the fact there are every year or every two years elections in the four states and sometimes they change their governing coalitions and they also change their views.
Before we had the elections, in the parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic, we had a Andrej Babis government, which was close to Hungary in their views and friendship, so to say, with Russia. We had parliamentary elections, new government. They switched to a more pro-EU, pro-NATO position. Now, once with the election of Petr Pavel as president, for sure, Czech Republic would be a very, very pro-NATO and pro EU country opposing Hungary.
Slovakia was, years ago, rather close to Hungary. They had elections and they also changed their minds. So we have some sort of cleavage there. On the one hand is the Czech Republic, Slovakia camp, which is at this point, closer to the EU and Poland and Hungary, which are somehow far from the European idea. The war changed everything. Poland was reattached to the European Union somehow, and Hungary is still somewhere else. And not to forget: we have elections in Poland this year, in Slovakia and also in Bulgaria.
Yes, I will continue this. You pretty nicely put that there is a fragmentation in Central European politics, in the foreign affairs and also within the relation to the European Union and within the relation to Russia. But there is, of course, the war, a war in Ukraine, which is changing a lot of things. As Vladimir already mentioned recently, at the end of January, the New York Times published an article about our region, arguing that the Central and Eastern Europe will become a more influential region within the European affairs, within the EU and within NATO due to the war. The article was also mentioning that Poland is profiling itself as a very important power thanks to its quick and decisive help to Ukraine. There was also a quotation of Olaf Schulz who said that the heart of Europe was moving eastward. What do you say about this opinion? Is it realistic considering the fragmentation which we have seen, which we are seeing, considering some controversies which can also appear between the different states of this region? Is it really so that the war in Ukraine is moving the power center of Europe towards the east?
Yes, I partially agree with the article. Yes. The important focus is on Eastern Europe at this point. But once the war is over, the Western states, namely Germany, France will regain their influence in Europe.
We have to judge from two two sides. We discuss the European Union when we talk about Europe and we may discuss NATO. I think France, Germany, Spain and the founding six countries will be still more influential than the eastern part, even due to economic reasons. We can have a very good example here. The Netherlands is opposing the entering of Romania and Bulgaria into Schengen and they are successful in blocking all these. This trend, if we speak about the NATO situation, is different and yes, we may witness in the future a switch in importance regarding Eastern Europe as more and more troops are brought to this area. Troops which are staying in the area, not just more weaponry. I mentioned the B9 initiative, which is very important and able to put discussion points on the NATO agenda. And last but not least, I have some figures here.
Eastern states spend more and more money on defense with a prediction for Poland. I think for 2025 they will spend 3.5% of their GDP on defense, which is a lot. It’s the same trend in Romania, in the Baltic states. From the defense point of view, there is a clear shift. And I think Eastern Europe will become a major actor in this area.
As regarding EU affairs, the real influence will stay where it was. After the war is over, hopefully in just a few months we shall have negotiations, difficult EU negotiations with Ukraine, negotiations with the Republic of Moldova. And I would say that Western states will not oppose the accession of Ukraine, of course, but they will demand more rigorous negotiations, attention to EU funds and stuff like that.
We have a specific model in some countries right now who are trying to be some kind of a bridge between the West and let’s call it East or Russia. Hungary seems to be one of these countries which have a more different position than most of the Euro-Atlantic countries and do a lot of interaction with Russia. I want to ask what is going on in the Romanian-Hungarian relationship, both between the states and within the Romanian society where, as we know, there is a Hungarian minority.
There are, of course, traditional opinions that there is some kind of contestation between Romania and Hungary for historical reasons. But I am also aware of other opinions and other observations with Hungarians taking important positions in the Romanian state or with Romania agreeing on strategic partnership, which is not the case with other countries. So could you explain to us more about what is going on in the Romanian Hungarian relationship in recent times?
Do you have three hours for discussion? It’s a very good question and really difficult to answer.
I would say from the very beginning that between Romania and Hungary, there is a love and hate relationship. For me, it’s very curious, the Hungarian friendship with Russia. They had difficult relations in the past. And let’s not forget the year 1956 when the Russians crushed the Hungarian Revolution. They basically occupied the country and arrested their leader, communist leader Imre Nagy, which was later taken to Romania and executed in Russia. That was the national drama – 1956. And I cannot really understand from historical reasons why Hungary is so close to Russia at the moment. Probably they have strategic goals. The fact that they are somehow outcasted, so to say, from the EU level. They are criticized. They try to find a strong ally, a strong friend, which could be Russia. Then, gas and oil is coming to discussion here. But I think their friendship is more based on interest than on, I don’t know, true feelings
Regarding Romanian-Hungarian relations. It is a very, very carefully built relation. Starting in the 1990s, we signed a treaty in 1997, then a strategic partnership agreement in 2002 – 21 years ago. Hungary is a very important partner for the Romanian economy. Romania is an important partner for the Hungarian economy. I have some figures here. Hungary is the fourth country in terms of export for Romania, and Hungary is the third country in terms of import. That would be the economic elements from a political diplomatic point of view.
We still have a lot of people who are not very friendly. For instance, the president of Hungary, Katalin Novak, visited Romania in 2022, and it was the first visit at presidential level in 12 years. One was in 2010, the previous one was in 1997. So we are really close, have a lot of relations, and presidents visit the other country once in more than ten years. I think it is worth mentioning the fact that Klaus Iohannis has never visited Budapest, at least not in an official role. The last Romanian presidential visit took place in 2009 when Traian Basescu visited Budapest. He was invited by the then Hungarian president. That means in 14 years we did not have an official visit there. Even nowadays, we have this problem here regarding the use of the signal and flag on official buildings. It was a statement of the president of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Hungarian parliament image. At that point, our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bogdan Aurescu, invited the Hungarian ambassador for explanations.
I don’t want to move the discussion outside the academia, but I think just a week ago we had a scandal, the football game being a team from Szekely land in Covasna County, and there were some fans of the other team from Craiova and they shouted something like, ”Hungarians leave Romania”. And they stopped the game. The referee stopped the game in the 20th minute and we had a huge debate, not only in the sport journals, what are we supposed to do? We also think it’s important to mention the fact that Hungary has a lot of unofficial investments unofficially in Romania. Not the Hungarian companies, but the Hungarian government using NGOs. They sponsor, they help the media, journals, football teams and things like that.
Also, from time to time, every summer there is a Hungarian summer university in Transylvania. And this is the point or the place where Orban Viktor is launching his new ideas. The famous illiberal democracy, as he called Hungary, was first mentioned at Balvanyos University in August. They had the same university and he had his infamous, quite racist speech. So what I want to say is that all these actions somehow produce irritation both in the Romanian political class and in the public opinion.
You mentioned that at least on a political level, we have some sort of friendly relations. The Hungarian party is often invited to join a governmental coalition. They are in government right now. But even in that area, sometimes they block certain governmental policies. And there are some rumors that they do so by being advised from Budapest. I’m not sure this is true, but the discussion is there.
Klaus Iohannis has never visited Budapest and two years ago I think he tried to attack the Social Democratic Party and Hungarian party by saluting them with Hungarian words. Somehow he tried to connect social Democrats to the Hungarian party and blamed both for something wrong. It was not clear what was wrong, but he just put the blame on them.
I thank you for mentioning Klaus Iohannis, the Romanian president, because it’s a good switch to my last question as we are making a review of the relationships in our region, especially from the Romanian point of view. So Klaus Iohannis said yesterday at the extraordinary summit of the EU leaders in Brussels that he is planning to visit Sofia within a short time, maybe a few weeks time. And the main issue on his agenda in Sofia would be Bulgaria and Romania’s attempted entrance into the Schengen area and the veto of Austria and Netherlands. I have been following the Romanian reactions after the vote in December at the Committee on Internal Affairs and Justice. I had this impression that the first reaction was that Romanians originally felt that Bulgaria is somehow putting Romania in a disadvantaged position by being coupled with Romania. So the initial position was some kind of decoupling from Bulgaria, and over time we saw certain evolution, even a rapid one. Recently I’ve been listening to a number of Romanian foreign policy analysts, and if I’m not mistaken, even the Foreign Minister suggested cooperation with Bulgaria over the Schengen issue.
So here is my question. What do you think could be the substance of such cooperation? What could Bulgaria and Romania do together? There have also been ideas about a mini Schengen area between Bulgaria and Romania, and there is a question put by a Romanian member of European Parliament to the European Commission expecting a certain position from the Commission about the legal basis, if I understand correctly, of such mini Schengen area. But perhaps there are different ideas which are discussed. So what do you hear and what do you know about that?
Well, it is the first time I hear about this mini Schengen. I cannot see how that would work and what would be the outcome. We shall have border control against the countries already in Schengen. I think it’s just some sort of pressuring the Commission or the European Parliament.
I read about decoupling. We have to admit – Romania is in a better situation than Bulgaria in terms of internal reforms and stuff like that, and also in border areas due to the fact that we do not have a border with Turkey. Bulgaria has one and there are some problems there also.
My feeling is that Romanian diplomacy is rather working in a secret way. They are not very clear in expressing their views, but from what I saw there is no mention of decoupling or working separately in this effort of joining the Schengen area. I heard and read some news that Bulgaria is once again under surveillance, but I only could find here and there some piece of news, not analysis. What happens? We right now we have a European Council. Obviously, the problem is not on the agenda. There will be one official council of of the EU of meeting of of Minister of Internal Affairs in March. Probably that will bring more answers to your question.
We mentioned the elections in Poland and Slovakia. Let’s not forget we will have elections in Bulgaria in April as well. That may change the game. You might get a government which will not be so friendly with the idea or maybe the opposite – the pro-Europeans will win, which would smooth the discussions on the Schengen area. I read a few press statements of Bulgarian officials and they offered or mentioned the month October for joining the Schengen area. What can Romania do in this situation? I think Romania may pressure Bulgaria like, I don’t know, older brother talking to the younger brother: do your homework, let us join Schengen together.
If you allow me an extra question. Isn’t the Schengen solution somehow related to some international agreement on the geopolitical position of Bulgaria and Romania? I mean that if that is true, it’s not really so much the work of the two countries internally, maybe rather a certain form of agreement between international powers? An agreement whether both countries remain some kind of a middle ground between West and East or whether they really join the West…
I don’t know. I have to admit that I have no idea about all these agreements. But once again, let’s go back to your question or the article in the New York Times. We can see that even if we have this war in Ukraine, a power in the European Union stays in the Western countries. I do not know about all these agreements regarding Romania or Bulgaria.
Okay, Mr. Vaida, thank you for coming to Cross-border Talks. We are happy that we managed to make some kind of reflection on the changing political situation in our whole region. And it’s a very hopefully even more dynamic region than before and hopefully to find its deserved and more important place in the European Union and in the world.
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