Poland and Hungary: Tactical alliance or strategic partnership?

szydlo orbanThe recent almost 6-hour long meeting between Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling party in Poland and Viktor Orbán, Hungarian prime minister, is perhaps a prelude to better co-operation in Brussels. Anything beyond that is out of the question because of the politicians' different views on Russia.


The meeting between Kaczyński and Orbán in the Polish resort town of Niedzica proves that in both countries' politicians’ names matter rather than institutions. Despite the fact that Andrzej Duda is the Polish president and Beata Szydło prime minister, the Hungarian leader was invited by the chairman of Law and Justice (PiS). The topics of the unexpectedly long conversation have not been revealed to the public.


The conclusions of the meeting can be speculated about. Since this was a talk between two leaders of conservative parties – PiS and FIDESZ, that are represented in the European Parliament, it might lead to increased co-operation, despite the fact that within the EP, Poles belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists and Hungarians to the European People’s Party. Perhaps Warsaw and Budapest will collaborate better when it comes to battling the criticism of first Hungary and now Poland by EU institutions and their representatives. However, it is certain this will not help Poland gather EU officials’ support when it comes to, for instance, its fight against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.


The facts show that Poland can conditionally count on Hungary regarding a few issues:


1. Gas policy – the Slovenia-Hungary gas pipeline was completed in 2015 and is a key part of the North-South Gas Corridor, which is a network of gas pipelines that are supposed to connect the LNG terminal in the Polish town of Świnoujście with its counterpart on the Croatian island of Krk. This constitutes a meridian axis of gas connections that will determine the development of the regional gas market, which has so far been dominated by east-west gas transit from Russia.


2. Hungary and Poland are against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. On the one hand, the project is criticised by both states. But on the other hand, the opening of Hungarian companies to co-operation with Gazprom is a fact. The Russian giant was invited to build a gas hub in Hungary. The hub will be used in the winter if the company has troubles with delivering gas via Ukraine.


3. Budapest is also against an ambitious climate policy. Together with Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia it established a coalition against a legally binding, high participation of renewables in energy production which is part of the EU’s 2030-2040 energy mix. Due to Poland's and Hungary's histories, both countries’ economies have energy intensive industries that are threatened by an overly ambitious climate policy.


However, certain reservations must be made, as they show that Poles cannot blindly count on Hungarians, even if personal relations between Kaczyński and Orbán are excellent.


Hungary's “no” to Nord Stream 2 has a second reason, which is important to note in order to interpret its position. Gazprom's northern project is to replace the South Stream pipeline which was blocked by the European Commission but supported by Budapest, which wanted to participate in the enterprise. Hungarians may accept Nord Stream 2 if they receive a compensation. This scenario has already taken place in the Czech Republic where the project is not perceived as a threat to the country's energy security. Prague’s choice was to maintain its good relations with Germany instead of showing solidarity with other Visegrad countries when their energy ministers sent a letter of protest to the European Commission. However, it is possible that Hungary will change its current stance in order to sustain a good relationship with Russia. This means that the opposition to Nord Stream 2 should not be Poland’s main argument for co-operation with Hungary. Their defiance is tactical and it is not, like in Poland's case, about the general rule of building new gas pipelines from Russia to Europe. It is about a specific proposition and consequences of Brussels' politics, that in their opinion should block Nord Stream if it stops South Stream.


Despite the fact that Hungary is currently on the same page with Poland when it comes to climate policy, its energy mix is less dependent on coal. In Poland 90 per cent of energy is made out of coal, while in Hungary it is slightly less than 20 per cent. Other energy sources include nuclear energy and gas. A new section of Hungary’s Paks nuclear power plant will be built by Russian atomic energy corporation Rosatom, while gas is purchased from Gazprom. Budapest is orienting its energy source policy towards Moscow because Caspian gas supplies and other diversification projects are too far in the future. This is the key bone of contention with Warsaw which is pursuing energy independence from Russia through, for example, Świnoujście LNG terminal. At some point Budapest may leave coalition against the Nord Stream 2 coalition like the Czech Republic did.


Poland and Hungary cooperate successfully regarding NATO's security policy. They both expand their gas infrastructure and keep on defying the EU’s ambitious climate policy. However, the more we explore the details, the more differences there are. One of the issues is a contrasting approach to Moscow, in which Orban is flirting to thumb his nose at the European Commission.


Perhaps the meeting with Kaczyński foretells partnership in resisting the European Commission. But the difference is that Poland need Brussels for protection against issues like Nord Stream 2 or the Kremlin’s attempts at revising sanctions. Hungary does not pay much attention to the sanctions and may agree to Nord Stream 2 under certain conditions.


The romantic alliance between Poland and Hungary has survived hundreds of years. The idea of Intermarium (co-operation between Central and Eastern European states) is also gaining popularity these days. But few people remember that its foundation is based on anti-Russian sentiments, promotion of freedom movements like Ukraine’s EuroMaidan and fanning national particularities to dismantle the Russian Empire. Today such an alliance will not be backed by Hungary and many other of the region’s nations that care about good relations with Russians.


Remodeling the Polish-Hungarian alliance into a pragmatic coalition will be more difficult the more countries diverge when it comes to EU integration and Russia. That is, unless Warsaw mirrors Budapest and Polish foreign policy is revised to emulate the changes made by Viktor Orbán. This seems unlikely considering Kaczyński's anti-Russian stance. Moreover, such a new direction would be difficult to accept by his party’s supporters, who continue to raise concerns about the causes of the Smoleńsk plane crash in which the former President of Poland Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław's twin brother, died. Because of that, Orban may only be a tactical ally for Kaczyński, but he is not likely to become a real strategic partner.


Wojciech Jakóbik is an energy analyst at Jagiellonian Institute and editor-in-chief of economic portal biznesalert.pl.