Hungary and the Czech Republic renew their focus on defence, pledging their commitment to attaining the Alliance’s benchmark for defence spending

Brussels, 11 October 2018 - A delegation from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly visited Hungary and the Czech Republic from 1-4 October to learn more about these two Central European Allies’ efforts to prove their commitment to the transatlantic alliance’s new initiatives. Burden sharing remains a key area of focus for all NATO member states: The topic was a central theme at the Alliance’s July summit in Brussels; and increased political pressure from Washington is pushing all Allies to do more to confront an increasingly complex security environment, particularly here in Europe. As a broad spectrum of threats challenge Allied control of all domains – air, land, sea, and cyber – a programme of adaptation and transformation is taking hold across the Alliance. 

“Hungary has a very strong and committed view of the West and seeks to work to defend and strengthen it,” said Zsolt Németh, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament of Hungary. This sentiment was echoed in Prague: “The Czech Republic is doing its part to consolidate Alliance unity – we have come a long way since the wake-up call of 2014, and we still have much more to do,” Jaromir Jahoda, a representative of the Czech Ministry of Defence told the delegation. 

Increased defence investments are seen as the critical hurdle NATO Europe and Canada must overcome to expand the impact and efficiency of NATO’s collective defence efforts in today’s security environment. Though they currently spend only approximately 1.1% of their respective GDPs on defence, government officials in Budapest and Prague reassured the visiting delegation their countries have plans to almost double defence spending by 2024. The submission of credible defence plans is a current Alliance imperative for all member states to reach NATO’s benchmark of spending 2% GDP on defence established at the 2014 Wales Summit – also referred to as the Defence Investment Pledge. 

Another key element of the Defence Spending Pledge is the insistence NATO Allies invest at least 20% of their defence investments on new equipment as well as research and development. The burden of out-dated or legacy Soviet equipment is seen as a drag on better interoperability among Allied forces when deployed. To address this challenge, both Hungary and the Czech Republic are engaged in programmes to modernise their armed forces and hone their abilities in specific domains such as cyber or in countering weapons of mass destruction. 

Hungary’s new defence modernisation programme, dubbed Zrínyi 2026, is reportedly on schedule and will see an overhaul of its land and air forces with the purchase of a suite of new APVs and tanks, as well as both fixed and rotary wing aircraft. Prague, on the other hand outlined a national defence strategy in 2017 which pledges to focus Czech defence forces’ abilities in counter-hybrid tactics, which will translate to honing their capabilities in a range of areas from cyber defence to special forces as a means of increasing the nation’s situational awareness and resilience at home, as well as to make it a stronger contributor to Allied security efforts from operations to train, advise, and assist missions with NATO partners. 

In recent years, illegal migration has been elevated to the top of the security and political agenda in both countries. Hungary and the Czech Republic consider themselves to be at the forefront of protecting the Schengen zone against this challenge. As Zsolt Németh noted: “When we defend NATO’s and EU’s borders with billions of Euros, this is solidarity – we seek to respect the legal norms and protect our common community.”  While the actual number of people attempting to cross the borders is currently low, the issue is being exploited heavily in the political scene of both countries. An official in Prague said that the 2015 migration crisis has fuelled fears of terrorism at home in the Czech Republic. Despite the fact there has not been a single terrorist incident in the country, there is a widespread consensus among the population that the government must consider this the most pressing threat to domestic security. 

Officials in Prague noted, however, that the real long-term security challenge in the region is the work of Russian intelligence services to undermine confidence in national governments. Both Czech and Hungarian interlocutors warned the delegation of the dangers of Russia’s use of hybrid tactics – such as disinformation campaigns, economic bullying, and election interference – to disrupt, weaken, and undermine the governments of Central Europe. As one security official in Prague told the delegation, “Digital and media literacy in the Czech Republic is not very high, which makes it easier for external probing attacks to take hold and cause disruptions in our nations.” He continued by saying: “ We are aware of this and working at all levels to counter the threat.”

In meetings with lawmakers, academics, and journalists, NATO parliamentarians discussed current challenges to media freedom and human rights in Central and Eastern Europe. Officials at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) told the delegation their main focus today revolves around confronting the rollback of democracy across Eastern Europe, Russia, and beyond. To help in this effort, they told the delegation of a newly launched programme – Current Time – which focuses on countering Russian propaganda via the distribution of news and films to Russian speakers across the world. As one RFE/RL official said, “Current Time is the only real source of information about NATO and other international institutions into their broadcasting area that still exists today.” REF/RL endeavours to be both innovative and cutting edge in its outreach initiatives, their approach seems to be gaining traction as they noted they are reaching over 2bn people via various platforms today. 

The delegation also visited the Joint Forces Command of the Hungarian Defence Forces, the NATO Force Integration Unit (NFIU) in Hungary as well as NATO Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Centre of Excellence in Vyskov, Czechia. 

The delegation consisted of 23 legislators – representing 11 NATO states – members of two Assembly Sub-Committees: on Democratic Governance (Chairman Vitalino Canas, Portugal) and on Transatlantic Defence and Security Cooperation (Chairman Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, UK).

A more detailed report of the visit will be available on the NATO PA website (www.nato-pa.int).