Boosting the participation of Spanish companies in Hungarian infrastructure development projects and promoting cultural ties, especially the inclusion of the Spanish language in the primary school curriculum, top the list of priorities for Spanish Ambassador Anunciada Fernández de Córdova. The diplomat also seeks to promote Spain as a tourist destination that has a lot more to offer than just sun and the beach.
“In terms of economic relations Spain is not Germany of course, but Spanish companies have a significant presence here. Spanish enterprises that have already invested in Hungary rely on advanced technologies in their operations and this is in line with the Hungarian government’s objectives of attracting investors that provide higher added value. Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó has often pointed out that Hungary is not only looking for investors that create more jobs, particularly considering the shortage of skilled labor in the country, but rather businesses that offer added value. Spain is the 4th largest economy in the EU and I point this out often to our Hungarian friends, who are also interested in reducing their dependence on Germany,” the Ambassador tells Diplomacy&Trade in an exclusive interview. Spain was one of the fastest growing developed economies in 2018 and international organizations like the IMF and the OECD forecast that the country’s economy will continue to grow at one of the fastest rates among developed nations. The Spanish economy has become highly internationalized in the aftermath of the global financial crisis with the number of exporting firms increasing by more than 30% from 2011. Bilateral economic relations could benefit from the economic expansion witnessed by both Spain and Hungary, according to the Ambassador. The volume of annual trade between the two countries in 2018 amounted to nearly EUR 4.4 billion, with Hungarian exports to the south European country exceeding the amount of Spanish exports to Hungary. Official figures show that there are 270 companies in Hungary that have Spanish capital, and these provide employment to 4,200 people. Their operations cover a wide spectrum, ranging from the automotive, electronics and water sectors to food and agriculture and the hotel industry. The number of Budapest hotels operated by Spanish companies is set to rise to seven this year when a new establishment opens near Parliament. “Infrastructure development and renewable energy are the two sectors where cooperation could be further boosted between our countries. These are sectors where Spanish companies have a wellestablished presence in Poland and the Czech Republic but not yet in Hungary. After the 2008 crisis some Spanish companies withdrew from Hungary and never came back. What I would like is for Spanish companies to come back to Hungary,” de Córdova notes.
You ask for it, we provide it
The Ambassador stresses that Spanish companies boast a global prestige in the infrastructure sector, most notably in railways and transportation. Five of the world’s largest firms in transport infrastructure management are Spanish and more than 3,000 air traffic management systems use Spanish technology worldwide. “I would be delighted if Spanish companies were involved in big infrastructure projects in Hungary,” she says, adding that the Belgrade-Budapest and WarsawBudapest railway link projects would provide great opportunity for Spanish companies. The 350-kilometer high-speed rail line connecting the Hungarian and Serbian capitals that carries a price tag of nearly USD 3 billion is the first stage of the planned Budapest–Belgrade–Skopje–Athens railway connection. It is a hallmark project of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative that would link the China-run Piraeus port in Greece with the heart of Europe. The Warsaw-Budapest rail link is a project initiated by the Visegrád 4 countries earlier this year, and the planned two-track line would allow trains to travel at speeds ranging from 250 km/h to as much as 350 km/h with stops only in the three capital cities (Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest) and Brno. The new line would cut travel time from Warsaw to Budapest to three hours instead of the current 10 or 12 hours. “Many of the most important infrastructure projects in the world have been carried out by Spanish companies or by consortiums led by them. Spain has the second largest high-speed rail network in the world. We supply projects in a wide range of areas, from trains to the ticketing system. You ask for it, we supply it,” the Ambassador says, adding that the lack of transparency and the very short period available for submitting tenders, in addition to the language barrier, often make it difficult for foreign companies to submit bids in Hungarian development tenders.
Immigration in focus
The visit of Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell to Budapest in December 2018 broke an 11-year hiatus in meetings between the foreign ministers of the two countries and underpinned Ambassador de Córdova’s primary mission of strengthening relations on the political level. “The scope of political cooperation is very wide. There are many areas where we could act together, even in the field of immigration,” the Ambassador notes. Spain experienced the first big wave of migrants in 2006 when nearly 650,000 landed at its shores, almost half of the EU’s total intake. In response, Spain launched a policy of aiding the countries of origin and transit in terms of economic development and collaboration between security forces as well as border control. “In this respect, Hungary and Spain share the same views because Hungary also wants to tackle the problem at the root, namely in the countries of origin. As an external border of the EU, similarly to Hungary, we do not want to have the sole responsibility in dealing with migration. At the same time, I need to stress that for us the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility foreseen in the Treaties is crucial, and Spain has signed the global pact on migration which Hungary hasn’t. We are also in favor of integration once legal immigrants are accepted into a country. As far as legal immigrants are concerned, we have a different stance than Hungary,” according to Anunciada Fernández de Córdova. The diplomat added that the standards of rule of law are also something where further work could take place between Spain and Hungary, although the main forum for that discussion is Brussels.
In addition to facilitating the participation of Spanish companies in Hungarian infrastructure projects, the Ambassador sees the inclusion of the Spanish language in the curriculum of local primary schools as one of her key objectives. “There are seven secondary schools in Hungary with bilingual sections and four Departments of Spanish studies at Hungarian universities. In recent years, Spain has been spending an average of EUR 300,000 on promoting the teaching of Spanish in Hungary. Ours is a language spoken as a mother tongue by more than 500 million people worldwide, it is the second most popular language on Facebook and the third on the Internet after English and Chinese. I find it awkward that students in Hungarian primary schools cannot choose Spanish as a second language. Offering the opportunity to Hungarian children to learn Spanish would, in my opinion, be beneficial for an open economy like Hungary and would also be coherent with the government’s Southern opening strategy,” the Ambassador says. Another objective to which de Córdova dedicates a lot of effort is a monumental El Greco exhibition to be hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest in 2021, under the patronage of the King of Spain and the President of Hungary. As a warm-up to that exhibition, the Embassy is organizing in conjunction with Instituto Cervantes a series of talks on the art of painting, with speakers from the Museum of Fine Arts and the Prado Museum in Madrid, says the Ambassador who believes that cultural links between nations are of paramount importance. Under her guidance, the Embassy and Insituto Cervantes have launched a series of monthly dialogues between Spanish and Hungarian writers, hosted by the Uránia cinema in Budapest, in collaboration with the Petőfi Museum and ELTE university. Hungarian film lovers will also be able to enjoy a Spanish Film Week featuring 12 awardwinning movies (dramas, comedies, documentaries, with excellent directors and actors) subtitled in Hungarian, from October 29 to November 3 in Budapest.
Not only sun and beach
Tourism is a key area of bilateral relations, with more than 286,000 Hungarians visiting Spain last year versus the 186,000 Spaniards that came to Hungary. A key reason behind the expansion in tourism is that there are 13 direct air links between the two countries; in August 2018 and 2019, there were more than 300 flights between Spain and Hungary, meaning 10 flights per day. “One of my goals in this field is to show that there is more to Spain than sun and beach. It has much more to offer, like excellent gastronomy and wines, the third highest number of UNESCO World heritage sites worldwide, fantastic culture, the second highest number of biosphere reserves on the planet, rich folklore and artisanry traditions. Presenting a complex picture of my country in all its beauty is something I am very much striving for,” the Ambassador says. When it comes to culinary arts, the diplomat has her own personal campaign. Annoyed by coming across subpar interpretations of the famous Spanish tomato soup gazpacho, de Córdova has taken it upon herself to introduce this delicacy to as many Hungarians as possible. ”I invited the members of the Spanish Hungarian friendship group in Parliament to lunch and the first course was gazpacho prepared by me in front of them. I also offered to make gazpacho for students studying Spanish at the seven secondary schools in Hungary,” she notes smiling.
Anunciada Fernández de Córdova is not a newcomer to Budapest. During her six years as Spanish Ambassador to Slovenia, she often visited the Hungarian capital, mostly for the “excellent” exhibitions hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts, which boasts the largest collection of Spanish paintings outside the Prado. In Madrid she also worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where she was responsible, among other countries, for Hungary. “I arrived on May 15th, 2018 on the day of Madrid’s patron saint San Isidro, which I consider a good omen. Another good omen was the fact that both my predecessor and I celebrate our birthdays on April 1. So far, these omens have proven accurate.”