“There is an extensive presence of Dutch companies in this country and they require the attention of our Embassy,” the Dutch Ambassador in Budapest, Gajus Scheltema explains in a comprehensive interview in a recent issue of Diplomacy & Trade.
"We have a very active network and we try to support them wherever we can. A part of my job, since I arrived over half a year ago, has been to establish my private network with these firms and – at the same time – build up a network with the Hungarian society on political, economic and cultural levels,” Ambassador Scheltema says in Diplomacy & Trade's recent special focus on the Netherlands.
He presented his credentials to Hungarian President János Áder on September 25, 2013. He says these past 6-7 months have been fairly busy. “Hungary is an important trade partner for the Netherlands, which occupies a very important investor position (third or fourth, depending on criteria) with an accumulated investment portfolio of close to EUR 10 billion since 1989. It means that there is an extensive presence of Dutch companies in this country and they require the attention of our Embassy. We have a very active network and we try to support them wherever we can. A part of my job, since I arrived over half a year ago, has been to establish my private network with these firms and – at the same time – build up a network with the Hungarian society on political, economic and cultural levels, he explains to Diplomacy & Trade.
Partners in this activity include the Netherlands-Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and the Dutch community club, “we have good fora, good platforms and a lot of interaction on the Dutch side. As far as the Hungarians are concerned, we interface with the Foreign Ministry, other ministries, individuals, people from political parties, organizations such the investment and trade agency HITA as well as the Hungarian Innovation Agency. Then, there is the NGO community, among them really active ones like Open Society and Transparency International, civil societies – there is a whole spectrum of people that we are in contact with,” he adds.
Regarding his objectives as the Ambassador of the Netherlands in Hungary, Gajus Scheltema says he would like to see Dutch trade and Dutch investments increase as well as further political contacts established between the Netherlands and Hungary as well as greater cultural manifestations.
Europe: issues and directions
“If you try to put it all together, I think what is most important is that we have a very open, frank and direct dialogue with Hungary about Europe. We are both members of the European Union, we are both very committed to Europe as an institution, as a single market and as a community of values and we would like to have continuous open discussions about these issues, about which direction we should go in Europe. This is very important for two reasons. There has been a growing euro-skepticism in the past few years and we need to discuss what Europe is about and what it is not, and what we should do better,” the ambassador points out.
He believes that, at the same time, Europe is under threat. “I only have to mention Ukraine and the escalation of the conflict there. Ukraine is a neighbor of Hungary but the crisis there affects all of us as EU partners and as NATO partners. But it’s not just Ukraine; it is also the challenges of the 21st century: challenges in the economic field, in the ecological field, in sustainability of the future economy and also new challenges in terms of poverty, freedom, human rights, conflict prevention, not just in the Ukraine but also in the sub-Saharan region, the Middle-East – all huge challenges that the world faces today and tomorrow. We can only solve these if we work together.”
There is cooperation in the military field, literally. “In the region of Várpalota, north of Lake Balaton, there is a huge training ground, a military training area where Holland had 3,000 soldiers exercising this spring. This is something we cannot do in the Netherlands anymore as we simply don’t have space. I believe it is a win-win situation to conduct these exercises over here. It is also a practice in logistics, how to move troops and equipment, and it brings us to a different environment and at the same time to a familiar environment. Our troops learned a lot from each other in Afghanistan, as well,” Ambassador Scheltema reminds us.
More predictability needed
In the area of economic relations, the Ambassador mentions as major investors “the multinationals, such as Philips, AKZO, Shell, Unilever, Heineken, banks like ING and the insurance firm Aegon as well as the employment company Randstad. Compared to these, perhaps not that well known internationally, but the two Dutch leasing firms present here are also important companies worldwide: LeasePlan has about a quarter of the Hungarian market in the field of leasing private cars to companies, while the most dominant firm in Hungary for the leasing of trucks is De Lage Landen (DLL).
When asked how satisfied Dutch investors are with the Hungarian business environment, Ambassador Scheltema says “it is a bit of a mixed bag. In the past couple of years, many companies – and not just the Dutch – have been unpleasantly surprised by the speed of new legislation, often not very well thought through, as well as by the new and often inexplicable tax system. This volatility in decision-making does not help attracting new investments. The need for predictability, reliability and transparency – these important business values are all highlighted by Dutch companies present in Hungary.”
The Ambassador has not been able to talk to economics minister Mihály Varga about these issues raised by Dutch companies. “Perhaps after the formation of the new government, I’ll have the chance to speak with him directly.” He adds that Hungarian officials always stress that “yes, we’ve gone through a somewhat tumultuous process but now, we promise you that the government’s policy will be more predictable and more consistent.”
Dutch culture highlighted this fall
As far as cultural relations are concerned, the Ambassador says he is convinced that this area is one of the best vehicles for strengthening relations in the broader sense. “We are very lucky this year that the Rembrandt exhibition, including three Vermeer paintings, will take place in Budapest this fall. The exhibition pieces all come from abroad, not only from Holland but from places like the Louvre and Metropolitan galleries and from private collections, as well, 150 paintings altogether. The King of the Netherlands will be the patron of the exhibition along with President Áder.”
The Embassy will use the Rembrandt exhibition as a spring board for several satellite events, through which they hope to portray Dutch culture. “An event of particular importance for us will be the Hungarian Design Week in October where the Netherlands will be the guest nation. We will present the best of Dutch design and – what is perhaps even more important – stimulate young start-up companies in creative industries from Hungary and from Holland to work together. It is sort of a match-making effort but we will also try to create an incubator for these young designers and creative industry people to meet with each other. The Moholy-Nagy University in Budapest and the design university in Eindhoven already have a long-standing cooperation that we will put even more focus on at this event. Photography, modern art and literature will also be highlighted,” the Ambassador adds.
A good example of the latter is a three-day writers’ forum in the Bródy House next to the National Museum in Budapest at the end of May. Hungarian writers like Péter Esterházy and György Spiró will meet with prominent Dutch writers like Arnon Grunberg and Jaap Scholten and read from their works.
The Embassy helps Hungarian culture, also. The ambassador reminds us that “the love for gypsy music and traditional Hungarian songs has a long tradition in the Netherlands, since the 1920s when the interest in Hungary started to grow there. Many of the Dutch student fraternities set up their own little gypsy music bands. They still exist, bearing a name like ‘csárdás’ or ‘puszta’. This type of music is under commercial pressure in Hungary nowadays as it is more and more difficult for these ensembles, especially the larger ones, to survive. The Dutch Embassy tries to help keep this Hungarian tradition alive by setting up and supporting a dedicated foundation.
In the service for 36 years
Gajus Scheltema was born in the United States as his father was a delegate to the United Nations there. As a law graduate of the University of Leiden, he entered into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1978 and has subsequently served his country on three continents in various positions before taking up his first ambassadorial position in Bratislava, Slovakia in 1997. Since then, he has also been ambassador in Amman, Jordan and Islamabad, Pakistan. During this latter service, he even published in the journal of the zoological society of Pakistan. “I briefly came to local fame in the field of ornithology but I can reassure you that’s never going to happen again,” he smiles. This current posting in Budapest, he says, gives him the opportunity also to revive contacts with old colleagues he got to know in his previous positions.
Cherishing the great Dutch tradition of cycling, Ambassador Scheltema also cultivates this activity. The Hungarian Cyclists’ Club made a video about him bicycling to work from his residence in the Buda hills.
His predecessor as Dutch ambassador to Hungary, Robert Milders was also a great supporter of cycling in Hungary. He tragically passed away while on vacation back in Holland in the summer of 2012. The Central European University in Budapest has organized a special series of lectures in his memory. The first lecture was delivered this May by Jan Pronk, a former Dutch government minister and well-known Development Cooperation expert.
Budapest very hard to escape
Although Ambassador Scheltema has only been here for 6-7 months, he has already made several trips to the countryside and has “several things planned on my calendar because I feel I should spend more time outside the capital, as well, despite the fact that Budapest holds you like a magnet and it’s very hard to escape from it.” He visited the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen whose university accommodates one of the three Dutch faculties in Hungary (the other two being in Budapest: at ELTE University and the Gáspár Károli University). Another town in the countryside he visited was Kecskemét to open an exhibition of modern Dutch abstract art. Plans in the near future include a trip to Eger in the northeastern part of the country and to Szeged.
“My family lives in Holland but whenever they are here, I’m afraid, they like to stay in Budapest and I’m the guy who wants to go outside the city. One of the attractions for my daughters is the Sziget Festival, an event that attracts some 15,000 Dutch youngsters – a number far exceeding that of the Germans, for instance – every year with special trains coming from the Netherlands for this occasion in the summer. It is a magnet for young Dutch people” – a magnet that also attracted Ambassador Scheltema on the day of his arrival to Budapest last August as it happened to be the last day of the 2013 Sziget Festival.
Still regarding Budapest, he hopes that the City Park Alley, which was called – after the Dutch monarch – Queen Wilhemina Street between 1921 and 1950, will be named after her again in the future, with special regard to the fact that after 1956, she supported the children of many Hungarians who fled to the Netherlands after the crushing of the anti-Stalinist uprising.
Regarding other attractions, “I would like to compliment the Hungarian wines. I was here in 1970 (visiting a friend whose father was the Dutch ambassador then) and I remember Egri Bikavér from those days. I also remember that it was the wine that sometimes gave me a bit of a headache. You have come a long way to achieve such an impressive Hungarian wine culture. I know the owner of the Liszkay Estate just north of Lake Balaton. He tells me that when he bought the land, there were already vines there but he had to root them all out and start planting anew, that is, to start from scratch. That may be, in a way, symbolic for Hungary: sometimes, you have to start from scratch,” he concludes.