The Netherlands and Hungary have recently celebrated the centenary of diplomatic relations The Netherlands Ambassador in Budapest, René van Hell highlights to Diplomacy&Trade some of the milestones and also reflects on bilateral relations today. Among other things, he mentions the Dutch environmental awareness conveyed to Hungary, agriculture with high added value in the two countries and the memories he takes with him as he leaves his post soon.
“The centenary of bilateral diplomatic relations was something that we were also celebrating with Hungarian friends in the Netherlands like András Kocsis, the Hungarian Ambassador there,” Ambassador Van Hell tells Diplomacy&Trade. He believes that one of the highlights was one before these hundred years, and that is the cooperation during the Reformation between people in the Netherlands and Hungary. “It was about freedom of religion, freedom of belief, so that was definitely a highlight. I think it's also good to mention that, after the First World War, when Hungary became a sovereign state but had a lot of problems, we started a humanitarian project together with the Hungarians to bring children to the Netherlands. A third highlight that I will mention is that when Hungary became a member of the Council of Europe, in 1990, the Netherlands was a fervent supporter of the integration of Hungary into the Western world, not to speak, of course, the Hungarian accession to the EU and NATO,” he adds.
Benefiting from discussions
Speaking about the Council of Europe, NATO, the European Union, the Ambassador points out that all these organizations are value based. “It's about democracy and rule of law, fighting corruption, and an independent judiciary. What is interesting, of course, is that both Prime Minister Rutte and Prime Minister Orbán – after Chancellor Merkel – are the longest serving members of the European Council. We hope that they'd like to be having more discussions with each other. I'd also like to stress that personally, they go on perfectly well. The European Union is all about discussions and one of the subjects being discussed is the rule of law. That has nothing to do with the fact that Fidesz is a popular party but it has more to do with asking ourselves pertinent questions like the plurality of the media or checks and balances regarding the government. It is those kinds of conversations that we have, and it's not only about Hungary. The other way around: we also get questions, but I think it's very important that we do that in the European Union. I believe that at the end of the day, what unites us is that we have this pluriformity of media, that we have checks and balances in governing the country and that we have an independent judiciary. Both Hungarians benefit from that and the Dutch people benefit from that at the end of the day.”
Making societies greener
The most recent event in bilateral relations was the Netherlands being the Guest of Honor at the Ökoindustria 2021 Green Expo in Budapest. The Ambassador stresses that “it was really a privilege to be a guest of honor because the patrons were President Áder and Foreign Minister Szijjártó. The main message was that we are up for a big transition from climate change to make our societies greener and we're out here to cooperate with you. We have things to offer to Hungary and Hungary also has a lot to offer. So, how can we work together on this daunting goal? We are really going to transform our societies into climate neutral societies, which is incredibly ambitious. I really think that if you look at how long it took to get rid of the combustion engine, and all the exhaust that cars and trucks are still able to emit in our cities, I think it's kind of crazy. These are places where young children live! I also sometimes see how vested interest of companies, and the interaction between governments are not always helpful to promote sustainable development. Of course, there are side effects of having battery powered cars that we need to address but just getting rid of all that exhaust in our cities, and the noise pollution that we have is amazing.”
Why did it take so long? Answering that question, René Van Hell says he very much believes in competition. “But I also think that we sometimes have to ask ourselves, why do certain transitions take so long? I think that is one of the headaches that we should have tried to solve. In Hungary, e-mobility, for instance, has improved a lot and I think that it has been way overdue, because citizens want clean cities without noisy stinky cars and trucks.”
Need to become more sustainable
All year long, Diplomacy&Trade has been covering the activities of the Business Council for Sustainable Development in Hungary (BCSDH) for which the Netherlands Embassy has long been an important partner and the organization has had several Dutch-related programs. Ambassador Van Hell took part at several of these events in person as well as online. When asked how much he thinks the Dutch affinity to – and good practice of – sustainability got through to the Hungarian business community, he stresses that “it wasn't so hard to get the message through, because there's really also this realization by companies here in Hungary that we need to become more sustainable. But it was really nice to rally with the companies and I think it's a fine thing that we set up a circular economy platform. We set up the Lean and Green platform, which aims to reduce the CO2 footprint of the transport and distribution sector. Transport and distribution are super important in the Netherlands and Hungary, it’s is another example where we can go and cooperate. I also think that it has been very wise of Prime Minister Rutte and Prime Minister Orbán to cooperate in the European Council and set these very ambitious goals for the European Union as a whole, because relatively small countries like Hungary and the Netherlands cannot possibly do this on our own, we need a level playing field. And the starting point of that is always the European Union.”
Focusing more on innovation
Regarding economic relations and the possibilities of further improvement, the Dutch ambassador believes that the Netherlands must try to tap into the goal of the Hungarian government to go higher on the value-added ladder: the slogan is no longer ‘Produced in Hungary’, but rather ‘Invented in Hungary’. “I think that's where possibilities for cooperation lay. I also think it's justified that Hungary wants that because if you look at GDP per capita, it's still much lower in Hungary and we need to work on convergence. And convergence is working by exchanging all the knowledge that we have. Hungary is also clearly developing and that is where I see a possibility for further improvement, focusing more on innovation. And I also hope that there will be Hungarian companies that can invest in the Netherlands – that will be a healthy thing to happen. We're now in a pandemic – times when it's about preserving what you have, safeguarding companies from going bankrupt, etc. But I think at the end of the day, it's very important that we promote competition within the internal market. That's helpful for the Netherlands and it’s helpful for Hungary, truly promoting strong competition in all sectors of the economy in addition to having an innovation policy.”
Higher added value
Agriculture is an area where both the Netherlands and Hungary have great achievements. Three years ago, Ambassador Van Hell said that the Embassy wishes to widen bilateral cooperation in this field. Now, he confirms that there is strong cooperation between Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Szent István University (Hungarian University of Agriculture and Life Sciences) in Gödöllő, east of Budapest. “I also see that farmers or agricultural entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, and also in Hungary, are increasingly producing higher added value and are thinking about nature preservation. One fine example of that is Béla Jankovics, a Hungarian-Dutch citizen whose father fled Hungary in 1956. What he's doing – also in nature preservation – is quite impressive. I would definitely like to highlight him, for example.”
Keeping societies going
The pandemic has severely hit most areas of work in both the Netherlands and Hungary as well as at the Embassy in Budapest. “I think we are doing a lot of things. There's been way too many deaths in both countries. I think that economically, we will bounce back at some point but, let's face it, it's been really tough. In terms of a pandemic, we have made important decisions in the European Union on more funding for our economies, I think that is very important. We've been able to keep our societies going. I'm actually surprised about the resilience of the average citizen in Hungary. That is really something as people also faced loss of lives and that of the loved ones. The death rate has been high but the incredible resilience among citizens has been one of the most heartwarming experiences for me.”
The Dutch Embassy had home office work since March 13, last year, and almost every one of the staff has now gotten his or her first or second vaccination jab. “So, we'll probably slowly go back to a situation where we're going back into the office. What helped was that we have a fine IT infrastructure. Thus, when people brought their tablet back home, they basically brought home their office. That worked well. We met sometimes in subgroups here in the garden of the ambassadorial residence to have some interaction. Fortunately, none of the staff members contracted COVID-19. I am very happy about that. Of course, as diplomats, you also flourish when you meet people in person, when you can have informal conversations and how informal is it to meet through a video link? But it's been quiet, very quiet.”
Hiking the country
This summer, René Van Hell is leaving his post in Budapest after close to four years. When summarizing his tenure, he says that “I would first and foremost say it was really a great pleasure and a great honor to serve the Netherlands here in Hungary, in Budapest, one of the most beautiful capitals of Europe. So, it has been a daily pleasure to live in this beautiful city to work with a great team at the Embassy, and also to work with very dedicated and professional counterparts, both in the government but also in companies and civil society. That was big fun. The pandemic made me to look with another eye to Hungary. I would basically go every weekend on a hike, both on Saturday on Sunday: the Mecsek Hill in Pécs or Mátra in the northeast or the border between Slovakia and Hungary. Of course, being from the Netherlands having hills is already quite something but the beauty of nature and also the extended hiking paths network that is out there – it was really an eye opener. So even during wintertime, going out in the hills and walking there was really a fantastic experience.”
The Netherlands and Hungary: Trade and Investment figures
In 2020, the total volume if bilateral trade of goods and services between the Netherlands and Hungary totaled almost EUR 10 billion. The total volume of bilateral trade of goods was EUR 6.7 billion (EUR 3.7 bn in Hungarian imports and EUR 3 bn in Hungarian exports) while the total bilateral volume of services was EUR 2.8 billion (EUR 1.9 bn in Hungarian imports and EUR 0.9 bn in Hungarian exports). It means that the Netherlands was the 9th biggest trade partner of Hungary in 2020, while Hungary ranked 24th on the list of the Netherlands’ biggest trade partners last year.
The top three export products to Hungary from the Netherlands included electrical devices (worth EUR 791 mn), office and automatic data processors (EUR 303 mn) and devices for telecommunications (EUR 290 mn). The top three export products from Hungary to the Netherlands are office and automatic data processors (EUR 799 mn), devices for telecommunication (EUR 473 mn) and electrical devices (EUR 260 mn).
As regards the annual volume of Dutch investments in Hungary, the latest available figures suggest a decreasing tendency: EUR 7.7 billion in 2016, EUR 6.4 bn in 2017 and EUR 5.1 bn in 2018. The total stock was an impressive EUR 9 billion in 2018, which made the Netherlands one of the top five investor countries in Hungary.
Sources: CBS-Statistics Netherlands CBS, De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB)