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Good neighbors with common past

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“Austrians and Hungarians living in this region have had a close relationship and shared good and bad times for centuries the Ambassador of Austria to Hungary, Elisabeth Ellison-Kramer tells Diplomacy&Trade. It is this year that Austria and Hungary mark the 150th anniversary of the Compromise, an agreement that created the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. In the interview, she also talks, among other issues, about the common effort of controlling the Schengen border and Austrian corporate presence in Hungary.

Elisabeth Ellison-Kramer
presented credentials to Hungarian President János Áder in February 2017. As
regards her objectives as the Ambassador of Austria in Hungary, she tells
Diplomacy&Trade that “these are the classical tasks of an ambassador:
neighboring countries with long historical ties need to keep moving the already
existing very good diplomatic relations forward, fostering and deepening
economic ties and exchanges because it creates a multitude of relations on all
levels and shows just how beneficial this relationship can be.”

She adds that there are other very important ties one
must not forget, and that both countries have a strong interest in culture and
cooperation in the scientific field. “These are all very important to foster.”

150
years

As neighbors, Austria and Hungary have long-standing historical
relations, currently celebrating, for instance, 150 years of the Compromise
that created the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1867.

“Austrians and Hungarians living in this region have
had a close relationship and shared good and bad times for centuries – sometimes
with more, many other times with less tension. 1867 was, of course, an important
date in our common history,” the Ambassador stresses.

She believes the years that followed 1867 were very
fruitful for both countries. “Just look at what happened in Budapest: the
beautiful buildings, the economic foundations laid down in those times and the
enterprises created. This date marks the start of an era of great development.
Unfortunately, many tragic events have also taken place over these 150 years
but, if you look at the situation today, you can say that we arrived at a level
in our relations that was unthinkable only some decades ago.”

2017 is also the year for celebrating another
anniversary from the common past of the two countries: it was 300 years ago
that Maria Theresa (Archduchess of Austria and Queen Mary II of Hungary) was
born. The Ambassador says that “Maria Theresa was, the power-woman of
politics of the past centuries. She lived in the 18th century and
she gave birth to 16 children, of which ten survived to adulthood. At the same
time, she laid down a very important foundation of modern administration in her
empire during the 40 years of her reign. She was a very warm-hearted person,
very much skilled politically and a very efficient leader.”

Controlling
the Schengen border

Ambassador Ellison-Kramer
does not agree with the notion that the Austrian and Hungarian
governments have a different view on the issue of illegal migration. “It is
certainly a matter that has grown. Just recently, the Austrian Foreign Minister
Sebastian Kurz explained in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that securing the Schengen
border is a top priority for Austria. In this regard, we totally agree that it
is very important for the European Union to secure its outside borders so that
we can have the free movement of people within the EU for economic, cultural
and other reasons.”

In this regard, she adds that Austria is supporting
Hungary in the task of saving the border in many ways. “We are one of the countries
that has sent law enforcement personnel for the protection of the
Hungarian-Serbian border, which is part of the frontier of the Schengen zone.
Up to 25 Austrian police officers are serving there with FRONTEX and it is very
much appreciated on both sides as I was told when I visited the border area.
Another example of highly appreciated cooperation in the border zone is that we
are sending engineers from the Austrian Army to help build roads and support
Hungary logistically. This operation has just been prolonged for a period of
another six months.”

Economic
relations

“We are important economic partners to each other.
Austria is the second biggest trading partner of Hungary and we are among the
most important investors in this country. Our trade volume reached nearly 10
bn. Euros in the past year. Hungary is an important export market for Austria. The
most important Austrian export goods to Hungary are mechanical engineering
products and vehicles. We have a fairly high number - about 2,900 - Austrian
companies established in Hungary, covering a wide range of fields of business. There
are leading companies, for example, in the finance and insurance sector, in
retail business, in the paper and packaging sector as well as in the
construction and construction materials industry. Austrian companies started to
invest in Hungary over 25 years ago and did so with a long-term perspective.
With over 8 bn. Euros investment volume Austria is the third biggest investor.
Naturally there is also room for further deepening our economic relations, for
example, in the field of digitalization or autonomous driving. Of course,
geographical proximity also helps. The cross-border Interreg program that is
jointly financed with EU, as well as national funds launches important projects
in the border area between Austria and Hungary. Amongst such projects is the
development of rail infrastructure links or a cooperation program between 4
national and 10 nature parks.

Predictability,
stability and transparency

As to how satisfied Austrian investors are with the Hungarian
business environment, Ambassador Ellison-Kramer
is of the opinion that this very much depends on the sector of business the
individual company operates in. She highlights that “we have a lot of companies
here in the service sector, many insurance firms and a number of construction
companies. There have been discussions in the past couple of years on issues
like the special tax levied on the financial sector by the Hungarian government
but that matter now has been resolved. What is important for any company
regarding the investment environment is predictability. I have often heard that
companies want to be involved and have their voices heard somehow before
decisions are made regarding regulations that affect their operations. Other
factors that are mentioned frequently are stability and transparency. It is not
a secret that there have been discussions before but what is important is to
engage them in a spirit of dialog and with a view to common interests. A good
example for fruitful negotiations is the case of Erste Bank Hungary in which the
Hungarian state - along with the European Bank for Reconstruction and
Development (EBRD) - acquired a minority stake.”

She adds that investors
from Austria or from any other foreign countries would obviously like to make
sure that sudden changes of regulations would not harm or eliminate their
investments. “I have noticed that companies come here to stay for the long
term, to have a solid investment.”

Partner
organizations

As regards the Embassy’s major partners to work with
in Hungary, Elisabeth Ellison-Kramer
says “we are in cooperation with all stakeholders and
decision-makers. We had two high-level visits from Austria this year: first,
the minister for family affairs and just recently the minister of finance were
here for an exchange of views with high-ranking Hungarian officials. At the
beginning of the year we had a business roundtable held at the invitation of
the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade here in Budapest together with the
representatives of different departments.”

She adds that “apart from the Austrian Embassy in
Budapest there are several other Austrian offices like the trade delegation
that is mostly in contact with Austrian businesses and other entities here. We
have a Cultural Forum (Österreichisches Kulturforum) that is part of the
Embassy. The new director, Regina Rusz is very active, she arrived early this
year, just as I did. We have the Austrian tourism office Österreich Werbung and
an office by the city of Vienna in Budapest as does the province of
Niederösterreich. We also have seven honorary consuls and we are in constant
contact with all of them. There are two Austrian schools in the Hungarian
capital. They are very successful and have some 700 pupils altogether – with
three times as many applying.”

Culture

According to the ambassador, cultural relations are
always important for Austria as culture has a substantial role in Austrian
society. “History and contemporary arts are very important in the daily life of
Austrians. There are numerous festivals in Austria– nearly every little town
has a cultural festival in the summer. The Embassy is also very happy to have
ties with many cultural institutions in Budapest and beyond. Very often, there
are exchanges between museums like in the case of the ‘Golden Age’ exhibition, organized
here in Budapest, that received a lot of pictures from Austria or that for a
big exhibition for this year’s Budapest Spring Festival, on Georg Baselitz, the
Albertina, a very prestigious Austrian museum, loaned pieces of art. The exhibition, staged by the Museum of Fine Arts and
the Hungarian National Gallery can be seen until 2 July.”

She also finds it important to mention the Andrássy
University in Budapest, of which Austria was one of the founders, as an
excellent example of cooperation between the German-speaking countries and
Hungary.

People
to people relations

Elisabeth Ellison-Kramer believes
what contributes to a close relation between Hungarians
and Austrians are the many family ties and the potential that lies in our close
neighborhood. She also mentions tourism and student exchanges among the important
drivers for mutual friendship and understanding of each other’s culture.

As regards her time in Hungary so far, Elisabeth
Ellison-Kramer mentions many good experiences and meetings during her work and
in her private life travelling through the country and discovering more and
more of the Hungarian art and way of life. In conclusion, she adds “being
Ambassador, especially to a close partner with whom we maintain ties in so many
different fields, is a constant learning process – and a most rewarding
too”.

D&T

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