On the occasion that Spain and Hungary mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Spain to Hungary, José Ángel López Jorrin talks to the latest issue of Diplomacy&Trade, among other issues, about room for improvement in bilateral economic relations.
Ambassador López Jorrin arrived to Hungary almost three years ago. He tells Diplomacy&Trade that “the very first objective at the time of starting my tenure here was a very personal one: to get to know Hungary and the Hungarians. That is because we are two countries with rich history but we do not have a lot of direct contact, so, information is very often lacking about each other. Thus, the first idea was to get to know Hungary better in order to understand it more deeply. All the reports that I had received beforehand said that our relations were very good, so, basically, my other objective was to keep these good bilateral political relations in good shape and improve the economic and cultural relations as much as possible.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Spain and Hungary. As to how bilateral relations have evolved over these four decades, the Ambassador recalls that they have basically developed from zero. “It is a splendid situation in which we find ourselves today. In 1977, our relations were basically non-existent. After the Second World War, as it is well known, there were different political regimes in the two countries, which meant that we neither had political relations, not even trade or investments. The improvement of Spanish-Hungarian relations started in the 1960s, little by little, but diplomatic relations were reestablished only in 1977. At that time, we had to start to renew the network of agreements.”
He quotes statistics that in 1967, the volume of bilateral trade was just over USD 11 million. In 2016, this figure was around USD 4,500 million. “We opened embassies, we organized state visits: the King of Spain visited Hungary as well as different ministers and the President of the Republic of Hungary visited Spain. These relations reached their peak when we both became members of NATO and the European Union; thus, we came together again towards the end of the 20th century through these large organizations, after many decades of dictatorship in both countries.”
Together in EU and NATO
Spain and Hungary are members of the European Union and NATO. According to Ambassador López Jorrin, “both countries are loyal partners and members of these organizations. We share the same concerns. Hungarian and Spanish officials regularly meet with each other within these organizations; we are both mindful of the need to cooperate in fields like security and fighting against terrorism. Bilateral contacts are good and our different ministries cooperate regularly as befits EU partners. Spain belongs to the euro zone while Hungary remains with the Forint. Yet, this has not prevented our bilateral trade and investment from improving year by year given that we both share the single market as our common denominator. This cooperation is also visible in the field of security and defense, in this context soldiers of both countries have served in different missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, although not at the same time. Last year, a Spanish team of four Eurofighter aircraft took over the NATO patrolling of the Baltic air space from a Hungarian team of Gripen fighter planes.”
Moral power of arbitration
Unlike Hungary, Spain is a kingdom. And like many other European countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway or Denmark, Spain is a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. The current king, Felipe VI, took over three years ago, after the abdication of his father Juan Carlos I. His popularity is strong among Spaniards, with up to a 60% approval rate. The Ambassador stresses that “the Spanish monarchy is one of the most respected institutions by our citizens according to the Sociological Research Center. I think everyone agrees that it brings stability and certainty to our institutional life. Basically, these were the two main objectives for which the reinstatement of the monarchy was instrumental. In fact, except for a period in the 1930s, Spain has always been a monarchy, even under Franco. Spain today is a fully-fledged parliamentary democracy; people participate in the normal dynamic political life including elections every 3-4 years. The monarchy is always acting as the key to the vault of our institutional construction, effectively guaranteeing the stability and continuity of the system and it exercises a moral power of arbitration. In fact, the monarch has no executive power at all, his role is purely symbolic, as he represents the country. The King signs the laws – he cannot ‘not sign’ a law, it is not within his constitutional powers. The monarch is the Head of State, and also the Head of the Armed Forces. As for the rest, it is no different than in any other European country. As I said, of all political institutions, the Monarchy commands in Spain the greatest respect.”
Minority government, a new situation
Currently, Spain has a minority government. Ambassador López Jorrin is of the view that in everyday life, this minority government makes more newspaper headlines than would be the case otherwise. “It is the first time since the restoration of the monarchy that we have a minority government. Until now, either the socialists or the Popular Party have always had an absolute majority or they were in coalition with the smaller parties to ensure a governing majority in Parliament. Today, Parliament is very much fragmented, which leads to the minority government having to constantly look for partners to obtain a majority for each and every vote in Parliament. It is a steep learning curve, as all indications are that this is going to be the situation for the coming years. All politicians are learning how to concede, how to yield, how to reach compromise and manage this new situation successfully. This minority government is working: the budget and the ceiling for expenditure have both been approved. These are the main issues impacting people’s everyday lives. In this context, I can say that Parliament’s role has increased substantially, more than at any other time.”
Economic relations: large room for improvement
The Ambassador considers bilateral economic relations are satisfactory noting that the trade balance is very favorable to Hungary. “As I mentioned, in 1967, the volume of bilateral trade was a mere USD 11 million. At that time, the value of Spanish exports to Hungary was about four times that of imports. In 2016, however, when bilateral trade amounted to USD 4,500 million, Hungarian exports exceeded Spanish exports by about EUR one billion.” According to data from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, the top five categories of Spanish exports to Hungary are ‘automobiles and motorcycles’; ‘other capital goods’; ‘chemical products’; ‘automotive components’; and ‘textiles and clothing’, while the main groups of Hungarian exports to Spain include (in order of importance) ‘automotive components’; ‘other capital goods’; ‘automobiles and motorcycles’; ‘chemical products’; and ‘electronic components’.
“All this puts the volume of our bilateral trade still at a relatively modest level. It cannot compare, for that matter, with Hungary’s trade with Germany, France or Austria. These are countries that have had traditional economic relations with Hungary for centuries, while we arrived in this market only recently, at the end of the 1960s, and the real push came only when we joined the European Union. At the same time, it also means that the room for improvement in bilateral economic relations is very large, with many opportunities, especially in the fields of technology, in the automotive industry, in the agricultural sector, in infrastructure development or even in the fashion industry,” he adds.
As far as Spanish investments in Hungary are concerned, the area the Ambassador mentions is the automotive industry (with firms like Gestamp or F.Segura).
As regards tourism, Barcelona and its surrounding areas are at the receiving end of most Hungarian tourist flows (about 80%). However, the Ambassador notes, there a renewed interest to focus on new tourism destinations in Spain, like the Balearic Islands, the Canaries and the south of Spain. Low-cost flights now serve ten Spanish destinations with direct flights from Budapest: Madrid, Barcelona, Alicante, Málaga, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Mallorca and Ibiza.
He points out that “also, more and more tourists are coming from Spain to Hungary because the price-quality ratio is very good. You have fantastic places to visit, reasonable prices in hotels and restaurants, particularly outside Budapest. Furthermore, many people return after discovering Budapest – and that is the best success tourism can achieve: the returning guest.” There are also a number of Spanish students here: 400 in the Erasmus program and 200 medical students. “These numbers are not that big in themselves but they attract families and friends who come to visit,” he adds.
Great interest in culture
“In this area, the number one organization to highlight is the Cervantes Institute. It is our flagship, which contributes not only to the teaching of the Spanish language but also to the dissemination of Spanish culture and also of the other Spanish speaking countries as they have no cultural institutes here. We are also very pleased with the existing bilingual sections in Hungarian secondary schools. We bring native teachers to seven of these schools to assist local teachers,” the Ambassador highlights.
In propagating Spanish culture, the Embassy is more interested in promoting the presence of young artists. In the Ambassador’s view it is because “everybody knows Velazquez and El Greco. They promote themselves. We try to promote young artists coming to festivals like Sziget. Hungary is a fantastic place for work. There is a great taste for culture. People here are cultivated, they read a lot. So in our experience, the exhibitions and other events we organize are invariably fully booked.”
He adds that “to put it in a nutshell, from a cultural perspective, there is definitely a growing interest towards Spain in Hungary. First and foremost, the number of Hungarians studying Spanish has been steadily increasing in the past years. The Cervantes Institute, for instance, has managed to grow the number of lessons provided to students by 26% in this first semester in comparison to the past year. On the other hand, the permanent presence of Spanish artists in the main stages and festivals of Hungary is a good indicator of how keen the local public has become to names like Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, Jordi Savall, Diego El Cigala or Estrella Morente. All of them, among many others Spanish artists, have performed in stages like MÜPA, the Opera or the Liszt Music Academy – some of the most prestigious concert halls across Hungary.”
The Spanish Embassy also tries to promote Spanish gastronomy because there is a lot of room for improvement there, too. “We have recently celebrated the World Day of Tapas with all Spanish restaurants in Budapest participating,” he says.
A good place to retire from
“I have tried to visit as many parts of Hungary as I could but I have to say the best of Hungary for me is Budapest. You find very nice architecture, very nice people here. But I also like cities like Szeged or Pécs, the region of Tokay, the region of Sopron and Gyõr. For personal taste, I prefer the hillier, more mountainous landscape to the puszta,” Ambassador López Jorrin notes.
He says he very much likes Hungarian wine, both red and white. He also likes beer, local beer – “I always taste local beer wherever I go.” The current posting in Budapest is the last one for José Ángel López Jorrin before he retires next year. Earlier, he served Spanish diplomacy in Caracas, Lima, The Hague, Sarajevo, Sofia and Bratislava. “It is not just a compliment to the Hungarian people but I have to say I could not think of a better post than Budapest to retire from,” he concludes.