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Juraj Chmiel

Historical Record in Business Exchange

INTERVIEW WITH CZECH AMBASSADOR JURAJ CHMIEL

“We consider ourselves honorary neighbors. There are no open issues and both official and informal contacts are continually developing in many fields. The V4, including the International Visegrád Fund (IVF) contributes to experts, academics, NGOs and students exchanges, and people to people contacts. Our countries cooperate in the EU where they often find themselves in the same like-minded groups. Last autumn, we hosted in Prague PM Viktor Orbán and twice FM Péter Szijjártó. Their visits reflected a high-quality relation and will be followed up by our President coming to Budapest mid-May. Miloš Zeman has warm ties with János Áder and Viktor Orbán. Apart from its symbolic value, the visit will be highly practical as the President is to be accompanied by one or two Czech Ministers and by a large group of businessmen. Last year, trade between our countries reached its highest level, exceeding the value of Czech trade with Russia or the USA. This year, we commemorate the revolutionary 1989 and the following accession of our countries to the EU (15 years ago) and NATO (20 years ago). Czechs, Hungarians and Poles mark our NATO anniversary together in March in Prague (Presidents, Foreign and Defense Ministers), and in Washington (Foreign Ministers). The Czech Republic will take over the Presidency of the Visegrád Group (V4) from Slovakia. As always, this will mean an intensive program of meetings and talks from the highest to the expert levels within V4 as well as between V4 and other countries in so-called V4+ formats,” Ambassador Chmiel gives a short overview of bilateral relations.

Developing relations even further

Regarding President Zeman’s visit, the Ambassador expects the bilateral/trade agenda to be the most significant during the meetings. “That is because, although our bilateral relations are rich and deep, our presidents and governments want to develop them even further. Our president is a keen supporter of economic diplomacy, so, the business program – including a Business Forum – will be a key part of the visit. There will also be issues of cultural or educational cooperation, and themes of our shared past – for example, the Battle of Mohacs (1526) – to give impetus to expert projects. The current EU topics will be discussed as well as security,” he says.

The V4 cooperation

“For my country, the Visegrád group bears a strategic value, together with our relations with Austria and Germany. In the EU, the V4 framework has proved highly useful in the areas where we have common views. The appropriate experts know about these issues, while the public is familiar with V4 cooperation in migration,” Ambassador Chmiel points out. However, he adds that there are many more issues where the V4 alone, or together with like-minded partners, has influenced the EU policy following the interests of our countries. “It does not mean that V4 members always agree on everything. None of them has ever had such ambition. V4 has become a traditional format for forward-looking and open dialogue about Central Europe, current topics of the EU and broader. In the EU, be it in everyday business or in most robust negotiations, the Czech Republic endeavors to refrain from hard confrontations. We want the V4 not to divide but to unite for the EU to become more efficient and stronger in current uncertain times. In our upcoming V4 Presidency, we intend to focus on the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework (to advance the economic and social convergence), deepening the EU internal market, and cooperation in science, research and innovations. We will direct our efforts towards the EU enlargement and Eastern Partnership. In these areas, we will hold talks between the V4 and relevant EU partners including Germany, Austria, Benelux and the Nordic-Baltic countries (NB8).”

Economic relations

The volume of bilateral trade has grown over the last few years from EUR 5.4 billion in 2012 to EUR 8.8 billion in 2018 when it reached its highest level. Besides, the pace of growth is significant: 7% from 2017 to 2018. Hungary is the 10th most important trade partner for the Czech Republic whose exports to Hungary rose by 6% to EUR 5.1 billion last year, and exports in the other direction  increased almost by 9% to EUR 3.7 billion. There is also a significant level of investments between the two countries, including PPF group having purchased Telenor Hungary and Czech Agrofert having made several investments into the Hungarian agricultural and food industry. On the other hand, Hungary’s MOL operates over 300 petrol stations in the Czech Republic. In economic matters, the Czech Embassy closely cooperates with the CzechTrade office in Budapest.

The Czech auto industry is enjoying a boom, Skoda Auto is doing well, producing records in 2018.  Škoda auto cars are popular in Hungary, and there are also Skoda Transportation trams and Skoda/Solaris trolleybuses in Hungary with more of the latter put into circulation this spring in Budapest. The Ambassador says he is glad to see Skoda trams in Miskolc and Skoda/Solaris trolleybuses in Budapest but stresses that Czech-Hungarian cooperation in public transport is nothing new; it has a very long tradition. “You can still find a lot of old Czech trams ČKD/Tatra in Budapest and many Czech cities used to run a fleet of Hungarian Ikarus buses. Regarding passenger cars, Skoda Car sold 13,800 vehicles to Hungary last year. It was only a small part of the Skoda global sales (1,253,700 vehicles), but for me, the important fact is that the popularity of Skoda Auto in Hungary is growing, as the number of sold vehicles increased by more than 9% in 2018. Besides, according to autocar.co.uk, Skoda Octavia was the second most popular car in Hungary in 2018. The automotive sector is the backbone of our economy. The history of the Czech Automotive Industry dates back to the 19th century when Czech companies started producing the first passenger cars. In 2018, The Czech Republic hit the historical record with the production of 1.44 million cars. In order to maintain this trend, the most important task is to focus on innovation and new trends such as electric vehicles, or autonomous driving or artificial intelligence.”

Last December, guns and other firearms, manufactured in Hungary under Czech license, were handed over to Hungarian soldiers. As Ambassador Chmiel notes, the licensing agreement for the manufacture and assembly of weapons produced by Česká Zbrojovka was signed last March. Regarding the scope of the production, I think we’re talking about some 200,000 firearms, at least in the first phase, but everything is, of course, up to the contracting parties. The Hungarian defense forces are undergoing a significant modernization within the Zrínyi 2026 plan, and I am sure that Czech defense industry companies have a lot to offer in this respect.”

Leaving the city of birth

Ambassador Chmiel is scheduled to leave his post in Budapest this summer after nearly five years. “In Hungary, the basis for Czech diplomacy is inspiring and motivating. Political connections are friendly, expert contacts intensive, interest in cooperation is mutual and reaching across the society, while the potential is not yet fully utilized. In other words, a lot of work can be done, if you are active and have ideas. I travel a lot around Hungary and combine activities of various fields to expand and strengthen bilateral contacts, for example, the twinning of Czech and Hungarian towns and municipalities covering business, public and political relations, education, NGOs, people to people contacts, V4 contacts, EU funding expertise etc. Last September, our Embassy and the Embassy of Hungary in Prague organized in Budapest a gathering of about fifty twinning towns or those in search of a partner. They exchanged good practice and learned about V4 and EU financial instruments to support their projects. They will meet again this September. The trade statistics speak for themselves. I am glad that the value of business exchange reached a historical record and I hope that this trend will continue. If I should choose one particular Czech business success, it would likely be the conclusion of the licensing agreement for the manufacture and assembly of weapons. Last, but not least – I was born in Budapest, my mother was Hungarian, so I feel here like being home.”

Cultural ties

“I could talk for hours about bilateral cultural relations. You know Hrabal´s pub in Pest, and lot of others, don´t you,” the Ambassador winks with a smile.

Czech-Hungarian cultural contacts are traditionally rich. “Our Embassy and the Czech Centre in Budapest strengthen these ties and promote Czech culture. Every year, our program is filled up with impressive cultural performances, while many events are organized independently of us. Annually, we hold a Film Carnival at the Toldy Cinema. We frequently organize symphonic concerts at our Embassy or at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music with which we have fruitful cooperation. You might have heard of the Czech Image Project; Hungarian students competed on the topic: ‘How do you perceive the Czech Republic?’ Their posters were subsequently exhibited at the Hungarian Cultural Institute in Prague.”

He stresses that the Czech language draws attention in Hungary. There are Czech language and literature desks at two Hungarian Universities, in Budapest and Szeged, and around 180 students attend courses run by the Czech Centre. “Besides learning Czech, they become familiar with Czech life and culture. They also learn about personalities that unite our countries such as the philosopher and pedagogue J. A. Comenius, the writer Božena Němcová or Saint John of Nepomuk. Not everyone knows that the Battle of Mohács in 1526 was equally significant to our countries; we lost our king, Louis Jagellon there. We would like to engage historians in research of the battle. Speaking of our shared history, we have a permanent exhibition in the basement of the Embassy dedicated to two Czech heroes who stayed in Budapest after they saved the lives of thirteen Jewish Hungarians in 1944. Currently, we commemorate Jan Palach through another exhibition at the Embassy and through debates at Hungarian grammar schools. It was 50 years ago that Jan set himself on fire in protest against the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1969 and the prevailing apathy of Czech and Slovaks. His action influenced a student in Budapest, Sándor Bauer, who died the same way, only a few days after Palach. Twenty years later, students in Czechoslovakia, referring to Jan Palach, succeeded in bringing the society to their side in the Velvet Revolution. Marking the victory over the Communist regimes in 1989, we are preparing an international songwriting event, inspired by a Czech folk singer and poet, who left Czechoslovakia in 1969 and returned in 1989. The Karel Kryl Protest Song Contest will take place between June and November. I must also mention, among many others, people such as the church reformer Jan Hus, and Jan Ámos Komenský (Comenius), known as the ‘teacher of the nations’, who lived and worked for several years in Sárospatak, NE Hungary, and the Czech soldiers who defended the castle of Eger against the Turks in the 16th century. All of them left a deep impact in the Hungarian history and unfortunately, the lack of space doses not allow me to continue with other names.”

Sándor Laczkó

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