Dutch Ambassador to Hungary Désirée Bonis talks to Diplomacy&Trade about the historical connections as well as the current challenges and opportunities characterizing bilateral relations between The Netherlands and Hungary. While differences exist on issues such as the war in Ukraine and EU values, economic cooperation remains strong and cultural exchanges continue to reaffirm ties between the two nations. As both countries navigate the complexities of the present, the shared history and mutual interests serve as a foundation for further understanding and collaboration.
Dutch-Hungarian relations have a deep-rooted history that stretches back centuries. The Ambassador recalls how the two nations have supported each other during times of hardship and crisis. In the 17th century, Protestant churches in both countries collaborated, setting a foundation for future cooperation. In the aftermath of Hungary's territorial losses in 1919-1920, The Netherlands welcomed 32,000 Hungarian children on the "Children's Trains," offering them refuge and care. While most returned to Hungary, some stayed behind in The Netherlands, leaving a lasting legacy. Furthermore, solidarity was demonstrated in 1956 when The Netherlands provided refuge to 4,000 Hungarian refugees in the aftermath of Soviet forces crushing the Hungarian revolution. “Now we are both allies in NATO and EU member states and these multilateral frameworks form the backdrop for present-day collaboration and are also the sources of existing differences between the two nations,” Désirée Bonis says.
Challenges and diverging perspectives
Despite a history of joint peace missions within the framework of NATO, the Ambassador highlights a divergence between Hungary and its allies, including The Netherlands, in relation to the war in Ukraine. Hungary's obstruction of sanctions against Russia and its blocking of Sweden's NATO accession have caused perplexity among its allies. “Hungary is blocking movement of troops and military equipment through the country to Ukraine. In general, there is a lack of firm support for Ukraine, which is the invaded party in this conflict. Similarly, there is a lack of firm condemnation of Russia, which is the aggressor. Overall, Hungary’s position is very particular on this whole issue,” Désirée Bonis notes. Hungary's position on this issue remains distinct and raises questions about the country's stance within NATO. “We would love to work more with Hungary for peace in Ukraine. Our stance is that if Russia stops fighting, there will be peace. If Ukraine stops fighting, there will be no more Ukraine. Pursuing peace, which is the Hungarian government’s position, to us does not mean peace on any terms,” the Ambassador stresses. The Dutch public simply does not understand Hungary’s position on the war in Ukraine, she adds. “We see the tragedy of this war every day with thousands of refugees arriving in Hungary, often on their way to countries like The Netherlands. For us, it is a clear conflict between good and bad. We do not understand why the Hungarian government takes such an ambiguous stance.”
Upholding common values
Hungary's adherence to EU values has been a subject of concern for both The Netherlands and other member states. The Ambassador emphasizes that common values such as human rights, including the rights of LGBTIQ+ people, democracy, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of the media, academic freedom and creating a level playing field in the private sector are essential for fostering a healthy European Union. Highlighting the fact that Hungary holds the first spot on Transparency International's list of perceived corruption, the Ambassador calls for greater transparency and accountability.
Despite these differences, the two nations work closely together on important issues like climate change, sustainability, the energy transition and strategic autonomy. The Ambassador emphasizes the significance of people-to-people relations in maintaining bilateral ties. Hungary is home to a sizable Dutch community, whose members are “happy, settled and well-integrated Dutch people, living mainly in the countryside.” In turn, The Netherlands is the third most popular destination after Austria and Germany for Hungarians who emigrate from home. Many Hungarian students opt for studying at Dutch universities; The Netherlands is among the top five academic destinations for talented young Hungarians.
Strong and flourishing economic relations
The economic ties between The Netherlands and Hungary are robust and continue to grow. The Netherlands ranks among the top 10 largest investors in Hungary, with more than 500 Dutch companies operating in the country. The Ambassador underscores the annual roundtable organized by the Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency, facilitating dialogue on emerging challenges among CEOs. The bilateral trade volume is impressive, reaching EUR 13 billion. “There are many opportunities for growth, especially in the services sector, and our Embassy focuses on four key areas: sustainable mobility and smart logistics, circular economy, life sciences and health and last but not least agriculture. We organized three incoming trade missions over the past year and a half, business is booming, many contracts have been signed, innovation is a driving force. There is ample room for strengthening our cooperation in the area of agriculture. Hungary is keen on digitalization and is very interested in precision agriculture. The latter is strong in The Netherlands and we hope to establish more cooperation in this area,” Désirée Bonis says.
With respect to sustainability and circular economy, the Embassy has established two platforms with Hungarian stakeholders to facilitate cooperation. In 2018, a Circular Economy Platform was set up with the Business Council for Sustainable Development in Hungary and the former Ministry of Innovation and Technology. In 2019, a Lean and Green Platform was established with GS1 Hungary and the Hungarian Association of Logistics, Purchasing and Inventory Management with the aim of decreasing CO2 emissions in the logistics and manufacturing sectors. On the 23rd of November this year, the Embassy will hold a Circular Economy Summit with the theme of circular construction, where the winner of the Sustainable Tulip Award will be announced. The goal of this new embassy initiative is to reward start-ups, SMEs, corporates or not-for-profit organizations that have demonstrated an outstanding sustainable performance in a specific industry.
Quest for stability
While economic relations thrive and Hungary remains a popular destination for Dutch businesses, the Ambassador acknowledges concerns among Dutch investors regarding Hungary's business environment. Investors seek legal security, which has become increasingly feeble under the current Government, she notes. “We see legislation adopted overnight, administrative measures hitting foreign investors, opaque single-bidding procedures, price caps installed, windfall and other new taxes imposed, allegations of corruption and clientelism. Such measures and practices do not add to a sound business climate. There are worries among Dutch investors as to where Hungary is headed and some of them are increasingly looking at neighboring countries that offer more transparency, better compliance with EU values and long-term stability,” the Ambassador says.
Cultural relations between the Netherlands and Hungary are a significant aspect of bilateral ties and an area close to the heart of the Ambassador. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has designated Hungary as one of the priority countries for intensified cultural cooperation, which has opened up new vistas for cultural cooperation. The Ambassador mentions that several cultural events featuring Dutch artists have taken place in Hungary over the past 18 months, such as a performance of the Scapino Ballet from Rotterdam, the exhibition of Hieronymus Bosch paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts and the concert of the Concertgebouw Orchestra from Amsterdam at the Palace of Arts. “We are also actively participating in the Veszprém Cultural Capital of Europe program series, including the exhibition Europe Archive, designed by Erik Kessels from The Netherlands and Thomas Mailaender from France. The Netherlands was the focus country of the Zsolnay Light Festival in Pécs this July and will also be the guest of honor at the 28th International Book Festival Budapest starting September 28th,” the Ambassador notes.
In a personal reflection, the Ambassador shares some of her most memorable moments during her tenure in Hungary. These include the awe-inspiring concert by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer, with a surprise flash mob by the Budapest Festival Orchestra; the groundbreaking Pécs Pride event; and the vibrant I Bike Budapest tour. These experiences showcase the richness of cultural and social life in Hungary and the Ambassador's deep appreciation for the country.
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