More than a year after the Brexit vote, the British Ambassador, Iain Lindsay believes relations between Hungary and the UK are stronger. “The political relationship is stronger, the economic relations are stronger, trade is growing, investment is growing,” he tells Diplomacy&Trade in an extensive interview. He also talks about the improving defense cooperation, civic and cultural ties, and the potential post-Brexit status of Hungarian and British individuals and corporate entities.
After the Brexit vote last summer, Ambassador Lindsay voiced his opinion in an interview with Diplomacy&Trade that the United Kingdom “will still need to have an economic and political relationship with Hungary”. Now, more than a year later, he believes relations between Hungary and the UK are stronger. “Last November, Mr. Orbán was the first Prime Minister from the continent to see Mrs. May at 10 Downing Street after her election. So, the political relationship is stronger, the economic relations are stronger, trade is growing, investment is growing. If there is one area that has really grown, it is the defense relationship, which started at a very low base but included multiple joint exercises this year. I have been to the Pápa NATO Air Base as well as to bases in Várpalota and Kecskemét. We have really increased the range of the defense contact: British typhoon fighters, the Euro Fighters were here, so, we are doing a lot more on the defense side recently. I have also been to Szentendre for the course given by the Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst to Hungarian soldiers and officers on military doctrine.”
The Ambassador recalls that the Hungarian government has made it clear that that it wants a stronger relationship, “particularly, as we move closer to the Brexit date and we also want to strengthen our relationship with not only Hungary but also with the Visegrád Group (V4) – something that, I believe, Hungary is keen to see happen during its current presidency of the V4. So, I would say that our relationship is stronger now than it was a year ago but there is still more to do. For instance, the British Council is strengthening its presence in Budapest and in Hungary, recognizing that the educational and cultural relationship is also stronger. The reality is that the English language and culture is global; it is not an area where we have to work really particularly hard. It is not because of our efforts that there are 35 British musical performers at the Sziget festival – it is because British music is huge in the world. However, there are areas where we would like to develop the relations, more particularly: strengthening educational links as well as research and development. We have had good discussions with the Hungarian government on how to do that and we are working with the Hungarian authorities, for instance, in relation to the automotive test facility in Zalaegerszeg, in the southwest of the country, which is designed by a British company with a Hungarian partner. We have taken a lot a lot of interest the test track, which is also a fantastic new leisure facility.”
In the Brexit context, he believes Hungary continues to be an understanding and sympathetic partner. “It is in everyone's interest to have a fair and mutually beneficial deal as of March 2019. We will not be in the European Union but we will still be a European country contributing to Europe's defense and security through NATO; we will still be the second largest economy in Europe and it will still be the case that 26 of the 27 other member states will still have a trade surplus with Britain, so, there are a lot of good reasons why we need to continue to work closely together.”
As to the likely scenario concerning the post-Brexit status (stay, work, etc.) of Hungarians in the UK and those of British people in Hungary, Ambassador Lindsay points out that “nothing has changed since we brought forward our package. Fundamentally, the most important thing for every European citizen, and therefore every Hungarian citizen working in the UK, is that on the day we leave the European Union, they do not need to leave the United Kingdom if they have been there for five years already. They can get what we call ‘settled status’ and some of them will be also entitled to British citizenship. If they haven't been there for five years, so long as they stay in a total of 5 years, again, they get settled status, so, no one needs to leave! Mrs. May made it very clear in her speech when we sent the ‘Article 50 letter’ to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Commission, that people, citizens come first! We always said we wanted to give assurance to the three and a half million European Union citizens in the United Kingdom and to the 1.8 million British citizens in Europe (somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 of whom are in Hungary). The reassurance to guarantee their rights is the world renowned British legal system that no one questions as a fair and honest legal system.”
He recalls that the British Brexit minister, David Davies was here in April this year and he made it clear that “what we will be offering here will basically be the same as British citizens have – with a major exception is that EU citizens will not be able to vote in national elections. We value the contribution European Union citizens make in Britain and we want to ensure that people already in Britain can stay and we continue to be a magnet for international talent, including European talent. For Hungarian students going to study overseas, Britain is the second largest destination after Germany. We want to continue to attract these bright students as well as skilled workers. The idea is that somehow Britain's going to be emptied of all of the European Union citizens is really unfounded.
It is true that some companies are ready to leave London because of the Brexit. But many times it is not the whole company. JPMorgan, for instance, has about 20,000 people in London – they may move a thousand people to Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Dublin or Paris but the reality is that London will continue to be, for the foreseeable future, Europe's major financial center.“
As for Brits in Hungary, the Ambassador highlights that “for British retirees, for example, Hungary is a great place to live, a lovely environment, it is not nearly as expensive obviously as in London or the southeast of England, generally. So, we are seeing an increasing number of Brits coming here to live. We've certainly seen a rapid increase in the number of British tourists coming here. It is increasing virtually every year by 30-40%. What UK citizens can expect in Hungary after the Brexit very much depends on the final deal. The Hungarian government has made it very clear that it wants to see a fair deal not just for Hungarians in Britain but for Brits in Hungary, as well. We are hoping that the generous offer that we have made will be reciprocated.”
Company presence ensured
There are several British companies in Hungary. Ambassador Lindsay believes their future here does not depend on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. “In a way, their presence here is not predicated on Britain's membership in the European Union but it is predicated on the fact that it is a good market, it is a good place to sell to, a good place to do business, a good place to provide services from and a good place to manufacture. None of those factors is affected by the situation in Britain or by the Brexit, it is determined by the market here or people's ability to do business from here. As an example: shared service centers. Hungary has very much become one of the main hubs for the provision of such services. The British company Diageo, the world's largest drinks company, has its biggest office in the world located next to Nyugati railway station in Budapest with nearly 1,500 people working there providing back office services, shared services for the whole world. That is not going to be affected by Britain's position in the European Union. British companies would obviously like to know what is going to happen but I think it is not going to affect their business here in Hungary. Some of the Hungarian investors in the UK we speak to also continue to see the United Kingdom as a significant market in its own right for them, a market, for instance, where they can continue research and development. Companies like Richter Gedeon or MOL are important Hungarian investors in the UK and we want to ensure that they are happy with their position there.”
As regards bilateral economic relations, he stresses that the United Kingdom is the fifth largest foreign investor in Hungary. British investments reached GBP 2.1 billion in 2015 and are primarily realized with the following industries: shared service centers, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, food, and retail. The main investors are GlaxoSmithKline, Provident, Vodafone, British American Tobacco, Tesco, Diageo, Shell, G4S, BT EMEA, BP and CP Holdings/Danubius Hotels Group. “55,000 jobs in this country are with British companies; our trade here is growing. Hungary sells much more to the UK than we sell to Hungary, even though, Britain is not among the top five export markets for Hungary,” he adds.
Civilian and cultural ties
According to the Ambassador, “in western democracies, civil society, the world of NGOs, is a normal part of democratic life and democratic discourse. In many countries, there is a suspicion of civil organizations. It is in societies that are not part of the Western democratic culture and mentality. We live in a democratic Europe, so, we have a normal relationship with civil society. NGOs, and civil society in general, have a very important role to play: they can give an objective look at party politicians and provide a healthy check of politicians. Here in Hungary, we work, for instance, with ecumenical organizations in relation with charity events, or with Roma organizations. So, it is normal for us to work with NGOs.”
He is of the view that in cultural relations, Britain takes a slightly laissez-faire attitude on the basis that normal life goes on without the government or the Embassy interfering. “None of the 35 British acts coming to this year’s Sziget festival are here because we have required them to be. Bilateral relationships are rather like icebergs: what we see publicly is the tip of the iceberg what is the above the water. The reality is that what is underneath is far greater and in a way it does not depend on government. So, when it comes to cultural relations, there are some areas where we can help but the reality is that we are luckier than most people because British culture is so global, so international. A lot of those correlations go on by themselves. For example, we had a Roma storytelling event in a theater in Budapest this July with a British Roma writer. We were partners in the event to show our support but it was not financially dependent on Britain or the British Council. I am keen to see more cultural links but the reality is a lot happens without us being involved and I don't feel the need to be a sort of Orwellian figure (over)seeing everything.”
A Hungarian-speaking ambassador
Given that Iain Lindsay has only been in Hungary since the spring of 2016, his command of the Hungarian language is ‘quite something’. He is a member of the Hungarian-speaking Ambassadors’ Club and has recently participated in the recital of a Hungarian poem along with other ambassadors. He says he began to learn Hungarian in the Foreign Office’s language teaching center in London in August 2015. “I had two very kind teachers there, teaching me for five months.” Then, in January 2016, he continued his studies in Pécs, in southern Hungary, in and Debrecen, in the east – seven months of intensive Hungarian learning before he took up his post as ambassador. He now knows out of experience that Hungarian is one of the hardest European languages to learn: “Hungarian grammar is more difficult than Japanese grammar.” This fall, he is due in Pécs for another short intensive course to prepare him for his C1 level exam in October. “Ez egy nagy kihívás lesz!” (“It will be a great challenge!”), he concludes with a smile.