“Trade relations between Hungary and Belgium have been soaring recently,” the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium to Hungary, Siegfried Peinen tells Diplomacy&Trade in the leading article of the Belgian Focus celebrating the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Hungary and Belgium.
Looking back at the history of this century, Ambassador Peinen notes that at the very beginning, there was a bit of cautiousness from both sides as Hungary and Belgium came from opposite sides after the First World War.
“It was noticeable, however, that during the 1920s, the relationship became much more friendly and much more intense, which, politically, had to do with the Treaty of Locarno in 1925. On a more human, humanitarian level, a very important event was the setting up of the Hungarian Belgian Child Relief project, the so-called children’s trains. It was a project that was originally started by the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and Great Britain at the time, just after the First World War. Of course, there was misery and poverty everywhere in Europe but the people noticed that conditions were especially hard in Hungary after First World War. From 1923, there were a lot of Catholic organizations that stepped into this project and this way, almost 25,000 Hungarian children could make their way to Belgium where they stayed with local families mostly in Flanders, and to a lesser degree in Wallonia. Most of them came back after a couple of months or years, but a lot of them stayed also in Belgium. We estimate that about 10% of them ended up staying in Belgium, and, of course, their descendants. They're very much aware of this bond and this creates up until today a special bond for many Belgians with Hungary. As a matter of fact, very recently there was an interesting exhibition going on in the Budapest History Museum on the children’s trains. This was briefly, and on a much smaller scale, repeated after World War II.“
The Ambassador adds that following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, numerous Hungarian refugees went to Western Europe with many of them also ending up in Belgium. “We estimate about 7,000 refugees arrived in 1956. Later on, as there were more waves of refugees, they were very warmly greeted and welcomed in Belgium where they called them freedom fighters. Some of them went on to other countries, but a lot of them stayed in Belgium. In conclusion of this issue, he states that relationship between Belgium and Hungary changed completely after the fall of the Berlin Wall when Hungary integrated into the Euro-Atlantic community, when it became member of NATO and EU.
As to how Hungarians arriving to Belgium, in different time periods, managed to integrate into society and be good citizens of the country, Ambassador Peinen says the profile is sometimes very different, but overall, they integrated very well into Belgian society. They still have this strong bond with Hungary, some still visit their Hungarian families.
“After the first wave, the children that remained eventually dispersed all over Belgium. With the waves after that, like that of 1956, a lot of them ended up staying around the region of Brussels, Liege and Genk, which had to do also with the fact that there was major industrial activity around these places at that time and there was a need for labor force. Others, academically brilliant students were employed also in the private sector.” He also highlights a few better-known Hungarians who ended up in Belgium. For example, Sándor Lámfalussy who later became known as the ‘father of the euro’, the common European currency. He received the Order of St. Stephen of Hungary in 2013. Another example is the current Honorary Consul for Hungary, Ari Epstein, who is based in Antwerp and who also has Hungarian heritage. He is now the CEO of the Antwerp World Diamond Council.
“Of course, this 100th anniversary is always a good occasion to strengthen the bonds that we already have. Since both Belgium and Hungary are members of the same club, both members of NATO and EU, there is already a lot of cooperation going on between our countries and I would say sometimes it's so obvious that we don't even notice it anymore. Both Belgium and Hungary are medium-sized countries with very open economies and thus, we are both very much dependent on free trade and a good functioning single market within the EU. So, everything that is related to that really is a good reason to look at areas where we could cooperate more,” the Ambassador highlights. Looking towards the future, he mentions logistics as something that is very important for Belgium. “We have major ports and we're looking more and more at how we can connect with the hinterland. Naturally, for example, we also look at Hungary being very centrally located, at the crossing point of the east-west and the north-south axes in Europe. So, it certainly offers a lot of possibilities. Nowadays, we live in a different geo-political environment and I have to say that in terms of security and defense, Hungary has really been investing a lot in its own security in the last couple of years and will reach the NATO 2% defense investment guideline in a couple of years. Also, cooperation with Belgian manufacturers active in this area is increasing.”
As for pure bilateral political relations, the Ambassador considers them good. “They could be of course a little bit more intense and that is always the job for an ambassador to deepen this relationship. Of course, there are some issues where sometimes we disagree but that's normal within the EU. For example, we all know the issue of the rule of law. But the proper procedural framework for these debates is in place. The European Union has been constructed in a way that it's also a forum where we can discuss these issues as partners that share responsibility for our European project. So, Belgium can, like any other member state, make certain remarks on these issues just as Hungary can point to certain areas where they wish to express themselves.” A good opportunity for the two countries working together will be when Belgium will form the trio Presidency of the Council of the European Union together with Hungary and Spain from 2023. “Preparations for this presidency will start pretty soon and from that point, we will have more and more contacts as well,” he adds.
Soaring trade relations
Belgium is among the ten largest foreign investors in Hungary with Belgian companies having invested nearly EUR two billion while the volume of trade between the two countries is around EUR 5.5 billion annually. Bilateral economic relations are on a good path but, of course, there is always room for improvement. Citing figures published by the Belgian Foreign Trade Agency, the Ambassador points out that, for example, “from 2017 to 2019, both exports and imports between the two countries were soaring, I would say on an average of about 15% a year. However, with the pandemic, it all took a little dive, but it's picking up very quickly again as you see from the most recent figures for the first nine months of 2021. In terms of the makeup of Belgian exports, it is mostly chemicals, machinery and equipment, plastics and pharmaceutical products. I would like to point out that Belgium is a world leader for pharmaceutical products. For example, Belgium constitutes about 2% of the total population within the EU and 3% of the EU’s GDP. But if you look at research and development (R&D) expenditure in the pharmaceutical sector, it is more than 12%. It generates almost half of our trade surplus worldwide. So, we really have a lot going in this sector and that's also one of the major sectors that our trade representatives are focusing on.” In terms of improvement, Ambassador Peinen notes that when it comes to investments, it is a bit of a one-way street, a lot of Belgian companies have invested in Hungary. “Belgium certainly has a lot of qualities and advantages for also younger company startups that want to scale up, for example, in the pharmaceutical or in the biotech sector. So, trying to attract more Hungarian companies to invest in Belgium is certainly one of the challenges, but there are certainly a lot of possibilities,” he adds.
Regarding major investors from Belgium to Hungary, the Ambassador stresses that by far, it is K&H Bank (owned by the Belgian bank-insurer KBC Group) that is the biggest flagship investment that has been active in Central Europe for over 25 years. In Hungary, K&H is the second largest bank right now. “Other than that, most of the Belgian companies are bigger SMEs that are active here. They are active in a wide area of different fields like for example Delaware (ICT sector), Eltex (in waste management), Mono (automotive sector), SIC (industrial rubber products). Some are active in the hospitality sector like The Three Corners. Soudal is a major player in the construction industry etc. In short, the Belgian companies represented in Hungary really cover all economic fields.
Language-assisted cultural promotion
Cultural relations between the two countries also go back a long time. “Looking in the archives, I noticed that, for example, in 1927, the Belgian government organized a Hungarian concert in the Brussels Conservatory. Belgium is a multi-language country and the three official languages there are also very well represented here in Hungary through their respective governments. For example, if you look at Dutch language and literature studies, actually, there are three universities in Hungary that are active in this field: ELTE, Károli Gáspár and also the University of Debrecen. They have a full program where you can learn Dutch and learn about the Flemish and Dutch culture. The Flemish government is very active in this field. They promote the language along with the culture. Same goes for the Francophone side of Belgium where you have a representative for WBI (Wallonie Bruxelles International) working in the French language department at ELTE and whose job also includes the promotion of the French language and the Francophone culture from Belgium. As a matter of fact, a festival of the Francophonie is going on in Hungary right now. The German speaking community of Belgium is not represented here in Hungary, but it is also an official language in my country. We have some contacts, for example, with the Andrássy University, the only German speaking university outside the German Sprachraum. All these things create bonds and although Belgium has a complex institutional architecture with three different language communities, it also allows you to have contacts with different parts of society, which certainly is an advantage in my job. I have to say that there are a lot of Hungarians, in all walks of life, who speak either Dutch or French, or German very well,” the Ambassador highlights.
Planning anniversary events
As for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations, Ambassador Peinen notes that the anniversary celebrations started on February 20th and “at the Belgian Embassy, we are planning several events in different sectors culturally, academically and politically. We also want to do something with alumni, for example, Hungarians who have been studying in Belgium. Just recently, along with the Flemish side, we organized an activity around the performance of Collegium Vocale at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest. We used this opportunity to invite some VIPS and organize a reception. We are very proud that such a world-renowned ensemble performed in Budapest. The reaction of the public was astounding. You can tell that there are true connoisseurs among the Hungarian public. The Artistic Director, Mr. Herreweghe, admitted afterwards that performing in Budapest is always something special.”
The Embassy is planning something similar for the Francophone side. “For a long time, we had the idea to organize something with the Liege Philharmonics Orchestra because their musical director is Hungarian, Gergely Madaras. Unfortunately, it didn't work out due to agenda conflicts. For most other events we're still in the planning phase. I assume that most events will take place in the second half of the year. There is also an idea to do something in the economic field together with our Belgian Business Club (Belgabiz) that celebrated its fifth anniversary in 2020. Because of the pandemic, the anniversary party could not take place but maybe the 100th anniversary could be a good occasion to put Belgabiz in the limelight as the economic bonds between our two countries are very strong. In the academic field, we have been talking, for example, with the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade to organize a seminar, probably also in the second half of the year. Our foreign minister, Sophie Wilmès, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, was to visit Hungary at the end of August last year. Unfortunately, we had to postpone it, but I’m sure that we will soon find another date for this visit,” the Ambassador concludes.