On the occasion that Italy is at the helm of the European Union as the current holder of the rotating presidency, the Italian ambassador to Hungary, Maria Assunta Accili Sabbatini has given an interview published in a recent issue of Diplomacy & Trade.
“When I came to Hungary two years ago, I was astonished by the understanding that the Hungarian public and the Hungarian administration have of Italy, of the Italian culture, of the Italian people. Ever since, I have found it extremely easy and pleasant to create networks of relationship that help me foster bilateral relations, promote trade and culture,” the Italian Ambassador says.
As for the Presidency of the European Council (‘EU Presidency’) in the second half of 2014, she commenst that “it’s a challenge, as always. As in every crisis, there is an aspect of risk and an aspect of opportunity. We have to thoroughly evaluate the problems so that we can provide adequate responses.”
She notes that “my first impression of being at home has been very much confirmed since I came to Hungary two years ago. I have found it extremely easy and pleasant to create networks of relationship that help me foster bilateral relations, promote trade and culture. We have experienced the big success of the Italian Cultural Year in Hungary in 2013 – and, at the same time, the year of Hungarian culture in Italy – that helped enhance the image of the two countries in each other’s major cities. Although, we have been going through a serious economic crisis, there are very strong signals of interest and confidence in the Italian private sector for Hungary. We cannot ignore problems that concern a few sectors. The Hungarian economy, however, seems to be on the path to recovery and there are areas where incentives are very strong for foreign investors, i.e. the industrial sector. If we focus on what can work and what is working, there is room to continue improving the presence of Italian companies in Hungary.”
The Ambassador believes that the Italian Presidency of the European Council will provide an opportunity to strengthen cooperation with the Hungarian government on issues that are fundamental for both countries: job creation, energy security, defense, competitiveness of the European market as well as external action, “which again becomes very crucial for the security and stability of Europe in connection with recent events like those in Ukraine.” She is of the view that – with regard to the results of the recent European parliamentary elections – the EU as well as both the Italian and Hungarian governments must pay more attention to bringing European institutions closer to the voters. One particular focus of the Italian Presidency will be youth employment: a strategic element of the future in European cooperation.
Italian economic presence
There are about 2,400 Italian companies in Hungary, – as the Ambassador reiterates – from micro companies and individual entrepreneurs, “like the importer of Italian foodstuffs around the corner, to large companies like banks and multinationals. There is a whole sector of entrepreneurs from Italy who are extremely happy in Hungary.” They are the ones that operate in the manufacturing, chemical and other industries. “They are especially satisfied with the level of education of the workforce in this country and are also satisfied with the bureaucratic procedures, especially at the local level. Fiscal incentives and the Hungarian Central Bank’s program for growth have greatly improved and loans to SMEs are becoming easier to acquire,” she says.
However, she also notes that “we do not have the same satisfactory situation in the area of services, especially in the energy sector that is important for Italy. The banking sector seems to be a bit more relaxed now than it was a couple of years ago. The dialogue between banks and the government on the special taxes levied in the financial sector is quite satisfactory, and we hope that acceptable solutions can be found for the pending issues. I sense from the Italian banks that they are ready to play the role of fostering investments and participate in economic growth.”
Italian companies directly employ close to 30,000 people in Hungary. “The structure of the Italian economy is based on small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) and that characterizes our economic presence in Hungary, as well. Even though, the presence of these firms might not always be apparent, they play an important role in the Hungarian economy. SMEs often become embedded in the country’s economy and foster the transfer of technology to encourage local businesses, as well,” the Ambassador points out. Still, the flagships of Italian investments are the big players like Generali insurance company, UniCredit and CIB banks, ENI that is well known in Hungary for the AGIP petrol stations, TIGÁZ utility and the DUNASTYR plant. Also worth mentioning are Prysmian, which is present here with a smaller facility but is one of the world leaders in cable coating, Mapei, an important producer of chemicals for the construction industry, and the thermal spray coatings company Flame Spray.
As Ambassador Accili Sabbatini stresses, in cultural relations, the 2013 cultural year was not just an episode in bilateral ties. “It was part of an ongoing plan to keep fostering the knowledge about each other. Programs include language courses, concerts, book presentations, conferences as well as cooperation in innovation, technology and scientific research. Even though, in today’s world, exchanges are very easy, experts in different fields can easily learn who is doing what in other countries, the idea of creating the opportunity for these people to exchange experiences and cooperate with each other is extremely important. We have a very large number of Hungarian students going to Italy either on scholarship or through the Erasmus project and this facilitates the birth of a new generation of European citizens.”
Expo Milano 2015
“Hungary is one of the main players in this world exposition for which the Government signed the participation contract last year. Hungary has wisely chosen water as the theme of its presence in Milan. Water is a key factor for agriculture, very much fitting the expo’s food theme: food security and food safety. Its purpose is to call the world’s attention to the key issue of hunger and ways to ensure the quality of nutrition all over the world,” the Ambassador explains.
She is of the view that the first great innovation of Expo Milano 2015 (from May through October) is to prioritize the immaterial legacies of universal expositions. “It is an opportunity for common reflections and sharing of ideas and examples of good practices on the theme of food. We need to know how various nations are ready to tackle the challenge of food production and distribution in the new millennium. The importance of this topic is emphasized by the sheer number of participating nations: 145 countries and international organizations have already indicated their presence even in these times of austerity.”
Feeling at home
“I have come to appreciate the Hungarian character. I appreciate the pride and attachment to the national identity that Hungarians show. I appreciate the very high cultural level of this nation. The environment here is extremely conducive to fostering a dialogue between the two countries. After two years, I can confirm the open-door policy of Hungarian institutions that I also appreciate. I feel a moral obligation to meet the expectations that Hungarians seem to have towards my country for reasons that are partly traditional. We have had so many common experiences and exchanges in the past centuries that it has become quite natural to feel that Hungarians are an interesting and friendly people for Italians,” Ambassador Accili Sabbatini points out.
“Walking in Budapest, I am reminded of my own home. The city offers a sophisticated and truly European environment; it clearly is the capital of a multifaceted country with a vibrant society and a great historic tradition. The Italian community in Hungary includes about 4,000 permanent residents with a lot of mixed marriages,” she notes.
She adds that the Hungarian cultural year in Italy produced an increase – 18%! – in the already high number of Italian tourists visiting Hungary. Their number of registered guest nights annually is around 1.5 million. It has been found that the second favorite city of Italians – after Paris – is Budapest.
On several occasions, the Ambassador, herself enjoys being a ‘tourist’ in Hungary. “It is a big challenge for me to get together with my husband and my son as they live and work not only in different countries but on different continents. However, they visit regularly and when they come, they tend to bring along their friends because they like this country very much. We have visited several cities in Hungary. The last time my husband came, we visited Pannonhalma, a western Hungarian town famous for its monastery,” she says.
She believes that “sometimes, embassies concentrate their activities too much on the capital city. I think that Hungary – just like Italy – is a country of interesting and beautiful towns and cities. That is why I have been travelling around and, with the cultural center and the trade office, we try to engage in a road show of sorts of Italian opportunities all over Hungary. This year, for the first time, I also celebrated the national day in Pécs, a southern Hungarian city with an important Italian department at its university and a number of entrepreneurs there, the day before celebrating in Budapest. We’re going to do that in other cities in the future because Italians are everywhere and because local authorities sometimes are as important as the national government in bilateral relations,” the Ambassador concludes.