The new Italian Ambassador to Hungary, Maria Assunta Accili Sabbatini, who presented her credentials to the President of the Hungarian Republic on May 30 this year, talked about bilateral relations in the recent Italy Focus of Diplomacy & Trade.
“I was astonished, when I came to Hungary, by the understanding that the Hungarian public and the Hungarian administration have of Italy, of the Italian culture, of the Italian people. I was also surprised at the interest that Hungarians have for my country and at the number of Hungarians who can speak Italian. This is a big challenge for me because I have to deliver enormous results to meet the expectations of my government” the Ambassador says in the interview.
Regarding the Ambassador’s short term objectives, she says that “considering the economic situation in Europe, it would be a big achievement if we could keep economic and commercial exchanges at the current level. Of course, we will work to increase trade and to expand bilateral relations in the fields of science and technology, higher education, research and development, but these days, it is not easy...”
Another goal of hers is to “learn Hungarian, or at least try. I know it is almost a ‘mission impossible’ but I think it is my duty and it can help me comprehend the way people organize their thoughts, which is a key to understanding the mentality, the country, the culture and even politics. My effort also aims at approaching the strong Hungarian identity, of which we should be fully respectful. Walking in Budapest, I have a sort of homey feeling. 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.”
Prior to this position, the Ambassador served Italian diplomacy in Morocco, in the Chinese capital Beijing and in Pakistan before being stationed at Italy’s mission to the OECD in Paris. Later, she was in charge of Italy’s Representative Office in Taiwan before managing the Italian participation at the World Expo in Shanghai, China in 2010.
She believes that “although, the Hungarian and Italian economies are quite different, we have to face similar challenges. Our countries have both been hit by the world economic crisis and I believe that it is easier to find sustainable solutions if we work together: we are stronger if we are united. The ‘European House’ is our insurance. We have to maintain competitiveness in a tough global environment and to create new jobs for future generations. These are difficult tasks and I think we can only find the way out if we do it together.”
She adds that “each and every member of the EU, must put its house in order, but at the same time, we have to show more solidarity towards one another. Undeniably, the European strategy designed to counter the present crisis can be improved, but we should not forget that all Governments, also those who tend to dissociate themselves from the decisions taken in Bruxelles, have adopted them on a consensus base. I am sincerely convinced that a stronger Europe is the only long term solution to our predicaments. Issuing Euro bonds could be a good idea but there is a lot of resistance and it is a political issue. There is no going back from European integration!”
On transparency, she says that “it is necessary to make sure that business can grow. Investors require a stable and predictable legal and financial environment, not only in Hungary but everywhere in the world, including my own country. This is the reason why the Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti, has included in his agenda to foster economic recovery, fight against fiscal evasion as well as introduce a new anti-corruption bill.”
The Ambassador stresses the significance of the “bilateral dimension of Hungarian-Italian relations in addition to the multilateral cooperation that the two countries have developed within the EU, NATO, INCE and several other organizations. We have a strategic partnership agreement with Hungary that identifies a number of areas in which we can benefit from increased cooperation. The guidelines for the future focus, among other themes, are infrastructure, energy, environment and agriculture.
An important area of Italian-Hungarian cooperation is defense. ”We have a common peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan and we have joint training programs. Last July a new agreement was signed between the two Defense Administrations for training specialized troops and we hope that we can do more within the NATO framework,” she adds.
As a recent survey shows, about 2,000 Italian companies are active in Hungary, ranging from large multinational corporations to small firms and establishments. There is a particularly strong Italian presence in the financial and banking sectors, with UniCredit, CIB, Banco Popolare. Also in the insurance segment, Italians play an important role with Generali, whilst many Italians have invested in agriculture and food processing not only in terms of capital, know-how and technologies, but also in terms of personal lives and families. “You’ll allow me to stress,” she adds, “that in agriculture, Italian expertise may be an enormous support to the development of a more advanced Hungarian national industry”. Among the largest Italian investors in Hungary, Ambassador Accili also recalls ENI that is well known in Hungary for the AGIP petrol stations, for the TIGÁZ utility, for the DUNASTYR plant and, last but not least, for sponsoring the Formula1 car race in Hungary.
Ambassador Accili is of the opinion that “Hungary is still a potentially interesting country for Italian investors, but investors need to feel that they are welcome because they generate revenues, because they create jobs, because they transfer know how, and because they contribute to the development of the local economy.”
“It is not easy to work or invest anywhere in the world of today and nowhere can one expect to find a totally safe investment environment“, continues the Ambassador. “Therefore, notwithstanding the seriousness of the current juncture, it is worth it to try and stand by the Hungarians: sooner or later, the situation will improve and it is of crucial importance that we engage now in preparing favorable and conducive conditions for a better future.”
The number of Italian tourists visiting in Hungary last year was some 1.5 million. “You can often hear Italian spoken in the streets of Budapest. Hungary is a chosen destination for my countrymen because it has a lot to offer even to Italians who are spoiled by their historical heritage as well as by the variety of their holiday resorts. The Hungarian landscape is very beautiful, cities are rich in culture and entertainment, the country offers many spas which are quite popular with Italians, and costs are relatively reasonable: in short, there is potential for growth in the presence of Italian tourists, while Hungarians seem to enjoy visiting Italy and especially Sicily…” Ambassador Accili says.
As regards cultural relations, the Ambassador characterizes them as ‘lively’. “We would like to have more funds to invest in this field but unfortunately, resources are scarce. It is really a pity that whenever a crisis strikes the first chapters to suffer are those related to cultural cooperation… Luckily, Italy has an excellent cultural center in Budapest which is not at risk because revenues from language classes make it sustainable.”
2013 will be an Italian-Hungarian Cultural Year. “This initiative was adopted by our previous government and confirmed by the current one because we believe it helps reinforce relations between nations, which, I believe, are even more important than relations between governments. Hungarian/Italian contacts have always been very intense,” the Ambassador says. She is of the view that “this cultural year pays homage to the reciprocal interests traditionally nurtured by our people. In general terms, we wish to enhance the image and the understanding of contemporary Italian culture. We shall implement a number of initiatives centered on visual arts, music, literature and design whilst promoting a number of events focused on innovation, technology and science.”
The bilateral exchange protocols in the fields of culture and education and of science and technology will be renewed next year. “Research in Hungary is of a very high level. We have ongoing cooperation programs with various research centers and universities and we intend to keep working together as much as we can. Among other endeavors, Italy has been very active in supporting environmental awareness and education through the Regional Environment Centre. We shall organize various workshops with the Centre that can play a pivotal role in the implementation of our strategic partnership not only with Hungary but also with Central Europe. In this sector like in several others, next year’s Hungarian Presidency of the Central European Initiative to which Italy attaches an enormous importance will also help boost collaboration with other partners in Central Europe,” the Ambassador adds.
As for student exchanges, the she says that numbers are decreasing as there are fewer scholarships available than before. Still, the high-level of education provided in Hungary in English and German is appealing to Italian students. “I’m convinced that investing in education will show its benefits in the years to come.”
Unofficial youth exchanges are also vital for bilateral relations because they constitute the foundation of European integration. Ambassador Accili was very pleased by the number of Italian youth visiting the Sziget Festival. Excellent musicians also came from Italy for the festival organized by Puglia Sound, a South Italian regional body that supports young artists. The friendly atmosphere I saw in Sziget was really wonderful to witness, with lots of young people getting to know each other and learning the meaning of tolerance and empathy. I detected a similar mood among the large group of participants who were in Budapest for the GenFest religious gathering that was held for the first time outside Italy. If we follow the spirit of the young people, we can solve any problem,” she concludes.