Interview with H.E. Tamás Iván Kovács

Ambassador of the Republic of Hungary to the Kingdom of Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg

As Ambassador of Hungary to Belgium and Luxemburg, what are the main focus points for you today in Brussels? Are these bilateral agreements between Hungary and Brussels, economic diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, education or others?

I am very honored that I can host the editorial staff of Diplomatic World today at the Embassy of Hungary, which is responsible for our bilateral relations to Belgium and Luxemburg. And I am very happy to say that we are present now in both countries. I just opened, on a functional basis, a couple of weeks ago, our permanent diplomatic representation office in Luxemburg at the Embassy of Austria. There we are collocating: we are sharing with our Austrian colleagues a space where the Hungarian Representation is working. And this is the place which is responsible for both countries.

Obviously for an Ambassador it is never one single issue that is the most important. But I can actually tell you what is the most important for me or what is the main focus point for me today. If I would have to summarize that I would say: set the record straight. Explain to people in Belgium and in Luxemburg and in Brussels in general, what Hungary thinks and how it would like to proceed in the future European Union. This is a place where many times Hungary doesn’t get a fair hearing. Its voice is distorted and it is becoming a caricature of how people describe this. I am saying this also as someone who is living in this city with a few odd gap years in between since 2007 — since I worked for the European Commission before, I worked as deputy state secretary for the Hungarian EU Presidency back in Budapest and then I again served at the European Commission. I really do consider this is a very exciting place to work as an Ambassador of Hungary because I think the Hungarian view point will bring a new fresh air into Brussels and we are living in a very exciting time with the approaching elections, not only in Belgium but also at the European level. This is going to be an opportunity to ask again the people in Europe, the voters, what they really think of the process and directions where Europe is going, especially in light of the recent crises and the major political discussions that we have, for example about migration.

On bilateral agreements, if you allow me to state, that I consider myself very fortunate as an Ambassador of Hungary, being in Belgium: I am only one of very few Ambassadors who can say that their country has bilateral agreements not only with Belgium per se, but with all its federated entities: Flanders, Wallonia and also with the German speaking Community in East Belgium seated in Eupen. All of these agreements were concluded in the 90’s or the early 2000’s and we consider them very important, both culturally and economically. Even with the smallest, with the German speaking Community, because our largest ethnic minority right now in Hungary is German: over 200 000 people would say that their ethnic background is German. They even have an ombudsman who can directly turn to the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest. Our cooperation with the German speaking community is really excellent on all levels. And with proper Belgium as well: we just had meeting between the two Ministers of Foreign Affairs in the margins of the UN Security Council on the 25th January, Minister Reynders met with Minister Péter Szijjártó. Although there are obviously issues where they disagree, they both think that the relationship between Belgium and Hungary is generally excellent.

Speaking further on the subjects of economic diplomacy, cultural diplomacy and education, I can say that all of these are very important and this is actually now an Embassy that embraces all of these aspects of traditional and innovative diplomacy. Abroad we have the political diplomats and the consuls, but we have an integrated system back in Budapest, which is also represented at the Embassies. Economic diplomacy is very much part of the ministry back at home: it is named the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Here we have a commercial section that is dedicated to promoting Hungarian economic interest. We have about 4 billion euro worth of annual trade with Belgium alone. It is a very important investor as much as Luxembourg, which is also the 14th largest investor with over 1.3 billion worth of investment in Hungary. My colleagues are helping investors who are already in Hungary to have and maintain a good relationship. Whoever invests in Hungary usually finds himself/herself very happy with the circumstances they find there. All the big German high-quality automotive companies, Mercedes, Audi and soon BMW are represented there. When we think of Belgian interests, KBC owns the second largest Hungarian bank. We have Samsonite, which manufactures all your high-end suitcases: these are made in Hungary. And even foreign companies, like UK based GSK vaccines, made their initial investment into Hungary for vaccine manufacturing, from Wallonia where they have a big factory. We have a wide range of SME’s and big companies investing in Hungary from Belgium and also from Luxembourg. 

On an equal measure, we have now one of the busiest cultural institutes in Europe. We are not at the level of the Goethe Institut, Institut Français or the British Council but the Hungarian foreign service also has a very wide network. We have now 24 institutes in 22 different countries where our cultural institute is present. It was previously called the Balassi Institute, named after the Renaissance Hungarian poet. It is the cultural section of the Embassy: it is in the downtown, very close to Gare Centrale and just behind the Cathedral. It is one of the focal points of our activities: there you can learn Hungarian, which is probably not the easiest language in the world, but fortunately we have courses at every level from beginner to professional. We show every aspect of the Hungarian culture ranging from classical music, to Jazz, to lighter musical affairs. We have theater performances, we have presented at book fairs. We are covering basically the entire cultural scene of Belgium and Luxembourg with design, with Fine Arts, being presented at Brafa or having an exhibition going in parallel with that. We have just opened an exhibition by the painter Rozsda. So it is a fantastic opportunity for us to reach not only the Belgians and the Luxembourgers but also potentially a Lithuanian NATO diplomat, a Greek EU official or anybody who is living in the city coming from all over the world. The most interesting thing about Brussels is that Brussels has become — and you can love it or hate it — a very important cultural, economic and political focal point of Europe. And these are the debates, these are the discussions where the Hungarians would also like to be present.

If I may, I would like to summarize the attitude where we are coming from, and this is often mischaracterized. That is true when it comes to debates about the European Union, the future of the European Union or even some thorny issues like migration. We never contest the right of other countries to choose to live in a way that they choose to live. For example, we never question the right of those countries to build societies based on a massive influx of different cultures. We would like to request the right to remain on the road where a very large majority of the Hungarian citizens think the country should go. This is true for all the choices the European Union makes. We are not questioning the right of other countries to choose he way of life they do. But we would like to choose whom we would like to live with. That doesn’t mean that there is a flat rejection of changing the society in a certain way, but we would like to be the masters of our own future. We do believe in diversity, I think that is a very important principle for us, and that is the diversity that the European Union should represent and that is the diversity of 28, unfortunately very soon 27 countries in the future.

We believe in a strong Europe that is based on strong nation states, who bring their own individual cultural identity, their languages and also their way of thinking about sovereignty and the institutional background and history. When you look at all Eurobarometers and other surveys asking the Hungarians if they love the EU or if they like to see the EU strong: we are usually very high on that list. The same people voted for the government in place that would like to keep the most important parts of the sovereignty for the Hungarians. We do believe in strong nation states that are forming a strong basis for Europe.

How does Hungary see the foundations of European culture and civilization and how does Hungary relate to these cultural elements?

I would start by emphasizing that Hungary is one of the oldest countries in Europe. It has established its first kingdom in the year 1000 when our first King Saint Stephen accepted the crown from the Pope in Rome, thereby anchoring Hungary into the Western Civilization forever I would say. We do believe very strongly in the background of Judeo-Christian culture. I think it is very symbolic if you think of Budapest: you will find the largest Christian and Catholic Church and the largest Synagogue, the Grand Synagogue, which is by the way one of the largest in the world, are about ten minutes’ walk from each other. That shows the very rich culture and diversity the Hungarians have in Central Europe.

This country is in a very difficult part of the World. It was sometimes overrun, sometimes defeated in revolutions but It has always come out as a victor at the end. I think the Prime Minister phrased it at one point that even lost revolutions for the Hungarians will turn out to be successful winning ones. This is what you see in our first civic revolution of 1848-1849, when we defeated and dethroned for some time the Habsburgs. After brutal retribution they came back with the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy: one of the most successful and expansive development periods in Budapest. Budapest had the first subway system in the continent, just after London. If you visit the magnificent Hungarian Parliament building or see the main Grand Boulevard, the Avenue of Andrássy and others, you will see their grandeur and how important that development was. Also 1956 was a lost revolution, which was followed by a brutal retribution. But that clearly led to a freer life compared to other, very dogmatic communist states starting from 1968. And finally it led to 1989, which is a very important turning point with the constitutional revolution against the communist state. So in summary, Hungary is one of the oldest countries that could remain a country and preserve its cultural identity, its unique language for over a millennium now, which adapted to all kinds of challenges and weathered the storms of history. That makes us, in a very legitimate way proud of what we have achieved and confident that we can explain why these things are important for us.

We would like to defend and maintain the fundamental Western values, based on Judaism and Christian culture, and we are not just preaching wine and drinking water. This is what we do in our everyday activities. We have a very strong policy of family support. We believe in very basic and important values like family and nation. We are working together with our neighbors: working together in Visegrad 4, working together with our allies in the EU and in NATO. But we would also like to claim the right and defend the most important values that are important for Hungarians. Those responses and those changes can only come if the Hungarians themselves agree with this. This year is going to be very important for us in that perspective, not only because of the European elections but also symbolically with the celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1989, a major turn in Europe that of course was preceded also by other changes. If you look for example at Hungary’s case, it was Hungarians alone who turned this system around and who could launch for Hungary a constitutional, peaceful, anti-communist revolution. We were not aided by the promised military help from Western Europe in 1956, we didn’t get such support in 1989. We could rise up by ourselves and create a system where Hungarians finally after a brutal communist system could regain their independence and their freedom. It was Hungary, and you cannot say this for a lot of countries, where we had referenda, whether to join NATO and whether to join the EU and in both referenda the Hungarians were supporting this with a very large margin. We do believe in these alliances and we would like to see them prosper. The Hungarian position should also be respected in these alliances.

How does Hungary see the European future and the chances for Europe on even stronger success in the future?

I think the most important idea is that we would like to see a strong Europe based on strong nation states. I think Europe will only prosper if it has the richness and cultural diversity: from the Baltics through Portugal, from Scandinavia through the Balkans. I think Europe as a whole is complete only if it enjoys the cultural richness of democratic institutional traditions and cultural traditions of all of its member states. That is why it is sad that we will be losing very likely the direct voice of the UK. I think that is a mistake and that also reflects on the way why Europe needs reform and Europe needs to be attractive to all countries and should be able to find the common momentum.

Hungarians have a very special relationship to Europe. Before the break-up of the Soviet Union it was essentially Hungarians who formed the largest ethnic minority in Europe. Due to our very special history, 2020 will be another important and momentous year because we will have the 100th anniversary of the Versailles Peace System that reduced Hungary by 2/3 of its territory and by 1/3 of its population. The Hungarians bounced back even from that national tragedy and trauma. For us the diversity is important in all the states that surround us. The right of Hungarians to use their language and the rights of cultural communities is a very important principle that we always promote and advance. That is why we have such a good relationship with the German speaking community in Belgium because they enjoy all those rights and privileges that we would like the Hungarians to enjoy in every other country. Diaspora, a Greek word, is important for the Hungarians, because of course we have a lot of ethnic Hungarians who are living in the Carpathian basin close to Hungary, but due to various waves of history, for example 1956, we have large numbers of Hungarians living in Western Europe.

If I may, I would like to close this section by mentioning a very special, historical phenomena recurring in this country in the context of the Centenary Commemorations of the end of WWI, the Great War. It is always very touching because Belgium was at the Western front and in a different alliance than Hungarians who were fighting on the Eastern front. Still a few years after the Great War there was a crisis in Hungary: we had thousands of Hungarian children and orphans who were malnutritioned and lived in impoverished circumstances. Then thanks to the Child Saving Trains, run by the Catholic Church in Belgium, thousands of children could come for 6 months or a year and stay with local, Belgian families where they had a very nice, warm welcome and they could go back to Hungary enriched with the connections as well. Some of them stayed. And I still remember meeting in small Flemish villages with ladies, one of them was 104 years old, who are from that Era. So that is also a sign — and also one of the conclusions for the Future of Europe — that despite horrible tragedies there are individual, human stories that can really show us the light and show, if we work together and if we also respect where the other is coming from, how we do have then a European Future. In some way, and certainly an ill of today’s Europe is the opinion monopoly of a certain set of standard values which are perfectly fine and acceptable if they allow that other values can also be respected. And that is very important for us and that as an Ambassador is an important role for me to do.

This Diplomatic World Interview was taken by
Barbara Dietrich and Maarten Vermeir and transcribed
by Maarten Vermeir