Home truths from Hungary

Britain faces a bright future after Brexit, says Budapest’s departing ambassador, but Hungary has to remain in the EU

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Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky: Hungary, he says, is a “devout and committed member” of Nato and the EU (©PjrNews / Alamy Stock Photo)

Hungary is a lode-star for some British conservatives. Its government is unabashedly patriotic, sceptical of outside meddling, fervently committed to curbing illegal migration, tussling with the European Union—and seemingly impervious to criticism by the mainly left-wing international media.

As Hungary’s ambassador to London for the past four years, Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky has spent most of his tenure dealing with Brexit. Not that Hungary wants to follow Britain’s example; public opinion is strongly pro-EU and his government hoped that Britain would stay. Losing 40 per cent of the EU’s security capabilities and its second largest economy was “clearly a loss”, he says. But within the EU, he says—speaking in the final hours of time as ambassador—Hungary is now winning the argument. Hungarian politicians were treated as the “villains of Europe” for their tough stance on migration. But now: “Many of the nations now share our stance of protecting our borders and seeing that where migration happens it is on a legal and controlled basis.” There is still a lot to do. “Increasingly we think, as a confidence-gaining central European country, that our traditional Christian values should be put back again in the centre of ideological and political thinking.” Such a core is profoundly lacking in Europe.

He credits his country with developing a  social model next to its successful economic model, which is where Christianity comes in: “It is written in Christianity’s moral code that you support the family and you raise children to be co-operating and useful members of society.”

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, made his name as a fervent anti-communist. Now the country comes under criticism for its friendly ties to China and Russia. The ambassador is pragmatic. “One cannot change the number of one’s house within a street.” He says that he grew up for 18 years under Soviet occupation, and remembers it “very vividly”; and given that background, and Hungary’s reliance on Russia for energy, he believes that “for us the co-operation with Russia is an inevitability, and it is not a moral and ideological question”. Opprobrium should be directed elsewhere. Other countries—notably Germany—have far closer trade and political ties. “If you go to St Petersburg for an international fair you hear more German spoken than Russian.” Hungary, he says, is a “devout and committed member” of Nato and the EU. It respects all sanctions on Russia, in letter and in spirit.

I ask him how he sees Britain’s future relationship with Hungary after Brexit. “I think Britain stands in front of the gates of the grandest opportunities for centuries, once all passed through the current process. I greatly look forward to that. Now, the work starts. Your economic, scientific, security, cultural imprint, impact and influence on the world are grand and growing. It should bring about a truly robust and global Britain.”

He stresses that Hungarians “come from a more and more successful and more and more confident region, and I think there are huge opportunities in co-operation between Great Britain and the central European region and, within that, Hungary.” In his post-ambassadorial life—a political appointee, aged not yet 50, he is returning to his business career—he will, he says, pursue such opportunities.

Does he not, though, foresee more tensions between his self-confidently conservative country and a Brussels elite that seems rooted in more progressive values? “We are often labelled as populists. It is a funny word. As Viktor Orbán has said: ‘Populists are those who promise people things and then don’t deliver on them. Those who promise and then deliver are democrats.’ Our government promised things and it over-delivered in a number of senses.”

He claims the success of Orbán government has brought about “our unexpected confidence,” replacing earlier assumptions that Hungary would be content with being a “junior member who followed the others”. Instead, “now we come up with suggestions—an economic model, a competitive tax system, a very forward-looking and sustainable social system”. He mentions his government’s recent climate change action plan as another measure of innovative thinking. “We don’t ask others to follow, but we do expect that, having thought these things out, we should be shown the respect of being allowed to go through with them.”

Another source of friction with Brussels is Hungary’s highly competitive tax system. As in the case of Ireland, Brussels is concerned that Hungary may be engineering an advantage when it comes to attracting business and encouraging prosperity. “I think that if we maintain competition among European countries on various levels, such as on tax and wages, and don’t bring all that into an equal and artificial and forcefully equalised conglomerate, then you actually help our international and global competitors greatly. Because internal competition will keep us on our toes in the big race.”

Before turning the voice recorder off, I ask Szalay-Bobrovniczky if anything has changed his outlook on life, or diplomacy, as a result of his time in London. This brings him back to Brexit. “If strong individuals, families, nations set their minds to do something after their own internal debates and controversies, then there is a way to go forward and change the world around you.”

Referring to the scepticism over Britain’s future triggered by Brexit, he asserts: “Bit by bit, and by the robust nature of the British political and cultural system, she slowly overcomes that—and reaches a point where she sets an example, a moral example, not by exiting, but by taking a decision and daring to go forward with it, and to take the best out of it. I have huge respect for that.”