Loves Trump, reform EU, loves HK: Hungary’s foreign minister

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Rationality, not high moral aspiration, is key to good foreign policymaking, says minister Péter Szijjártó.

(Photo credit: Zsolt Burger)

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó vows continued Hungarian participation in the Asian market while sharing his not-so-old-school thoughts on international politics.

In his brief stay in Hong Kong on 1 December, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó met with Financial Secretary John Tsang, Secretary for Development Paul Chan and the Permanent Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Philip Yung on bilateral economic cooperation.

“Hong Kong and Hungary are the two end points of the modern silk road. That gives us an opportunity to cooperate with Hong Kong and helps bring investment of Hong Kong companies to Europe,” Mr Szijjártó says, noting that negotiations on a bilateral agreement on investment protection are already under way. “Hong Kong is undoubtedly the Number One location for financial services, and we seek to build a strong cooperation between our economies.”

Hungary offers the lowest personal income tax and corporate tax in the European Union with a flat rate of 15% and 9% respectively, in addition to a favourable labour cost-productivity ratio. On the agri-product front, Hungary has reached a new agreement to expand its fast-growing food export industry to include lamb and rabbit meat exports to Hong Kong.

Mr Szijjártó also signed a bilateral working holiday deal, the 11th of its kind that Hong Kong has signed, with Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung for young people from each side to stay up to 12 months and work to finance their stay. The official meetings were followed by a classroom naming ceremony at Marymount Secondary School after renowned Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Bartók, where the minister was greeted with a choir performance sung in Hungarian.

“Hungary has launched the Eastern Opening policy in 2010 which has proved to be very successful,” he says. “We want to strengthen our participation in the competition for investments from this region and to maintain this very pragmatic political relationship with the countries here.”

Before arriving in Hong Kong, the minister was on an official visit to China to discuss Hungary’s role under the Belt and Road initiative. In particular, the two sides were looking into modernising a rail link between Belgrade and Budapest with Chinese financial support in order to facilitate flows of Chinese goods into Eastern Europe.

Small country, big stance

Unlike most foreign ministers, Mr Szijjártó, aged 38, is exceptionally young by his position, matched only by his counterpart Sebastian Kurz from the neighbouring Austria, and is willing to take on criticisms in defence of his country’s increasingly nationalist stance.

“We are fed up with those who would like to educate us on how to accommodate our lives, so the last thing I would do is to interfere into the political system of any other country. Hungary will always respect the decision of people of other countries. I never leave any kind of accusations or criticisms on Hungary without reaction. As you respect other countries we expect them to respect us as well,” he asserts. “As a small nation, we cannot afford to have foreign affairs just to for the sake of having foreign affairs. That’s why I see foreign policy as an instrument, not a target, to realise national economic interests.”

The minister expresses excitement when asked to comment on Donald Trump’s victory: “We are very happy with Donald Trump winning in the US. It’s a great news.”

“The foreign policy of the current [US] administration caused a lot of troubles to the world. As Americans put the export of democracy into the focus of their foreign policy, and that caused many problems that led to mismanagement of international issues and destabilisation of many regions,” he says. “I like politicians with a rational approach. Under current circumstances when there are so many changes and uncertainties in the world, rationality is really important. If there are decisions made on emotional basis that will be bad decisions.”

Regarding Brexit, Mr Szijjártó notes that while he respects the decision of the British people, it is a “huge political and economic loss for Europe” and it “proves that the European Union must be reformed profoundly” to rebalance the positions between Brussels and its member states.

Mr Szijjártó was in Hong Kong in 2013 to officiate the reopening of the Hungarian Consulate General as State Secretary for Foreign Affairs and External Economic Relations of the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Last three years have proved that It was a very good decision to reopen our Consulate General here.

I understand that without personal presence, you cannot realise interests. With the Consulate General, we have reached many successes in upgrading our bilateral relationship economically and politically.”