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Cornstein: ‘Hungary the Best Kept Secret’

“Good as you have been, you can do a hell of a lot better.” These were the uncomplicated if challenging words U.S. Ambassador David B. Cornstein left with guests as the public part of an AmCham business forum closed on September 4.

Dr. László Szabó (left) and David B. Cornstein. Photo by Hajnalka Hurta/AmCham

Cornstein urged AmCham members to “really ensure you do more business with the United States, because it is there for you”. Cornstein and his Hungarian opposite number, Dr. László Szabó, were at AmCham for the now traditional forum that sees the two ambassadors brought together.

This was the first time Cornstein had spoken to AmCham’s membership, and he was in jovial mood. “This is a very, very impressive audience here today,” he quipped. “As a businessman, I don’t know how much they are charging you, but I would charge double!”

He told members: “Hungary is the best kept secret in the world – especially in America. It is not the first location you think of when travelling, and it is the last place you think of doing business.” Hungary had not done a good enough job in marketing itself, its “phenomenal workforce”, relatively low cost labor, “ridiculously low, thank God” corporate tax rate and its business minded government.

“You are leaving so much on the table it is not even funny. If you worked for me, you’d have one foot out of the door by now!” He felt businesses should be looking at least at 10% gains for next year.

Priority Issues

Beyond business, the life-long New Yorker laid out what he sees as four priority issues where he wants to see progress or to help smooth relations: defense spending; energy dependency; Ukraine; and the Central European University.

He was particularly blunt about the latter two. Saying he did not believe Russia would have invaded Crimea had Ukraine been a member of NATO, he pointed out that geography meant it was in Hungary’s interests to have the best relationship possible with Ukraine. He did not personally like the law Ukraine had passed on the language used in education, which prohibits Hungarian and has angered the government here to the extent it has threatened to veto NATO expansion talks, but it is the law, he said.  

“What language has to do with NATO I have no idea. They should not be linked together, but there it is.” He added, however, that “we are very close to hopefully solving that”, adding that he would do whatever he could to help.

On the CEU, he pointed out that at least 25 senators had asked him what was going to happen with the university at his hearing prior to becoming ambassador.  

“I think I am close to solving it. […] The university is not going to go away.” Certainty was needed however, if CEU was to continue to attract students and keep its professors. Were the university to relocate to Vienna, it would be bad “for the city, for the country and for the government”, Cornstein warned.

‘Beyond Important’

On the issue of energy dependency, which he described as “beyond important”, the U.S ambassador recalled that in the not so distant past, the United States had been dependent on oil from the Middle East. Hungary had to find a way to access non-Russian supplies, and work was ongoing to make sure it was no longer 80% dependent on one source.

“I don’t care what the names of the two countries are, it is wrong,” he said.

Defense was perhaps a surprising priority, given how close the two countries are, but Cornstein had in mind one very specific area, the Defense Cooperation Agreement, under which Hungary will be given USD 55 million to be spent on upgrading Hungarian Air Force runways. The final hurdle appears to be over who has jurisdiction over the workers doing the work, but the ambassador pointed out there was some urgency as “that money goes away at the end of September” if there is no agreement.

Ultimately, Cornstein said he was optimistic about all four of his immediate priorities. “These are not for the benefit of the American ambassador, or the U.S. government, but for the benefit of Hungary.”

László Szabó, Hungary’s ambassador to the United States, said that in the year since he last spoke to AmCham (as then ambassador-designate), “a lot of things have moved, changed and improved; there is progress in our relationship”.

The ambassador noted how close U.S. and Hungarian policies are in many fields, and said he was pleased this “conservative approach to the world has been paying off big time”.

Businesswise, the bilateral relationship continues to blossom, Szabó said. “Trade has never been better: in just the last quarter, exports expanded by more than 6%, and imports also grew by more than 4%.”

‘Most Exciting’

Echoing Cornstein’s comments on energy dependency, Szabó recalled that one year ago he had said if American LNG could find its way to Hungary during his five year posting he would consider it a success. Potential sources via proposed LNG terminals in ports in Poland and Croatia continue to be explored, he said, while (“probably most exciting”) a new source on Romania’s Black Sea is being explored by U.S. company ExxonMobil.

“Once imports get started, we can get rid of Russian dominance in our market. That will be a great breakthrough, and I certainly think it is realistic,” the Hungarian ambassador said.

One new announcement he made concerned the November 15 ground breaking ceremony for an innovation center and incubation house on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Washington D.C. for Hungarian startups who want to “invade” the American market. Entrepreneurs had told Szabó they need “a roof over our heads, a desk, Wi-Fi and coffee: this much we can provide”.

The embassy is also building a business case for the United States to grant opportunities for Hungarian investors to visit on B1 and B2 visas through what is being called the HUSSAR (Hungary-United States Supporting Advanced Relations) Act, which would make Hungarian nationals eligible to enter the United States as nonimmigrant traders and investors if Hungary provides reciprocal nonimmigrant treatment to U.S. nationals.

In trade, culture and defense, Hungary and the United States have long been close allies, Szabó noted. “The political relationship between the two countries has also started to grow tremendously.”