Hungary Hoping to Sell Economic Good News

Int’l Relations

Hungary dusted off its glad rags, slapped on some make up and sashayed its way down a catwalk made for one on October 1 as the country sought to show off its seductive economic curves to international business.

In recent years, this country has proved highly adept at attracting foreign direct investment, with each year’s total succeeding that of the previous 12 months for the past five years. The country’s investment promotion agency, HIPA, has won several titles, most recently the Annual Investment Meeting Award for the Central, Eastern Europe & Turkey Region in Dubai in April.

Despite that, there has been frustration in government circles that Hungary isn’t getting sufficient credit for its economic success. Too often, the feeling goes, all that people abroad hear about Hungary is the political noise surrounding the country’s policies. The good news about its figures – record low unemployment, the second highest GDP growth in the EU for the first two quarters of 2019 – fails to cut through.

So it decided, for one day at least, not to fight fire with fire, to push the politics to one side and simply talk about the economics directly to an invited audience of those already investing in Hungary and those considering doing so, as well as a number of international journalists.

Called “Inspiring Hungary”, it was a day of keynote speeches (from Minister of Finance Mihály Varga and Governor of the National Bank of Hungary György Matolcsy), discussions (including one with Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó), round tables and TED Talk-type presentations. Both the German and American chambers of commerce were involved in organizing break out “cluster” sessions. The Budapest Business Journal was involved, because I was asked to be the moderator of the day, while the FT’s regional reporter, Valerie Hopkins, chaired one of the round tables.

Politics did not disappear completely. Szijjártó complained about what he called the hypocrisy of those who attack Hungary, citing the example of the EU’s Russia sanctions, during the imposition of which the V4 countries have lost millions of dollars, while bigger states like Germany and France have seen their exports to Russia grow, he said. 

In a later roundtable Levente Magyar, Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said Hungarians had not historically been good at selling their successes, and need to learn that skill, but he also blamed what he called the “liberal media” for constant attacks on the country.  

Talking to delegates at the event, there seemed to be broad agreement that the information provided had been informative and interesting, and HIPA officials I spoke to afterwards were certainly happy that the conference had achieved what it set out to do.  

For my money, the highlight was the very last session, which saw former French President Nicholas Sarkozy and former Spanish PM José María Aznar engage in a wide-ranging on-stage interview with Alexander Marguier, publisher and editor-in-chief of the German political magazine Cicero.  

The two former leaders, friends who shared clear chemistry, spoke passionately in defense of a European Union that respected the separate cultures and traditions of its member states, and of a “crisis of leadership” in politics. Without naming names, Aznar bemoaned what he saw as a lack of quality in those drawn to public service nowadays. Sarkozy was more to the point, saying Boris Johnson is worse than Donald Trump, because the U.S. President has no ideology and is all about “the deal”, which means you can at least negotiate with him, while the U.K. Prime Minister is an ideologue.

Robin Marshall



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