Isabelle Poupart has been Ambassador of Canada to Hungary, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina since August 2016. In an exclusive interview with the Budapest Business Journal, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation, she shared her thoughts on thriving bilateral trade relations and tourism, as well as the positive contributions of the many Hungarians who have a personal link to the North American country.
Canada does not make headlines often in Hungary, but there must be a lot happening on the diplomatic front.
Hungary and Canada are not only NATO allies, but also long-time friends. One important factor behind this relationship is that some 340,000 Canadians have Hungarian roots, which is close to 1% of the population. Many came after the 1956 revolution, the 60th anniversary of which was commemorated by a series of events in Canada with celebrations in Montréal and at various places all over the country. The high point was the visit of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó to Ottawa on the actual day of the anniversary. But this is just one example; we have a regular schedule of visits. Recently, on the margins of an OECD conference in Paris, Mr. Szijjártó had talks with our Minister of International Trade, François-Philippe Champagne, while the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs, Zsolt Németh is traveling to Canada at the end of June.
On trade relations, the EU-Canada Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement, CETA, is around the corner. Canadian direct investment to Hungary already amounts to USD 3.6 billion, which makes Hungary the fifth largest recipient of Canadian FDI in the EU. Are you expecting this figure to grow thanks to CETA?
In a few weeks it is expected that CETA will become provisionally applied; in fact, 98% of its provisions will apply immediately from the date of its entry into force. The ratification process is ongoing. Some EU states have already ratified it, and we expect Hungary to proceed in due course. What matters most is that Hungarian and Canadian companies and investors will benefit from it tremendously. Take the example of Linamar, an automotive parts manufacturer and one of the largest Canadian investors here. The current tariff of 6.1% applicable to its goods will be gone completely. Not only ongoing economic activity in both countries will profit from this development, but it should also provide an extra incentive for new projects.
Apart from automotive, what other trade areas promise to thrive?
There is great potential in agri-food, ICT and the oil and gas sectors, not to mention the area of security. These are the industries we are monitoring with a view to providing advice to Canadian investors and companies in close cooperation with our Hungarian colleagues.
The hype around CETA, together with the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation, seems like the perfect occasion to better educate people about Canada.
My core tasks as Ambassador of Canada are to promote Canadian interests and to project Canadian values while advancing the relationship between Canada and Hungary. Canada’s 150th anniversary gives us a perfect occasion to engage with Hungarians, including by being more active on social media In February, for instance, we organized a special “Canadian Night” at the ice rink in the Budapest City Park. Anybody showing up with a distinctively Canadian sign like a hockey jersey or a maple leaf, got a voucher for a warm drink. This was also meant to portrait our country as it is: Friendly, open to the world, and diverse.
Canada should be among the top destinations for talented students. Is there a plan to forge closer relationships in terms of academia as well?
A dedicated effort by our trade team aims to promote Canadian universities as a destination of choice for ever more young Hungarians. We already have some ongoing programs, but more is under way. We also have a dense network of local “Canadianists” here who teach Canadian subjects through various aspects such as literature, sociology and language. They are great ambassadors for the Canadian culture.
What significance can the direct Budapest-Toronto air route, launched last year, have for the future? Was it deliberately scheduled to serve as a prelude to the Independence Day hype around 2017?
Actually, it has been expanded this year as now there are six flights per week between the two cities. It is the only direct route from Budapest to a North American destination for the time being, and I believe both tourists and businesspeople will benefit from it greatly. I understand that packages are extremely popular with Canadians that include the flight and a cruise on the Danube. Hungary has a strong touristic appeal, and people like to come here. What I tell everybody, though, is that they should not limit themselves to Budapest, but also visit other regions of your beautiful country.
What practical advice would you give first-time tourists planning to visit Canada?
Visitors to Canada should not be afraid of long distances and exploring the various parts of the country. When I started my career as a diplomat, I had the opportunity to go on a study tour across Canada and it was an incredibly rewarding experience to see how diverse Canada is. To this day, it makes me a better representative of my country. So, go to the Rockies, visit Montréal or the 1,000 Islands Natural Park, travel from coast-to-coast. That is how you get a real feeling for Canada’s beauty.
Affection works both ways. According to a study by the European Travel Commission in 2012, Canadians made some 0.4 million trips to the CEE region.
There is a natural connection between our two nations. Since the day I arrived here, I have been amazed at how many people have personal links to Canada. Wherever I go, I happen to meet someone who either has relatives or has studied there, or has some kind of other emotional attachment to our country. And it fills me with pride to see how positively we are regarded. It also feels great to promote such a positive brand as Canada.