Ambassador Keen to Help With 1st Contact and Beyond
- September 16, 2019
“Whenever I come to meet AmCham, I come home,” László Szabó told guests at the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest on August 29. Before his career as a public servant, Szabó had worked for a couple of AmCham member companies, serving as vice president of Eli Lilly and CEO of Teva Hungary.
“Once I even ran for board membership, but failed,” he recalled to laughter. “Obviously there was a very high standard, but I am very impressed by what you do.” He said AmCham and the German-Hungarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce were the two “most representative” business associations in Hungary.
“Quite clearly you know your business, you know why you are here, and you know Hungary,” he told the leaders present.
Szabó said the political relationship with the United States had been completely restored, helped by a U.S. decision to reengage with Central and Eastern Europe. Previously, America had made clear it was setting the agenda.
“We were told how to behave and lead our lives,” the ambassador complained. “More positive things have happened in the last two years than in the last 10-15 years in the political arena,” he said.
He gave credit for the U.S. change of heart over the region to Wes Mitchell, the foreign policy expert who was the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs from October 2017 until February 2019 and “who probably knows more about the Habsburg Empire than anyone in this room”.
Szabó said the new policy had been based on “how to reengage allies of the United States and how to work together to avoid global threats” from the likes of China and Russia. Ministerial visits had followed the policy pivot, culminating in the White House meeting between President Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán.
“I believe that meeting to have over-exceeded everyone’s expectations, on both sides,” the ambassador said. “The meeting lasted two times longer than planned, and there was clear chemistry between the two leaders.”
But improved relations are not just down to the ushering in of the Trump administration in Washington D.C. in 2017; Hungary’s impressive economic growth is also a factor.
“Prime Minister Orbán reminds us all the time that without a strong economy, you cannot have a strong voice in politics.”
Although Hungarian companies could struggle with meeting capacity demands in the United States, quality should not be an issue, the ambassador said. “I am delighted to inform you that the most expensive wine in the Trump Hotel is a Tokaj from Hungary.”
There has been a 6.8% increase in bilateral trade volume, with Hungarian exports growing by 11% in the first five months of the year. U.S. businesses have a total of USD 12.4 billion in investments “clicking and ticking” in Hungary, and employed 105,000 people in the country, the ambassador said.
Even so, his trips around the United States left him certain “we still have a lot of unfulfilled opportunities” and that there was “incredible openness” to make further deals with Hungary.
And the embassy is doing its bit to help. A Business Promotion and Development Campus has been built in a repurposed building in the grounds of the former Hungarian Embassy on Spring of Freedom Street (Szabó described the real estate as a “really ugly building” but among the most valuable owned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
The idea is to give startups looking to break into the American market the three things the ambassador said entrepreneurs had told him they needed most initially: “Accommodation, Wi-Fi and coffee”. Through its networks the embassy could help establish “first contact”, the ambassador said, but after that the startups must have something of value to offer investors to get a second meeting.
“We can also help you make your business case if you are fighting with HQ for an investment,” Szabó told the local heads of U.S. multinationals.
Connectivity between the States and Hungary has improved, with direct flights from Budapest to New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. “Unfortunately, Washington is still out of the picture though, as my wife never fails to bug me,” the ambassador joked.
Szabó acknowledged there were challenges ahead, not least the threat of a U.S.-China trade war, and the possibility that the EU could also become a tariff target. Hungary clearly stands by free trade, the ambassador said but he believed there is a “serious desire” to find a resolution on both sides, although there is little Hungary can do, beyond hoping a solution can be found
“Whenever big empires fight, small countries are never on the winning edge of the result,” the ambassador remarked dryly.
This story first appeared in the Budapest Business Journal of September 6, 2019.