During a webinar address posted on social media, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó outlined his country’s priorities in developing a new relationship towards post-Brexit Britain. The tangible emphasis throughout his speech on what he called the “sad news” can be interpreted as an indirect criticism of the circumstances that had led to the departure of the UK from the European Union.
Péter Szijjártó had also emphasized the fact that Hungary has been especially affected by the UK’s departure, as the two countries have in the past seen eye to eye in a number of political issues. They had similar views, for example, on the future of the European Union. The two countries are known to have been vocal opponents to the recent doctrine of “ever closer union”, a federalist approach that would centralize the government of EU member states through nation states handing over legislative powers to Brussels.
The foreign minister has emphasized that importance of continuing business relationship between the two countries even after Brexit, as Britain remains Hungary’s 13th largest trade partner, and the number one destination of exports outside the EU. There are currently around 900 British companies in Hungary, employing 55,000 people. Among the largest are Tesco, Vodafone, Provident, Shell, BP, British Telecom, British American Tobacco, Glaxo Smith Kline, KPMG, and others.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, UK companies have not scaled back their activities in the country. On the contrary, five of these businesses that have drawn from the investment stimulus fund set aside by the Hungarian government, have in the past 12 months made a total of €5.5 billion investment in the country.
Szijjártó has acknowledged the fact that Brexit means extra expenses for both sides. As a result, the minster had pledged to support Hungarian companies with the implementation of the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement in such a manner that it should help these enterprises in overcoming the new challenges. At the Exim Bank, the government had deposited a €590 million fund especially designated for the cooperation between Hungarian and British businesses, with the aim of improving the competitiveness of Hungarian businesses in the UK. There is also a €40 million EU-Brexit adjustment fund reserved for Hungarian entrepreneurs.
The webinar marks the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In recent years, the government of Viktor Orbán was looking at a succession of British governments for a common voice against the ever-growing power of the EU bureaucracy, trying to steer the EU away from grabbing competences away from national legislatures. The two countries were the only ones in 2014 opposed to the choice of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission. Hungary was also advocating a non-punitive approach to the withdrawal agreement with Britain after the Brexit referendum in 2016, a minority stance among other EU members.
The main Hungarian governing party Fidesz may also end up joining the European Parliament group founded by Prime Minister David Cameron, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). As is known, to prevent the British public from punishing his government at a future EU membership referendum because of what many had perceived as an increasing amount of interference in British affairs by the EU bureaucracy, Cameron had in 2009 co-founded the center-left faction of the ECR. Its mission statement was to achieve more democratic accountability for the EU’s institutions, an emphasis on family values, a respect for the sovereignty of the EU member nation-states, opposition to federalism, and more efficient immigration control, among other objectives.
These goals are strongly reminiscent of the topics surfacing amid bitter debates among the Hungarian government and other EU leaders, which may prompt Fidesz, that had recently left the European People Party’s parliamentary faction, to apply for membership in the ECR.