– This is my fourth or fifth interview with you, which in itself proves that you have been one of the most active ambassadors in Budapest in the last few decades. Do you believe this activity has contributed to the strengthening of ties between the United Kingdom and Hungary?
– I suppose the proactivity comes from three causes. The first one is that this is just who I am. I don’t believe in sitting in an office. They say that ambassadors are sent abroad to represent their country. I don’t think an ambassador can do that sitting in an office. The ambassador is the public face of a country.
– So the activity doesn’t only stem from your duty, but also from your personality?
– Yes, that is my style, but there is also a strong expectation from the part of the Foreign Office that ambassadors do promote the UK. We have a global status that requires us to be out there. We’re the fifth largest economy in the world, the second largest in Europe, we’re a member of the UN Security Council, and a leading European member of NATO in terms of the contribution we make. Of course there are issues, whether it be the green agenda, our work on fighting modern slavery through to a whole range of rights issues where we are global leaders. There is also a third element to this. It has been particularly important in the context of Brexit to show that we are leaving the European Union, but we’re not leaving Europe.
I am very conscious of the fact that our departure from the European Union has hurt Hungarian national interests. But we’ve done that because we’re protecting our own national interests.
Your leadership has been very clear that Hungary is losing a very important friend in the European Union. There’s been a huge amount of media in Europe and some in Britain that has basically said since the referendum, that the result was a mistake. Your government was the only government who put an advert in the British media saying: „it’s your decision, but we would like you to stay”. We need to be self-aware as diplomats that there are a whole bunch of people in this country who are deeply sad that we’re leaving the European Union. So I felt it was really important to show that we still regard Hungary as a close friend and ally, and to reassure everyone about the steps we have taken to protect the rights of Hungarian citizens living in the UK. We’re still here.
My embassy hasn’t shut up shop either on the 31st January, nor will it do so later on.
So for all of those reasons I have felt it has been necessary to really make an effort to be out there. For all the pomp and circumstance, the pictures of the Queen, Buckingham Palace, Trooping the Colour, there is another aspect of Britain which is that we’re actually a very down-to-earth country, where a lot of people from around the world feel at home there. My duties are not only about meeting Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian foreign minister, but being the sponsor of Budapest Beer Week, or taking part in the Hungarian Interchurch Aid’s charity run, being on stage at the Palace of Arts (Müpa), helping the Scottish football fans to contribute money to renovate a nursery in Józsefváros. Our embassy is not just a foreign government’s office, we’re not just nice diplomats living a nice life in Rózsadomb, but I and my team and my embassy are part of this community.
– Your four and a half year term here in Budapest was defined by Brexit. You arrived a few months before the 2016 referendum and will leave a few months before the United Kingdom and the European Union hopefully agree on a free trade deal. How different has your term here been because of Brexit compared to your stay in Bucharest for example?
– It’s difficult to say, because I’d have to try to imagine what life would have been like here as an ambassador without Brexit. When I applied for the job in the summer of 2014, Brexit wasn’t on the cards, a referendum wasn’t on the cards. So I wanted to strengthen the bilateral relationship, keeping in mind that we’ve never had so many Hungarians living in the UK. In a way, Brexit has added an extra layer of difficulty in terms of the sheer quantity of work involved, in terms of explaining why we made the decision to leave the European Union, what our position was during the withdrawal negotiations, and explaining the several months of parliamentary uncertainty. What it did do is that our decision to leave the European Union has made it even more important that we put greater emphasis on trying to strengthen the bilateral relationship. After Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, certain elements of the bilateral relationship dissapeared because they were being dealt with in Brussels. My aim and objective was that by the time we leave the European Union, our bilateral relationship is in a better place. I think the defence relationship with Hungary is significantly better – I can very much thank the two Hungarian ministers of defence, István Simicskó and Tibor Benkő for that. The economic relationship is stronger, there are more British companies here, more people working for them. There are more young Hungarian companies expanding into the UK.
Politically the relationship remains very good. No other European Union country has been as sympathetic, supportive or as honourable as Hungary.
– Are you satisfied with the way the Brexit process has evolved?
– Obviously we had our delay in our departure, which was originally meant to be at the end of March 2019, but eventually we ended up with a withdrawal agreement. It would have been good if we could have stuck to our original plans, but as they say, that’s democracy, folks. It was difficult for the Theresa May minority government to get the legislation through parliament. Many of my friends in Europe thought the Westminster political debates were some sort of theatre or comedy circus. Actually, I thought it was a perfect example of democracy in action. Obviously the delay has meant that the amount of time available to negotiate a free trade agreement has been curtailed.
I’m not sure whether some members of the European Union understand that we want to be a sovereign, independent nation.
That means continuing to be a rule-taker from Brussels or Strasbourg or Luxembourg cannot be part of the equation. The European Union are saying that unless there is progress on fisheries and on competition, we cannot make progress in other areas. Unless the European Union takes a more pragmatic approach, there is obviously the risk that we won’t reach an agreement.
– What were your most memorable moments in Budapest?
– I’ve loved being here, I’ve loved working here. I’ve hugely appreciated the chance to get to know Hungary, to learn the language, to get to know people. I’ve enjoyed Hungarian hospitality and friendship and the Hungarian way of life. I’ll miss Hungary, but I know that it’s very much a case of Viszontlátásra (see you again), not goodbye. The last six months have been difficult. The worst moment of the four and a half years was the death of my deputy, Steven Dick at the end of March from coronavirus. That had a huge impact not just on me personally, but also on my team in the embassy, the British community, and the outpouring of grief and sympathy from the Hungarian community was just huge. Probably my proudest moment was leading the March of the Living last year, with 10 to 15,000 people commemorating Jane Haining, the Scottish holocaust hero. Another highlight was being asked by the Brisith Maccabi team to lead their team into the stadium and to hold the flag at last year’s Maccabi Games. Similarly getting the opportunity to perform at the Palace of Arts (Müpa) with the Danubia Orchestra Óbuda, reading in Hungarian the lyrics of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. And even just recently getting a short chance to go on stage during the Puskás musical. Seeing Scotland win against Hungary, I’m sorry to say, in the friendly match a couple of years ago was also great.
– I am by no means offended that you were happy for Scotland’s victory. What are your thoughts however about Ferencváros beating the Scottish champions Celtic not so long ago in Glasgow?
– As a Rangers and Debrecen fan, I would have been very happy for a goalless draw. Well done, Ferencváros! It wasn’t good news for Scottish football for Celtic to lose so early in the Champions’ League. I was very pleased for my friend Ádám Bogdán, the new Ferencváros goalkeeper, who played in Scotland for Hibernian.
– Having mentioned football and Ferenc Puskás, I believe it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that Puskás is the most well-known Hungarian in the world. In the past four and a half years what were some of the historical events or historical figures, whose lives have particularly caught your interest?
– First of all the man who built this house (the interview was conducted in the residency of the British ambassador), Tibor Scitovszky. The British government bought the portrait, that had been painted of him in this house. Tibor Scitovszky was a Hungarian diplomat involved in the negotiations in Trianon, he was briefly the Hungarian foreign minister, and I’ve gotten to know the story of him and his wife, Hanna. They emigrated to the USA after World War II when it was clear that the Communists were going to be the dominant figures. Their portraits were painted by another Hungarian who has not been very well known in Hungary, Philip de László, who was the greatest portrait painter of the first half of the last century. He painted popes, presidents, prime ministers, emperors, kings and queens.
I’ve gotten to know more about poets like Miklós Radnóti and Gyula Juhász, whose works I’ve got to know courtesy of one of my Hungarian teachers in Debrecen, who said to me: we’ve done enough politics, we need a little bit more Hungarian culture for you.
That’s how I started getting interested in Hungarian poetry. I suppose particularly Sándor Petőfi has a huge place in Hungarian history, and Robert Burns is regarded as the Scottish Petőfi. There are many connections between Scotland and Hungary through literature, poetry and culture. I got to know a lot more about people like István Széchenyi and Gyula Andrássy who previously were just names I had seen but didn’t know much about. Thanks to Széchenyi of course we have this fantastic connection with Britain and the Lánchíd (Chain Bridge), which is a very much bigger version of the chain bridge at Marlow, which he had seen.
– You talk about connections between Scotland and Hungary. Is Hungary in any way present in the minds of Scottish people today?
– The oldest link between Scotland and Hungary is Saint Margaret of Scotland. Born in Hungary to saxon political emigrées, who had fled England because of the Danish conquest. She married a Scottish king and is revered in Scotland as the only Scottish royal saint. Schools, universities, colleges are named after her. The oldest building in Edinburgh is the Saint Margaret’s Chapel in Edinburgh Castle. The Lánchíd (Chain Bridge) was designed by William Clark, but the guy that everyone remembers and got the square named after him is Adam Clark who was the chief engineer on the project. He’s from Edinburgh. The Scottish Church has been here in Hungary since 1841. The reformation links between Debrecen and Edinburgh are still current. Although the Scottish community here is obviously smaller than the English community, the Scots here are much more organised. The Robert Burns Foundation has raised over a million euros for Hungarian children’s charities and hospitals. I think Scots have a particular affinity with Hungary. We’re proudly independent as you are, and we’re proud of who we are. Never before have so many Hungarians lived in the UK. In 1956 20 to 22,000 Hungarian refugees made the UK their home. In the last decade 120 to 140,000 Hungarians have made the UK their home. I’m really hoping that that community can be a strong link between the two countries.
– What is your favourite place in Hungary?
– My favourite town is Szeged, my favourite region would be the Balaton-felvidék. In Budapest there are too many places to mention. A very special place is the Gellért Hill on an evening and you see this fantastic city lit up in the dark. It’s just astonishing. It is also a joy to get the number 2 tram from Margaret Bridge to the Great Market Hall. That’s just fairytale stuff.
– Are there any particular Hungarian foods you’ve enjoyed?
– I’ve enjoyed too much Hungarian food. Gulyás soup is my favourite, there’s a wonderful restaurant called Márkus Vendéglő which is down near Mammut shopping centre, and almost every Saturday in winter I go down there and I need my spicy paprika to heat me up a bit more. My three favourite cakes in no particular order are Esterházy cake, flódni and Epres kardinális. The latter is a Debrecen special at the Mandula cake shop, which I used to go to every Sunday when I was in Debrecen to learn Hungarian. My life in Hungary seems to have been dictated by cake, wine, pálinka and food.
– What is your favourite Hungarian wine region?
– I think probably Szekszárd. It’s got a great range of wines, everything from big reds to to excellent rosé. I think that wines are Hungary’s best kept secret. Astonishing quality. Selfishly, living in Hungary, I’m glad that you don’t export a lot more wine.
– You’ve switched to speaking Hungarian a few times during this interview. How well do you feel you have learnt our language?
– It has become more natural. I like the fact that when I find that it’s too difficult, I’ll shift into English and then back into Hungarian. It makes life very difficult for interpreters.