Below is a translation of the controversial interview Gajus Scheltema, Dutch ambassador to Hungary, gave to Ágnes Lampé of the Hungarian weekly, 168 Óra. The translation was done by Aron Penczu of Great Britain, who kindly offered his help as the occasional translator of Hungarian texts that merit special attention. He deserves our thanks for all his work.
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Are you packing?
My life’s composed of arrivals and goodbyes. The former are a joy, the latter always sadden me a little.
You were not sad while writing the book.
Of course not. It’s how I gave thanks for my years here – I did the same at my previous posts.
How did you choose your interview subjects?
Rather than individuals I was looking for stories and apt places. The latter became your iconic Andrássy Street, which admirably symbolises Hungary’s rich history. I was able to attach a number of stories to it – like a Christmas tree with its glittering ornaments. I knew for instance that the Ferenc Hopp museum is on Andrássy Street, and I like its director, Györgyi Fajcsák, very much. I asked her to tell the story of where the Hungarians are from. The Dutch don’t have roots in this way – it matters less to us – but for Hungarians it’s very important.
The Turkish Institute is also on Andrássy Street, and I thought a specialist might initiate me into Hungarian-Turkish relations, since a kind of love-hate relationship has evolved between the two peoples. Finally I talked to Professor István Vásáry, formerly an ambassador to Turkey. By the end many different tales had emerged: we spoke of the Jews living on Andrássy Street until 1944, and the unusual fate of the aristocracy relocated from here in 1945.
The stories really are colourful, but the photographs are black and white.
This way there’s a contrast. Besides, in Hungary everything’s black and white.
What do you mean?
People are either on one side of an issue or another, there’s no intermediate position, that’s how it is in politics too. In Holland we’re always looking for compromise: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. The governing coalition comprises four-five parties, and each gives a little. The negotiations may take months but we find a compromise in the end. Here however only the pro and contra positions are possible – everyone’s either with us or against us. It’s a classically Marxist viewpoint.
Which evidently doesn’t appeal to you.
I wasn’t raised that way. And as a diplomat I certainly don’t think that way, I’m always seeking compromise, not someone to fight. Here by contrast everyone’s always looking for the enemy. Which dovetails with people’s historical experiences too. They’ve grown used to becoming enemies as soon as they disagree with those in power.
Is that why the campaign against migration and György Soros works here?
George Soros can be condemned for many things – it’s enough to mention his speculative deals. At the same time he deserves respect for investing enormous sums in democracy and building up civil society. That’s why for every foreigner the Hungarian government’s extraordinarily intensive and aggressive attack on him is, to put it mildly, strange.
The message is clear.
Yes, it’s easy to link it to migration, which itself is an exceptionally complex problem, there’s no black and white answer to it.
Do you have an answer?
First we need to distinguish refugees from economic migrants. But here the government considers everyone a migrant, and no one a refugee. We’re not speaking the same language. In addition, in Hungary there are no migrants, it’s a homogenous population. In the Netherlands, primarily because of our colonial past, there are many immigrants, we’re an open society, we accept new arrivals. It doesn’t matter if they’re Hungarian or Indonesian. Absurdly, the Hungarian government’s campaign works because when the danger is far away, it seems much larger.
Ambassador Gajus Scheltema with his book commemorating his stay in Hungary
The danger isn’t so distant: terrorist attacks have occurred in several countries in the European community, the other day it was in Barcelona that a fanatic drove into pedestrians.
Such attacks can happen anywhere – most are in the Middle East. Should we bomb the Middle East now? Here’s a group whose members are the losers in globalisation, so they’ve turned to extremism, to fanatical religiosity, because this gives them security. They create enemies on the same principles as the Hungarian government.
In April, after János Lázár spoke at a Hungarian Business Leaders Forum conference, Eric Fournier, the French Ambassador in Budapest, held up a ‘Let’s Stop Brussels!’ sign and asked: “What’s this? You’re using Hungarian taxpayer money to stop the capital of France’s neighbour?” And you reacted by saying that Hungary had welcomed more immigrants with residency bonds than it would have to according to the EU settlement quota.
Because it’s true.
You also added: the government poster sent the message that Hungary doesn’t want to be part of common EU solutions and prefers to be left out.
That’s a fact too. It’s a two-way street. It can’t be that some countries merely profit from EU money without a willingness to contribute and help with the challenges we face. The ‘Let’s Stop Brussels!’ signs are strange to the French and other ambassadors because they attack an organisation which was created, among other reasons, precisely to help your country. Moreover it wasn’t even Brussels but the European Council – that is, the member states – that decided on the issue of accommodating 1,300 refugees. This is all cheap propaganda. And most Hungarians know it.
Why do you think that?
The polls say unequivocally that Hungarians think positively about the EU.
As is also the case about Fidesz, which organised the anti-EU campaign: Orbán’s party is miles ahead.
Perhaps because for the moment there’s no suitable alternative. Someone who doesn’t want to vote for Fidesz can’t easily vote for anyone else.
In a 2014 interview you said that one of your goals is to embed Hungary further into the European Union. It seems you haven’t been able to do much.
On the contrary. We are in continuous discussions with the government, we work to convince its members. We devote a lot to spreading our viewpoint by supporting cultural events and through the media. We work to strengthen civil organisations, even those which are critical of the government. But that’s not why we do it – but rather because they do great work, regardless of what they think of the government.
The Hungarian Parliament recently passed a law that requires affected organisations to register themselves if their support from abroad totals at least 7.2 million forints. Meanwhile they’re constantly accused of being Soros-hirelings.
Indeed, I told some leaders of the civil organisations under assault: acknowledge proudly that the Dutch government supports you. And if the Hungarian government implies that some foreign background power or György Soros stands behind them with opaque financial manoeuvres, simply answer that this isn’t the case. We believe seriously in the same values as them, and we know that they fear for minorities, for the freedom of the press, and for a good number of other democratic issues.
You gave your last interview to the now-defunct Népszabadság.
Indeed, the opportunities grow ever narrower, ownerships change. What’s even more disquieting is that there isn’t a quality press even in the opposition, particularly in the field of investigative journalism. I’m always surprised by the absence of investigative journalism which is deep-reaching, which seeks out the essence of things and the underlying truths, in Hungary. If for instance a Dutch reporter writes about migration, he undoubtedly visits camps, talks to migrants, policemen, town mayors, and looks for data. Many Hungarian journalists I’ve met wrote underprepared, superficial stories. I know that politics has reached deep into the press, and it’s evident too that money is an important factor. But I still believed that with the disappearance of Népszabadság the other opposition papers would strengthen their position.
The state is blocking the opposition media’s income streams one by one – they’re fighting for survival.
It’s sad. Meanwhile the money-stuffed organs degenerate professionally.
In the aforementioned Népszabadság interview you were asked about the American travel ban scandal. One of the corruption-investigating American companies was led by a Dutch director who apparently asked for diplomatic help. This is how you put it: “If Dutch taxpayers hear that one of the supported European states’ governments is corrupt, they can feel with perfect legitimacy that they don’t want to finance it.”
The argument over what happens with our money is indeed growing ever fiercer. We can’t finance corruption, and we can’t keep a corrupt regime alive. At the same time we need to continue supporting underdeveloped areas – that’s solidarity. Economically Hungary still lags behind Western Europe, so we need to help. But in such a way that both the Hungarians and the Dutch are satisfied. We need to make the system much more transparent, accountable, and monitored. At the moment the money goes to local governments which can do whatever they want with it: that must be changed.
That won’t be easy. It hasn’t been managed yet.
Let me cite two examples – one from Holland, one from Great Britain. Migration and anti-Brussels sentiment are the two chief hobby-horses of extreme rightist Geert Wilders. He says: we don’t want to give taxpayers’ money to corrupt countries. He hasn’t named any, but it’s possible to guess who he’s referring to. And in the UK Brexit triggered an argument about who the Brits pay tax to and why. The problem wasn’t with immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan or India working there, but with the Poles, the Bulgarians, the Central-Eastern Europeans.
At times like this Péter Szijjártó says: we spend our money as we want, no one can interfere with Hungary’s internal affairs.
Dutch taxpayers’ money isn’t an internal affair – as no European taxpayer’s is.
When the other day the Austrian chancellor, referring to Hungary, said that the Union’s community of values “must not be confused with a cash machine,” Péter Szijjártó claimed the chancellor “is working to settle immigrants and execute the Soros-plan,” and Hungary will protect itself.
The Hungarian politicians in Brussels aren’t nearly so aggressive. Anger breaks out of them like this at home, when they’re speaking to their own voters. During my personal encounters with Péter Szijjártó we’ve always talked amicably. That too shows you needn’t take everything politicians say seriously.
It hadn’t even occurred to me.
Who do you keep in contact with from the Hungarian government?
I meet relatively regularly with ministers, though it’s true, some of them are unapproachable to me.
Mr. Varga [Minister of National Economy] is totally unreachable. But I conferred frequently with Péter Szijjártó, Zoltán Balog, László Trócsányi. To put it diplomatically: I’ve known countries where it’s easier to meet with decision-makers. The Prime Minister previously held annual meetings for ambassadors but has not for a few years. Clearly it’s no longer important to him.
Have you met him outside of it?
No. He didn’t want it, it’s his decision.
As a diplomat, what do you think of the scandal around the Csíki beer trademark and the compromise reached between Heineken Romania and the Csíki Beer Factory. At the time Dutch deputy ambassador Elzo Molenberg said: “What’s happening here isn’t a legal step but something else.” What else?
They created a political issue from a simple economic issue. But since Heineken became the main sponsor of the Ferencváros football team, the issue has been closed completely.
As is your four year-long assignment to Hungary.
I’ll miss the country. Especially the nature, the countryside. I travelled every weekend, tried to uncover Hungary’s hidden parts. I walked Petőfi’s path – the Great Hungarian Plain [Alföld] is my favourite, especially Kiskunság. I am a Kiskunság guy.
What do you like about it?
As an ornithologist I’m impressed by the fact that the world’s largest bustard population lives there. The territory’s wildlife is spectacular – truly unique and varied.
Given that you’ve lived in several countries, Kiskunság is an unusual choice for one of the world’s best places.
I know, but I still like it a great deal. I hope I don’t offend anyone in saying that after many excursions I may know the country better today than many Hungarians.
August 31, 2017