Hungarian Foreign Affairs is serious about its southern “strategy”

I put the word “strategy” in quotation marks for a reason. When Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szijjártó, gathered together his increasingly rag-tag group of lackeys and personal football friends-turned-ambassadors and diplomats earlier this month to announce, alongside Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the ministry’s decision to replace its policy of “opening to the east” with a new “opening to the south” mantra, there had been absolutely no analysis or background studies conducted that would have indicated that this made sense for the country. A couple of weeks ago when I was in Budapest, I met with a range of people previously involved with Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including a former foreign minister and several former ambassadors. Everyone was on exactly the same page when it came to this new-found southern strategy: it was a red herring, designed to deflect attention from the miscalculation of the Orbán government’s alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as well as the country’s badly damaged relationship with key regional partners (such as Germany and Poland), and the dismal relations with western powers in general.

But, alas, Mr. Szijjártó is pushing ahead with his süd-politik, even though Hungary’s trade and economic interests in Latin America and Africa have traditionally been negligible. According to a study compiled by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office (KSH), out of Hungary’s 10 most important trade partners (in terms of Hungarian exports), nine are members of the European Union and fully a quarter of all export products are sold to Germany. Italy and Poland are also important markets for Hungarian exports, both having shown clear signs of growth in recent years, while Austria, Romania and Slovakia continue to be among the top 10 destinations for Hungarian goods. Russia is the only non-EU country that is among the top 10 when it comes to being an important destination of Hungarian export products.

While 66% of Hungarian export products end up in the countries that form KSH’s “top 10,” only 1.3% of Hungary’s exports end up in Africa and 4.4% in the Americas. In the latter case, the United States accounts for the bulk of this trade.

Regardless, Mr. Szijjártó is pushing ahead in Latin America. This past weekend, he opened a Hungarian National Trade House in Santiago de Chile and met with local business leaders, shaking hands as well with Chile’s foreign minister, Heraldo Muñoz. Mr. Szijjártó told Hungary’s state-run news agency, MTI, that much like under his leadership in the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, economic interests also drive Chile’s foreign policy. Mr. Szijjártó added that he wants to help Hungarian small and medium-sized businesses tap into the Chilean market and that Hungary’s state-run Eximbank will establish a US $299 million credit line to help build business ties between the two countries. The Hungarian foreign ministers expects the energy sector, as well as the food processing industry and mining to be the key players in trade between Hungary and Chile.

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó (left) with Chilean counterpart Heraldo Muñoz (right). Photo: Francisco Leon Puga.

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó (left) with Chilean counterpart Heraldo Muñoz (right). Photo: Francisco Leon Puga.

When it comes to Chile, one cannot help but recall another seemingly exciting, but then badly bungled Latin American venture by the previous Orbán government in 2001, which sent in its agrarian affairs minister, József Torgyán, to convince the Chileans to buy Hungarian cherries. In exchange, the imported Chilean cherries being sold in Hungarian retail markets ended up costing the equivalent of over 50 cents…per piece (or $25 to $30 per kg.). In the end, the Chilean cherry venture became a laughing stock.

In addition to picking up Chile’s Bernardo O’Higgins award and promising that Hungary would offer 15 Chilean students scholarships to study at Hungarian universities, Mr. Szijjártó also visited Mexico City. As an indication of how desperately the rump Ministry of Foreign Affairs is hunting for success stories, the fact that Mr. Szijjártó’s newly-opened Hungarian National Trade House in the Mexican capital has sold  a whopping $15,000 in Hungarian wines managed to make headline news in the state media. Additionally, 40 Mexican students will now be able to study free of charge in Hungary each year.

The other piece of news lauded as a success by Mr. Szijjártó’s ministry is the fact that Hungary is set to be granted observer status in the Alianza del Pacífico, a loose economic alliance among Latin American countries, thanks to the support of the Mexican government. 

Onwards and upwards!

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