Irish Ambassador: Brexit brought Ireland and Hungary closer together
Ireland in Hungary and Hungary in Ireland
Briefly describe the history of Ireland-Hungary relations. Were there any conflicts between Ireland and Hungary at any point?
Ronan Gargan (RG): There are strong historical links and parallels between Ireland and Hungary, dating as far back as the 16th century. Both countries took inspiration from each other and from our revolutionary leaders during centuries of struggle for freedom. For example, Arthur Griffith, one of our revolutionary leaders, did a book called The Resurrection of Hungary, where he was taking inspiration from the compromise here in the dual monarchy between Austria and Hungary. He wanted to see whether this could work in a British-Irish sense as well. More recently, Ireland, as the then-Presidency of the EU, was delighted to welcome Hungary as a member of the EU in 2004 at a special ceremony in Dublin. It was very special for Ireland to play a small part in what was a seminal moment in Hungary’s history.
We’ve never had any conflicts or any bad issues between the two countries. We have good people-to-people connections, we have good trading relations, and we work with each other within the European Union.
How many Irish people live in Hungary? How many Hungarian people live in Ireland?
RG: Our estimate is that around 1000 Irish people are living here in Hungary. Of that 1000, we estimate that about 500 are living in Budapest, and of that 500, 200 are students who mostly study in the Veterinary University here in Budapest. They came here for lots of different reasons – study, work, relationships. In terms of the number of Hungarians in Ireland, again, it’s difficult to get an exact figure. We think it is about 7000 or 8000 Hungarians, and they have made a very positive contribution to Irish society there.
I’ve read that the total value of exports and imports between Ireland and Hungary saw a considerable increase in the past four years despite the pandemic and that this increasing trend is still observed right now. Additionally, the total value of exports and imports peaked in 2022. Congratulations! What contributed to this positive trend?
RG: Trade between Ireland and Hungary reached record levels in 2021 and 2022, hitting close to €5 billion, increasing from just €1 billion per annum in 2020. Ireland’s export in services to Hungary has increased by over 600% in the past decade. There could be a number of factors that explain this. I mean, I would say, to some extent, you have to take some credit for the Embassy as well as the IHBC and also our colleague, Katarina Kovács, who is working for Enterprise Ireland here. She works hard to look for trading opportunities and market opportunities for Irish businesses in Hungary and the wider region and to create business links and relationships between Hungarian and Irish businesses. In Hungary, there are five Irish companies that have big operations here and employ between 200 or 300 people each. And then, you have about 100 Irish companies that are actually trading into Hungary either through a distributor here in Hungary or directly. A lot of that is happening because of the work of the Embassy, the work of Enterprise Ireland, and the links and networking that the IHBC does as well. So, we can take some credit for that.
I think that COVID has also had an impact. COVID has affected supply chains and trade, maybe reducing it in some respects between different countries. In Ireland’s case, looking at the broader macroeconomic picture, we actually increased our trade overall in Ireland during the pandemic – we were actually the only country that continued to grow during the pandemic, and we had record growth last year of 12% GDP, which, in real terms – GNI* terms – if we want to be technical about it, it’s probably actually around 2% to 3%. But it’s still significant and not to be laughed at. And I think that’s pretty much driven by the upsurge in the demand for services – ICT, high tech, social media, networking, and also financial services – and pharmaceuticals. So nine of the top ten pharmaceutical companies in the world are based in Ireland and do their trade into Europe from Ireland. Pharmaceuticals obviously had a big impact on the pharmaceutical sector during COVID, so I think that probably explains quite a bit of the increase. Brexit probably has had an impact as well, and that’s because of the implications of Brexit. Part of our response to dealing with Brexit in Ireland was to encourage our companies to look at other markets beyond the UK, and particularly to markets in the EU single market. I think some Irish companies have looked at countries like Hungary – not just Hungary but also other countries in this region, beyond France and Germany. That has had an impact as well, so there are lots of different factors. I think the biggest challenge now is whether we can sustain it, to keep it at €4 or €5 billion a year. I think that will be a challenge, but we’ll continue working on it and with our Hungarian colleagues, and the Hungarian embassy in Dublin will be anxious to continue that work as well.
“Ireland’s export in services to Hungary has increased by over 600% in the past decade.”
Damien O’Kane (DOK): Just to underline what Ambassador Gargan said, on the wider economical situation, Ireland does attract a lot of companies, purely because we have a good young, well-educated workforce – the majority to degree-level if not beyond that – and that’s probably one of the reasons why pharmaceuticals is quite a popular organization there. This is pretty similar to what we’re seeing here in Hungary. I work for a large shared service organization, and we employ a lot of Hungarian nationals from university. We’re looking at well-educated people with language skills very similar to what encourages people to come along and invest in Ireland. Now, I don’t want to disparage my European colleagues by saying they don’t have well-educated workforces – they obviously do. But I think the first advantage we have is a strong English-speaking community. That’s one of the key things that brings us to enable companies to expand across the rest of Europe.
To what extent is the economic relationship between Ireland and Hungary cooperation, and to what extent is it competition?
DOK: It’s a combination. I think there are a lot of things. Let’s go back to 1973 when Ireland joined the European Union – we were a very agrarian society. Investment in business was not seen as the way forward, but joining the common market and then entering the single market and then the European Union has been fantastic for Ireland – it has helped us develop. If we didn’t have those capabilities, we would never be the country that we are today. Having been here now for a period of time, you see a correlation between where Hungary was when they joined the European Union and where we were, and how it can be something that’s used for good. You have a kind of workforce here in Hungary, which is more suited to certain industries that we don’t have in Ireland. If I look at some big Irish companies here, like Pannonia Bio on the bioethanol side, McHale, a big farm machinery manufacturer, it is probably easier to get the raw materials to Hungary than it is to get to Ireland. So, it makes sense for us to have them here. Then, as Ambassador Gargan was talking earlier about the services on the IT and financial sides, we have that direct link with the UK market. So, you have that natural English speaking community – I don’t see it necessarily as competitive, but as more of a collaborative relationship.
RG: The first thing to say is that Hungary and Ireland, to some extent, have very similar economic models when it comes to foreign direct investment – they have been an open and export-oriented economy. But from that perspective, there probably is some level of competition, because maybe we are competing for some similar investments. With that being said, given the stage of our developments as economies, Ireland has had 50 years of EU membership, while Hungary has only 20 years of EU membership. We’ve had a lot longer in terms of benefiting from EU support and funding, and we haven’t experienced the socialist era and the impact it has on the economy here, so I think our levels of development are at very different stages. We’re looking to attract maybe slightly different types of investment than Hungary at this moment. We’re trying to place value-add investments around research and development. Hungary is also doing that but maybe in different sectors, particularly in relation to the automotive sector – looking at electric cars and batteries, and so forth. We do want to get high-value manufacturing, like pharmaceuticals or ICT products, to Ireland. So, I think we’re maybe competing for different things. At the same time, there’s some level of competition there like there is between all EU countries in terms of attracting investment. However, as part of the European Union, there’s a need for us to collaborate more in terms of putting the policies in place, putting the funding in place to encourage research and development across the European Union. There’s no point sometimes in competing in this respect because we’re just not doing enough to develop the whole of the European Union, which is good for all of us. We particularly need to collaborate on green technologies, on the digital transition, and investment and research development. In those areas, Hungary and Ireland do need to collaborate.
Agriculture is a major part of both Ireland and Hungary’s economy. Have there been any agricultural collaborations between the two nations? How do you see agriculture evolve in the two nations in the future?
RG: In terms of collaboration between certain businesses, especially in relation to agritech. There is a lot of innovation going on in Hungarian companies and in Irish companies and together in relation to looking at sustainable farming, sustainable animal breeding, and sustainable crop cultivation, being aware of the climate, actions that are required for agriculture and how farms have to adjust to that. That kind of collaboration is going on all the time, which is great. I know in the past, after Hungary transitioned from socialism, there was a lot of help provided by agricultural companies in Ireland to Hungarian companies. One example in particular was around the dairy industry – an Irish dairy company came out here, gave advice, helped, and had an interest in making the dairy sector in Hungary sustainable after the transition. I know that Hungary continues to look to Ireland on how it can continue to improve its agricultural sector. At a general policy level, I think Ireland and Hungary have very similar perspectives in relation to the European Union’s Common Agricultural policy and do have a wish to look at ways where we continue to support our family farm as a basis for our rural communities. So, in that respect, there’s still quite a meeting of minds in Hungary and Ireland when it comes to agricultural policy generally.
I realized that Hungary is dependent on Russian energy sources, while Ireland isn’t. Now that the Russian-Ukrainian war has emerged, Hungary is experiencing an energy crisis. With a number of green energy firms like Gaelectric, would Ireland recommend Hungary to transition to green energy? How would this transition affect the energy crisis in Hungary?
DOK: I think the answer has to be yes. We would encourage everybody to move towards green energy whatever that may be. How you do that is really a question for the internal governance in Hungary. If anything, yes, the Ukraine war has shown the overreliance across Europe on Russian energy.
RG: I think the energy crisis, which has been caused by President Putin weaponizing energy as part of the war, has highlighted the need for the European Union really to have an integrated policy on energy, not just in terms of part of our climate change objectives, but also part of our energy security, for our industries, our economies, and our households. Ireland, Hungary, and others will continue to work within the European Union to deal with those issues. I think it’s also important for each country to decide what the best energy mix and energy source is for them – that’s very much a national competency. But they also need to be very aware of their climate change objectives. A move to non-carbon energy is part of our objectives, and member states have legally signed up to do that and to make Europe carbon net neutral by 2050. Hungary has also decided to do that.
“We would encourage everybody to move towards green energy whatever that may be.”
We fully recognize the real difficulties that Hungary faces because of their over-reliance on Russian gas and oil. They’re not the only country in the region that have become over-reliant, so we do need to give them time and space to be able to adjust their policies in that way. Luckily, for Ireland, we’re not relying on Russian energy – we get most of our gas from Norway through the UK. However, we have been affected also by the energy prices, because the wholesale market has been impacted by this. And so energy costs in Ireland have been going up just as much as in Hungary, or maybe even more, to some extent. But we are also looking to transition away from fossil fuels and probably have done it a little bit quicker than Hungary. We have invested heavily in wind energy, and we’re investing in a lot of research into tidal energy. We hope to be in a space where by 2030, about 60% to 70% of all our energy will be wind and renewable, and then by 2050, 100%. And we’re even in a position where we’re hoping that by 2050, we can be an exporter of energy, so that we’re actually exporting the wind energy across Europe.
Hungary is going down a different route regarding renewable energy – again, they’re looking for more wind energy, solar energy, biogas energy – something that Ireland and Hungary are interested in as well – and maybe even a stopgap energy source until we’re fully decarbonized. Hungary also wants to focus on nuclear energy, which is something that Ireland has decided not to do, as we have a non-nuclear energy policy. But that’s fine within the European Union – you’re entitled to have these different energy mixes.
How has Brexit affected Ireland-Hungary relations?
RG: Generally speaking, Brexit has brought the European Union closer together. The European Union has had to deal with a lot of crises over the last 10 to 12 years – financial crises, migration crises, then Brexit in 2016 and COVID, and the war in Ukraine. All of those crises, which are obviously not welcomed, have made the European Union work closer together. I think that’s true of Ireland and Hungary as well. Ireland was and is the most affected member state of European Union by Brexit for lots of different reasons – economic reasons, but probably more importantly the need to protect the peace process on the island of Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement, and the integrity of the EU single market and Ireland’s place in it, which is also very important for our economic well-being. Hungary has shown a lot of solidarity and support for Ireland on those issues. Countries like Hungary also have their own interests in terms of having a productive and close relation with the UK, particularly in the areas of defense and trade. But there’s still a lot of understanding and support for Ireland within the European Union, and making sure that our priorities and our interests were protected during the Brexit negotiations. So, I think that has definitely brought a better understanding to some extent between Ireland and Hungary and brought us closer together. And then, the economic implications of Brexit from Ireland’s point of view, where we try to prepare our businesses to continue trading with the UK but also look to other markets beyond the UK, and to look particularly to the EU single market, because it’s easier to trade with countries that are in the single market including Hungary. That also creates synergies and relationships. I think that they’re the two big implications of Brexit in the context of Irish-Hungarian relations.
Ireland is not a NATO member state, while Hungary is a NATO member state. Now that the Russian-Ukrainian war has emerged, how has this difference in NATO membership affected Ireland-Hungary relations?
DOK: I think Ireland’s involvement in world affairs is probably more keenly seen through the eyes of the United Nations. We are a very active member of the United Nations – our Armed Forces serve all over the world with the United Nations. From that perspective, we’ve always seen ourselves as a neutral peacekeeping nation. That’s probably one of the reasons why we’ve never joined NATO. You know, we’ve never found ourselves in the position where we felt that need for a defense of our island. If you look at it from an outside perspective, Hungary embraced that opportunity for a wider Western alliance, coming out from the Warsaw Pact years to give themselves an opportunity for protection within that. I would hope that our NATO cousins who are also our EU family would recognize and accept Ireland’s continued neutrality in that area. Let’s be honest, from a political perspective, we’re not that neutral. It just means that we don’t join in with the military side of the Atlantic union. We’d always be supportive. I’m sure from an EU perspective, we’re supportive of what’s going on in Ukraine. Just from a NATO perspective, we’ve never felt the need to join.
RG: I fully agree with what Damien has said. I think, not to get into all the detailed history, being militarily neutral has been a really important aspect of our foreign policy, particularly in the perspective of our EU and UN membership and our participation in international peacekeeping. Being a colony ourselves of the UK till 1922, not being part of NATO has been helpful for us as a country in terms of being able to support and assist peacekeeping and conflict prevention across the world. People see us in a less suspicious light. But as Damien said, I will be very clear when it comes to the war in Ukraine and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine that we’re militarily neutral but not politically neutral, as we are members of the European Union. And we are very firm supporters of protecting the international rule-based order, which essentially Russia has ripped up. That is the number one defense for a small country like Ireland – everyone follows the rules. Everyone respects international law – if we don’t do that, it’s anarchy. We have been very clear that we absolutely support Ukraine’s right of self-defense, and we have supported them in our own way in terms of providing shelter for Ukrainian refugees, as we have 60000 Ukrainian refugees in Ireland, the highest per capita in the whole of Europe. We’ve also provided funding for the reconstruction in Ukraine, which we’re looking at doing more of. We have provided funding for the European Peace Facility, some of which has been spent on defensive equipment for Ukraine. From that perspective, we’re very much an active participant within the European Union and the UN in making sure that, as best we can, we hold Russia to account and help Ukraine defend themselves, democracy, and the rule of law.
Hungary is a member of NATO. And as Damien said, it was really important for them to have that security after the transition, given that it has a dangerous neighbor Russia. But their positioning on the war in Ukraine and Russia is more complicated than maybe Ireland because of their regional position, the relationship with Ukraine, which had some tensions even before the war. There are moments where Ireland and Hungary have different perspectives on how we should approach the situation in Ukraine, but I think overall, we are very much on the same lines when it comes to the need to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, their right to defend their sovereignty, and the need for Russia to cease their war of aggression. We all agree on that.
Since Ireland joined the EU, it has experienced huge economic and societal improvements. However, since Hungary joined the EU, it has experienced and is still experiencing a lot of conflicts. Why is this the case?
RG: Certainly, from my perspective, I wouldn’t want to in any way comment on what Hungary chooses for itself in terms of its own future, its own societal issues, and how they approach societal challenges and questions. I can only speak for Ireland’s experience. I don’t think the perception that it was very easy for Ireland to come an epiphany overnight that we had to be open, progressive, and inclusive. It wasn’t that way at all – it took decades for us to get to the point where we are today. Lots of factors contributed to our transition – investment in education, EU membership, globalization, immigration, the waning influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland. These have all contributed to us dealing with important societal issues, whether it’s marriage equality, abortion, and reproductive rights for women. These issues haven’t been easy for Ireland. To some extent, we have to give countries like Hungary space and time to be able to look at these things themselves. It’s their decision, they have to decide as a society what direction they want to go in. With all that being said, I think there are some basic standards, principles, and rights that every EU member state has to respect – they’re all enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and Article 2 of the EU Treaty. There are certainly some concerns and questions of whether Hungary’s current government is fully living up to those obligations as an EU member state, and that’s where countries like Ireland and other countries are willing to raise their voice and raise questions and concerns in relation to those issues. But regarding issues like marriage equality or abortion rights, or other areas like that, it’s totally up to Hungary to decide.
“Everyone respects international law – if we don’t do that, it’s anarchy.”
With the ongoing war, many people in Ireland and Hungary are experiencing stress. So do you have a message to both Irish and Hungarian people during these crisis times?
DOK: Something I say to every new member that comes to my company is two things: be brave, and be kind. I think that translates into every aspect, because it also brings it with it that feeling of tolerance. In Ireland as well as here, there’s a groundswell of people who don’t want refugees. At the end of the day, these are people who are in desperate conditions. We have to embrace the people who are in these situations and help them out. Be kind, because at the end of the day, it doesn’t cost you anything to give somebody a smile or a kind word, and be brave to help each other out. In the face of any kind of crisis, particularly this invasion by Russia, we have to stand together and be supportive. In Hungary, we’ve had decades of invasion by the USSR. In our own country, we have this well-known worldwide diaspora – there are probably more people around the world who regard themselves as being Irish than those who actually live on the island of Ireland. If we all came home, the island would literally sink. So, we have to embrace and tolerate the challenges that we have due to this war.
RG: “Be kind” is also a message of solidarity – being understanding, open to different points of view, and to have respectful and constructive conversations. A famous phrase in Irish is “ní neart go cur le chéile”, which means “we’re stronger together”. These are moments when we have to come together and learn that together we are stronger. I think that’s the key message for Hungarian people, for Irish people, and for each of our communities in each of those countries. If we work together, we can get better results, and we can be stronger together and deal with the challenges that we face together.
“In Ireland as well as here, there’s a groundswell of people who don’t want refugees. At the end of the day, these are people who are in desperate conditions.”
Why do so many Irish veterinary science students here in Hungary?
RG: I think the particular reason is that the places for veterinary medicine in Ireland are very low – we only have about 30 places per year in one university, University College Dublin, that does veterinary medicine. Because of that, and because of the interest and demand for veterinary medicine in Ireland, they needed to look further afield than Dublin. The two places that they really ended up going to are Warsaw and Budapest because of the level of education that they provide in Budapest and Warsaw is very high and well-respected. They also offer all of their courses in English, which is a big selling point. The second reason, I think, is also costs – it’s less expensive here in terms of fees to go to veterinary medicine here. Also, the cost of living here is less expensive than Ireland, particularly around accommodation.
DOK: And look at the city itself! I do believe that the veterinary course here, not just from an Irish perspective but also for students right across the European Union, is very attractive, because it’s very high-standard and gives an awful lot of hands-on experience. The other students I know similar in numbers to the Irish are the French and the Swedish. The University of Veterinary Medicine, Budapest has a very good name across Europe as a top-quality veterinary university.
On March 8 this year, a major Hungarian newspaper (Magyar Nemzet) reported on an Erasmus+ drama arising from the EU committee apparently prohibiting model-transitioning universities in Hungary from entering the Erasmus+ program. How could this affect Irish students and also other international students studying in Hungary?
RG: The first thing to say is that the Erasmus+ program for 2022-23 and 2023-24 is not affected by these decisions, because they come under a previous framework. So the decision only affects the Erasmus+ program that will start in 2024-25 – that’s important to say. To alleviate any concerns from our students that are currently or maybe planning to come here, they won’t be affected. The whole issue around the Erasmus programs is all connected with the issues around the rule of law and the conditionality mechanisms in the European Union. These issues are all then connected to commitments that the Hungarian government has made to the European Union in relation to making improvements in the areas of corruption and judicial independence. Part of that area of corruption was concerns in the European Union around conflicts of interest, particularly conflict of interest in the foundations or board of trustees that now run the universities. Some of them have been chaired by government ministers and political appointees, but they’re also handling EU funding. So this is very much about protecting the financial interests of the European Union and the interests of EU taxpayers. There have been agreements in place now between the European Commission and the Hungarian government to make changes to address these concerns. The hope is that by doing that and making the changes particularly to the membership of these foundations, this issue around Erasmus+ and the broader issues around funding for Hungary connected to the rule of law concerns will be resolved in the coming months. So hopefully, by 2024-25, these issues will be resolved.
Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi and Irish poet Thomas Moore both lived in the Romantic era. I’ve read that Sándor Petőfi was actually an admirer of Thomas Moore and translated several of his poems to Hungarian. The two poets also emphasize parallels in their respective countries longing for independence, for example. In what ways can this historical and artistic similarity bring the two nations closer?
RG: It’s done through cultural connections. It has been 200 years since the birth of Petőfi in Hungary, and they’ve celebrated that this past year. We also have Irish poets like Seamus Heaney who have also got some inspiration from Hungarian poets. We have events that we support here as an embassy. The Széchenyi Academy of Arts and Sciences are doing an annual Seamus Heaney Memorial Lecture, where they talk about Irish-Hungarian connections through poetry or literary heritage. Moore and Petőfi definitely had inspiration for each other. Hungarian poet and literary translator Ferenc Győző’s specialty is in studying the connection between Moore and Petőfi.
Are there any particular reasons for Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses to have a Hungarian descent?
RG: There’s no hard evidence of why James Joyce chose Leopold Bloom to be a Hungarian Jew or a person of Hungarian descent. His father hailed from the city of Szombathely. Speculation or informed guesswork would be that James Joyce had a lot of interactions with Hungarians while he lived in Trieste, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. He was also an English teacher in Trieste, and he might have taught some of the Hungarians English – this is where he might have picked up some of his information around Hungary, places in Hungary, and Hungarian culture and language. Joyce also saw the historical parallels between Ireland and Hungary. He might have also chosen a Hungarian Jew because of the messages around inclusion and non-discrimination that are part of Ulysses.
Closing remarks and peace
Is literature a good medium for diplomacy?
RG: Literature is a great way to connect people. People in Hungary have great appreciation for Irish literature, and people in Ireland have great appreciation for Hungarian literature. We have Nobel Prize winners in literature both in Hungary and Ireland. Cultural diplomacy is really important for building understanding and respect for each other’s cultures that then leads to more opportunities in terms of cooperation and understanding. For Ireland and the Irish Embassy in Hungary, literature certainly has been a big part of our efforts to practice cultural diplomacy and in reaching out to and connecting with Hungarians through literature.
“The European Union can also continue to be an inspiration to its member states and other countries around the world about how you can, as a continent, get over the conflicts and divisions that were part of our history in the early 20th century and make for a prosperous Europe after those divisions. From that perspective, I think Ireland and Hungary are partners in peace through our EU membership.”
What is one thing Hungary should learn from Ireland? And what is one thing Ireland should learn from Hungary?
RG: One thing Ireland should learn from Hungary is how to make wine, and one thing Hungary should learn from Ireland is how to make whiskey.
You mentioned that there have been no conflicts so far between Ireland and Hungary. Is the connection between Ireland and Hungary a good example of peace between two nations? Is there and should there be one kind of peace?
RG: It depends on the context. We had a long experience in Ireland with trying to establish peace on our own island. We hope that that gives an example to the rest of the world that you can have a successful peace process. Unfortunately, there are very few examples in the world of successful peace processes, but Ireland is one of them, and it’s still a work in progress. The big thing for Hungary and Ireland is that we’re both part of the biggest peace process in the world, which is the European Union. The European Union can also continue to be an inspiration to its member states and other countries around the world about how you can, as a continent, get over the conflicts and divisions that were part of our history in the early 20th century and make for a prosperous Europe after those divisions. From that perspective, I think Ireland and Hungary are partners in peace through our EU membership.