Norway’s Ambassador to Hungary, Tove Skarstein, talks about the many bilateral links between the two countries, from her promotion of Norway’s nature, culture, competitive economy and core values, to active assistance via the Norway Grants in meeting some of the social challenges in Hungary.
What is keeping you busiest in your job at the moment?
We are currently in the phase of finalising the preparations of the programmes that will be launched very soon under the so-called European Economic Area and Norwegian Financial Mechanisms. These funds will allocate some 150 million euros (40 billion forints) to 12 programmes, and hundreds of smaller and larger projects throughout the country, with the aim of reducing social and economic disparities, as well as strengthening the bilateral relations between our countries. Though the funded projects will not start their activities before the end of this year, the preparatory work that is being done at the moment is essential, because we are interested in funding projects that not only efficiently address some of the most pressing challenges in Hungary (Roma integration, energy efficiency, improving public health, etc.), but are sustainable in the long run, i.e. even after the end of the funding period.
Of course, as with any ambassador, most of my day-to-day work is related to strengthening the bilateral relations between Hungary and Norway, as well as following closely the political and economic situation in Hungary. I must say, there is never a dull moment these days for an ambassador posted in Hungary.
How does Hungary rate on the scale of difficulty, or as an enjoyable posting, for Norway’s ambassadors?
Budapest is definitely a popular posting for Norwegian diplomats. Hungary is a country with an intriguing history, which is an especially attractive aspect for me personally. Budapest, a beautiful and safe city, has one of the richest cultural lives in Central and Eastern Europe, and is in addition geographically close to Norway with daily direct flights to Oslo. As I said, the political developments in the country are exciting from a diplomat’s point of view, which makes our work both interesting and challenging.
What do Hungarians really know about Norway? What are some important and less well known facts?
My impression is that there is room for improvement on both sides when it comes to knowledge about the other country. Hungarians tend to regard Norway as a distant, exotic country, with a beautiful nature, which has gained its richness thanks to its gigantic oil revenues. This is of course partly true, but not so many people know that our economy is actually based more on our qualified and competitive workforce, especially the participation of women, who actually contribute more to the country’s GDP than the oil sector.
Also, many Hungarians associate Norway with an extensive welfare state, where everyone can feel secure and no-one is in danger of losing their livelihood. Again, partly true, however it is often neglected that the reason our welfare state can function efficiently and sustainably is that a much larger proportion of the population than the EU average, especially among women, is active in the labour market, and continues to work and pay taxes until a higher age than is common in most other countries.
Our economy and society is therefore based on a delicate balance between a competitive market economy, with individual choices and responsibilities, but on the other hand solidarity and state intervention. That is why we have to pay higher taxes than most other European citizens, but we do pay these taxes because we trust that the state or municipality will perform its duties and serve the interests of the society at large.
I found it very surprising, and even flattering, that many of our greatest classical and contemporary artists, from Henrik Ibsen to Jan Garbarek (not to mention Jo Nesbø) are so well known and popular among the Hungarian audience.
Norway is not a member of the EU. Does this complicate political and economic relations with Hungary at all?
When it comes to economic relations, Norway is part of the European Economic Area, which means that, apart from agriculture and fisheries, we are part of the EU’s internal market with the same rights and obligations as any other EU Member State. Our companies compete on exactly the same terms, and my impression is that Norwegian businesses enjoy a high degree of trust in Hungary. I don’t think our non-member status complicates bilateral political relations, either. Even though we don’t participate in the EU’s formal decision-making mechanisms, we are deeply involved in shaping indirectly the EU’s policies by closely following the processes, and aligning ourselves with like-minded countries on issues where we have common values and interests.
How are Norwegian-Hungarian relations politically?
Our ties have been close already since 1956, when approximately 1,500 Hungarian refugees settled in Norway. Since that time they, and their descendants, have become well integrated and respected members of the Norwegian society, which obviously contributes to further developing our friendly relationship. Our bilateral contacts became much stronger after 1990, when Hungary became firmly anchored in the Euro-Atlantic alliance, where Norway had belonged for decades. Today we are important and strong allies in Europe, we share many of the same interests and values, and work together actively to achieve common goals in various forums, such as the Council of Europe, NATO or the European Economic Area.
Of course, this does not mean that we have to agree on everything, and we have expressed our concerns about some of the recent political developments in Hungary, but we have also acknowledged when the government took important steps to remedy these shortcomings. The Norway Grants provide an excellent opportunity to further strengthen our political and economic relations.
What are the trade and business links between Norway and Hungary? The main companies? The main economic goods, exports/imports between the two?
The EEA Agreement provides excellent conditions for joint business activities and trade between our countries. Though trade statistics show relatively modest export/import activities (export from Hungary to Norway was roughly EUR 250 million, while import from Norway to Hungary was about EUR 65 million in 2012), there are significant exports from Hungary to Norway in important sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, electronics and automotive products. In many cases trade relations are indirect, and hence do not appear in the official import/export statistics, for example when Hungarian car-parts suppliers export their products to Norway via German automotive manufacturers. By far the largest Norwegian investor in Hungary is Telenor, which, with its roughly 33 per cent market share is the second-largest mobile operator in the country. Interestingly enough, with more than three million subscribers in Hungary they have more customers here than in Norway! In addition, there are some 30-40 Norwegian companies present on the Hungarian market in a range of sectors from energy to seafood products, either as local subsidiaries, sales agents, etc.
How do the business customs differ in Norway?
I would say Norwegian businessmen are more direct, and frank in their approach, perhaps generally a bit more risk-averse than Hungarians, although probably the financial crisis has forced Hungarian businesses to be more cautious than before. Our business – and other social – relations are based on mutual trust, as well as transparency, and our companies try to conduct the same type of behaviour also when they are operating abroad.
There must be some interesting business stories?
I found it very interesting to see how popular Budapest is among Norwegian dental tourists. An entire industry has developed with businesses (dentists and agents) in Budapest and Norway specialised in attracting Norwegian tourists to Budapest for long weekends, where they combine high-quality dental services at reasonable prices with exploring the country’s beautiful capital.
How many Norwegian businesses and individuals are in Hungary and what important things are they doing? Do they have any particular problems here?
As I mentioned there are quite a number of Norwegian businesses operating in Hungary. Most of them are small- and medium-sized companies, with relatively few employees, and even fewer of them are Norwegians. But there is quite a sizeable Norwegian community in Budapest, not only businessmen but especially students. Roughly 700 Norwegian students study at Hungarian universities, the overwhelming majority of them medicine. About half of them live in Budapest, the rest in the other university towns of Debrecen, Szeged and Pécs. Generally speaking the Norwegian community feels very comfortable and safe in Hungary, but some of them face language difficulties, as well as heavy bureaucracy, and in some sectors there are problems with non-transparent business.
Is Norway a popular destination for Hungarians wishing to emigrate? Is it difficult to do so?
Norway has become a very popular place both for labour migration, especially from other Scandinavian and EU countries, as well as asylum seekers from developing countries. When it comes to workers from the EU, it is relatively easy to settle in Norway, given that the European Economic Area provides identical working conditions for Norwegian and EU citizens. Norway is one of the few countries in Europe where the available workforce is in fact scarce, especially in some sectors, and therefore we welcome the arrival of foreign workers.
Hungarians are definitely not among the largest immigrant groups, especially when compared to the Nordic countries, the Baltics and Poland. However, in recent years we have experienced an increased influx of Hungarian professionals, first and foremost medical doctors, engineers and architects. It is in these sectors where we have a large demand for qualified workforce, and living and working conditions are no doubt very attractive for citizens of other European countries.
Is Norway a popular tourist destination for Hungarians?
Norway is regarded as an exotic, but probably high-end destination for tourists in general. Of course, we have some Hungarian tourists, who travel individually or with organised tours to Norway in order to explore the Western fjords or the midnight sun, but their numbers are obviously much lower than those of the Germans, the Danes, or the Dutch. Thanks to Hungary’s membership in the Schengen Area, and two companies operating cheap and daily direct flights to Oslo, travelling to Norway has become even more convenient than before.
How are you promoting Norway politically, economically and culturally? What are your Embassy’s efforts to strengthen Norway’s image in the country?
A large part of my job serves exactly these purposes. We would like to use all possible channels and opportunities to make our country, our beautiful nature, our culture, our competitive economy, and not least our core values more visible in Hungary. Without a doubt our main tool to achieve these goals is the Norway Grants. Our funds provide me with a golden opportunity to travel to all parts of the country, meet national and local politicians, NGOs, public entities and ordinary people, and put Norway on the map, so to speak. All of our funded projects are carrying out activities that are related to the values we wish to promote (gender equality, empowerment of vulnerable groups, environmental sustainability, etc.), and many of them involve Norwegian partner organisations. Through this strengthened cooperation, we aim to improve Norway’s image in Hungary, as in all the other beneficiary countries.
Apart from the Norway Grants, the Embassy is very active in initiating and supporting various events which promote Norwegian culture, or important aspects of our social and economic life. Let me mention a couple of examples. Last weekend we co-hosted with our Nordic and Baltic friends a Midsummer event in the Szentendre Skanzen, with Norwegian food, music and other cultural activities. Last year, we were one of the guests of honour at the Budapest International Book Fair, and some 10 of our internationally recognised contemporary authors attended the event personally. In other areas I could mention professional workshops and conferences, which we have co-organised with our Hungarian partners, among others dealing with women in science, corporate social responsibility (CSR), or the so-called Nordic model.
What are some of the things you support in Hungary?
I am personally very engaged in supporting initiatives that are aimed at empowering vulnerable social groups, especially the Roma and women. I am often invited to events, and I always accept invitations, when I have the possibility to promote Norway’s strong engagement in these fields. Being a lady ambassador, I know very well what it is like to be in a minority position in an area that has traditionally been dominated by men. We have to work twice as hard in order to be acknowledged. Though there is obviously a long way still ahead of us, I am proud that my country has done a lot to decrease the gender gap as much as possible, and significantly increase the share of women in the political and business life. This is definitely something Norway wishes to promote throughout Europe and beyond, and I personally attach high priority to this task in my daily work in Hungary.
How are your Hungarian language skills?
At the moment my Hungarian skills are extremely limited. I have to admit I have my doubts whether I will be proficient in this very complicated language by the end of my tenure here.
What baffles and frustrates you most about this country?
To be honest, I was very shocked to experience that antisemitic voices are still present in parts of the Hungarian society and political discourse. Fortunately these voices are marginalised, but still they are disturbing 70 years after the horrors of the Second World War, when we all thought these vicious ideologies were destroyed, at least in Europe. It was reassuring to hear that Prime Minister Orbán was very clear in his message condemning all forms of intolerance and antisemitism, and I sincerely hope the Hungarian government will have the resolve to be effective in mitigating such tendencies.