Going the distance
Arriving in the UK under lockdown has been a surreal experience for Dr Ferenc Kumin, Hungary’s new Ambassador to London.
Instead of being stuck in traffic jams, the Ambassador, a distance-runner, explored the empty streets of his new host city by foot. Instead of a visit to the Foreign Office, via the famous Ambassadors’ Entrance, he ‘presented’ his credentials via email. And instead of meeting his fellow ambassadors over a cup of fekete, the tech-savvy Kumin has paid his courtesy calls via Zoom, Skype and Webex. “It’s not how you imagine starting your dream posting!” he laughs.
He’s also been rolling up his sleeves to help in the global consular response to the Covid-19 pandemic, including the repatriation of thousands of Hungarians from around the world using the UK as a transit hub, now with the added complications of the new quarantine rules. “We have all become logistics experts,” he jokes.
But it’s a role the Ambassador is getting used to. Being at Europe’s crossroads, Hungary feared importing the virus from EU citizens transiting their territory from highly infected areas and acted swiftly to close its borders. The result was long queues at the Austrian-Hungarian border. “I’ve never had such a difficult week,” admits Kumin, who prior to this posting was Deputy State Secretary for the Development of European and American Relations. “My phone was ringing 24/7 from ambassadors asking me to do something … So we developed humanitarian corridors across Hungary which is something unprecedented in peace time.”
The decisive action paid off. Very low infection rates in Hungary have permitted an early, and cautious, opening up of the economy and borders. Emergency rule by decree to mitigate the effects of the pandemic has been repealed, quashing speculation that it was “a power grab” by Prime Minister Orbán, the Ambassador points out. “We hope this will demonstrate that those concerns were unfounded,” he adds.
With the pandemic in retreat, the Ambassador’s attention can return to follow the talks on the future of the UK-EU relationship. Interpreting the finely balanced interests of Budapest, London and Brussels is a skill – but it’s a job he was born to do. “Politics has always been somewhere in my DNA,” smiles Kumin, who grew up in family that resisted Communist rule. By the time the Berlin Wall fell, the teenage Ferenc was already hooked on politics, enrolling as politics major, going on to get his masters and later a doctorate at Budapest University of Economic Sciences and Public Administration.
His initiation into the cut and thrust of Hungarian politics was as an adviser and communications strategist to László Sólyom, then President of Hungary. Managing the protocol visits by heads of state was good preparation for his later diplomatic career, he adds.
Stints as a politics lecturer and analyst at Hungary’s leading political think tank, Századvég followed before he was lured back to frontline politics in the Office of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (2012-14) as Deputy Government Spokesperson dealing with the international media. Explaining government policy was a “challenging job”, he admits, referring to what he calls Hungary’s “image problem” in the mainstream media. Persuading the UK media to see Hungary differently will be an important part of his job here in the UK too.
But undoubtedly the Ambassador’s focus will be to re-shape bilateral ties with Britain in the post-Brexit context. He admits Hungary was sorry to see the departure of a free-trading, pro-enlargement, anti-federalist ally in the EU club. However, he thinks the Covid pandemic might move European sentiment more towards their way of thinking.
“We always tried to say that the development of the EU is not to further centralise the powers to Brussels, because in certain circumstances nation states are in a position to act quickly and appropriately… The pandemic has shown the importance of national governments. We had this idea in the past as well, when we found ourselves in the midst of the huge dispute over migration and our special responsibility to protect the entire EU border.”
No matter which way the pandemic influences EU sentiment, Hungary will be a “front fighter for a fair Brexit,” stresses the Ambassador. “We shouldn’t punish [the UK] because this is the first country to leave the EU. We should conduct a rational series of negotiations and approach the UK as the EU would any other third country. So this remains our strategy for the upcoming months.”
For Hungary, a fair settlement for Hungarian citizens living in the UK is key, as is the freedom for families to move between the two countries. But part of the Ambassador’s work will be to encourage his nationals to consider returning to Hungary, to plug skills gaps in a rapidly evolving economy.
Further down the line, the Ambassador hopes for a light-touch UK immigration policy that doesn’t throw up unnecessary barriers to free movement. A former academic, the Ambassador is especially eager to broaden academic and scientific ties with Britain’s top and emerging universities and technical colleges so that more students, researchers and academics can gain valuable skills to support the fast-growing Hungarian economy needs.
On defence, intelligence and security ties, these will continue, he says, within the NATO umbrella, but also, he hopes, within the European context too: “We look to Britain as a very important guarantor of European security, as a nuclear power and with a strong military.”
But for the Ambassador, the most exciting prospects lie in expanding the bilateral economic relationship. Kumin remains hopeful that a EU-UK trade deal can be signed this year, allowing trade to continue “avoiding any big hiccups”, while on capital and investment flows, he sees potential for these to increase, especially if the UK signs a free trade agreement with the US.
Having spent four years as consul general in New York, Kumin understands the US market. The one-time student tech entrepreneur has already identified the potential for Hungarian tech start-ups using the UK as a gateway to the US market. Looking the other way, Kumin hopes to persuade British investors that Hungary – with its “super open economy”, strategic supply chains and geographic location – is an ideal base for access to the EU single market.
With lockdown lifting, the Ambassador is also itching to get a cultural programme back on track – with appropriate social distancing – and Hungary wants to welcome back British visitors this summer – “even the bachelor parties!” he grins.
Hunting for treasure
The easing of restrictions will also be a chance for him to explore more of Britain with his wife, Viktória, and their two children, and indulge in his hobby of geocaching – which is a sort of internet treasure hunt using GPS. A geocaching entrepreneur in the infancy of the dotcom boom (he even set up and headed the geocaching movement in Hungary), Kumin sees his new posting as a great opportunity to get back into it with his children. “[Geocaching] brings you places where otherwise you would never go!”
All this makes for a packed agenda, but diplomacy is a marathon, not a sprint, and this distance-running Ambassador certainly has the stamina for it.