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A Hungarian diplomat talks about working with Trump, handling the migrant crisis and being the black sheep of Europe

A Hungarian diplomat talks about working with Trump, handling the migrant crisis and being the black sheep of Europe
Laszlo Szabo, Hungary's deputy minister for foreign affairs and trade and minister of state for parliamentary affairs, recently came to Los Angeles on a trade mission. (Christina House / Christina House)

When Laszlo Szabo, Hungary's deputy minister for foreign affairs and trade, visited the United States this month, he made a point of including Los Angeles on his itinerary.

"I wanted to come to L.A. because there is a huge community of Hungarian origin," said Szabo, who is also his country's minister of state for parliamentary affairs.

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Part of that community was historically associated with the film industry, including Bela Lugosi, the Gabor sisters and Drew Barrymore, among others.

But Szabo's mission to the City of Angels was not to talk film. He came to push investment and trade, and during his mission stopped by The Times to share his views on these and other issues.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why should U.S. companies invest in Hungary?

They are already doing so. We already have more than $18 billion coming from U.S. companies. The U.S. is our No. 2 investor in the country, after Germany.

What kinds of U.S. business are investing in Hungary?

Pharmaceuticals, for example. The automotive industry is quite heavily there. But also digital technologies [and] shared service centers. We're talking about 1,750 companies employing 93,000 people.

During his recent visit to Los Angeles, Laszlo Szabo, right, Hungary's deputy minister for foreign affairs and trade, signed an agreement with Stephen Cheung, president of World Trade Center Los Angeles.
During his recent visit to Los Angeles, Laszlo Szabo, right, Hungary's deputy minister for foreign affairs and trade, signed an agreement with Stephen Cheung, president of World Trade Center Los Angeles. (Courtesy of the Consulate General of Hungary in Los Angeles)

How would you characterize the relationship between the U.S. and Hungary?

Traditionally, we have been great allies, especially since Hungary joined NATO. Hungary is very, very active on many fronts. We have our troops in Afghanistan. We have troops in Iraq. We have been helping [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] in policing the airspace in the Baltic states.

So this is one side of the collaboration. The other side is the economic collaboration. There's quite significant trade between the two countries.

Is the Trump administration one Hungary can work with?

We certainly hope so. It will still take a few months until we see how things will work out. But we are very glad that Prime Minister [Viktor] Orban of Hungary had a telephone conversation with President Trump quite early after his election and it's quite clear that in many, many challenges the approach of Hungary and the U.S. are quite similar right now.

We have had our [frictions] with the previous administration, but this doesn't mean that we were not allies all the way through. From time to time we felt that there's unnecessary pressure from the previous administration.

“I wanted to come to L.A. because there is a huge community of Hungarian origin,” said Laszlo Szabo, who is also his country’s minister of state for parliamentary affairs. (Christina House / For the Times) (Christina House / For the Times)

How do you respond to the criticism that Hungary is violating human rights in its treatment of migrants?

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Hungary is trying to [uphold] the regulations of the Dublin treaty [which determines where an asylum seeker's application should be processed] and the Schengen treaty [which abolishes border checks among certain European nations].

We are letting anyone into the country who is trying to cross the border legally. If they don't have any papers, we try to provide asylum for those who are seeking asylum, according to the Geneva treaty, naturally.

But there is one thing that is often misinterpreted in the press. Hungary actually never closed its borders to refugees or migrants. Anyone, even in the last two years, who wanted to cross the border legally [could use] border crossing stations. You provide your papers, your passport, and if you don’t have one, you basically play by the rules of the authorities and by the legislation of the European Union. You provide a photo and you provide fingerprints — just like entering into the U.S.

It was very strange for us to be singled out at the very beginning of the migration crisis in 2015. The black sheep in the family was the one country that kept the regulations and the rules, and those who completely disregarded them — Italy, Greece — they were wonderful people, wonderful countries, everything is shiny and peachy.

Hungarian soldiers build a fence at the border with Croatia near Kulked village in September 2015.
Hungarian soldiers build a fence at the border with Croatia near Kulked village in September 2015. (LASZLO LAUFER / AFP/Getty Images)

When Hungary started to build a wall, not to close the border [but] to protect the green border so people cannot cross illegally, just like the European Union mandates us, [then-]Chancellor [Werner] Faymann of Austria, for example, called us fascists. When Austria started to build a fence two months later, that was [considered] a gate with long wings. So this is what I call hypocrisy.

So you've closed the border to those you consider to be illegal migrants?

It's very clear. If someone wants to cross cornfields during the night, I don't think even the U.S. would call that legal migration. Also, let's not forget that those people who originally ran for their lives because of their political beliefs, or because of the war situation in their home country, they are only considered refugees — based on the Geneva Convention — until they get to the next safe place, closest to their home country. So basically, this is where they need support, this is where they need humanitarian help.

If you start marching through six, seven safe countries, by the time you reach Hungary or Austria or Germany, you have basically walked thousands of miles going through safe countries clearly looking for a better life. So you're not running for your life anymore.

So this is where the definition of a refugee and a migrant gets confused very easily, and we are quite disturbed by this fact.

Migrants walk on the road of Asotthalom village, near the Hungarian-Serbian border, in June 2015 after illegally crossing the border.
Migrants walk on the road of Asotthalom village, near the Hungarian-Serbian border, in June 2015 after illegally crossing the border. (CSABA SEGESVARI / AFP/Getty Images)

What's the solution for the EU?

First, let's talk about the damage. We believe there's lot of wasted energies within Europe, because many of the politicians try to gain an internal political advantage from the migration crisis. Quite simply, facts are sometimes distorted for that reason.

For us, it was a shock to see that Greece just let [migrants] through without any questions, put them on boats, on buses, on trains, and just sent them through to Germany or Sweden. And now look at Germany, look at Sweden. They have already decided that 50% of those people are not eligible for asylum.

In our view, you have to be smarter than this. You have to decide whether a person is a refugee or economic migrant outside the borders of the European Union. They are already in a safe place in Serbia. They are already in a safe place in Greece. Even better for Europe if they stay in Turkey, for example, or in Libya, or in Jordan. There, we have to provide humanitarian aid.

We need international collaboration in stopping the [Syrian] war. This is very, very important. We believe Europe as a whole, NATO, even Russia, has to chip in and has to collaborate to find a common solution to the war.

So is the EU to blame for the migrant crisis?

No, it's not the EU, it's Brussels [the de facto capital of the EU]. It's how Brussels is completely incompetent in answering a crisis like this.

For more on global development news, see our Global Development Watch page, and follow me @AMSimmons1 on Twitter

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