Hungarians baffled by Irish treaty stand-off

Sat, Aug 29, 2009, 01:00

WORLD VIEW:IT IS instructive to observe how our fellow Europeans in states such as Hungary dealt with the Lisbon Treaty. Hungary was first to ratify the treaty with near unanimous endorsement across the political establishment. Among the population there is widespread bafflement at Ireland’s uncharacteristic bout of Euro-scepticism. Nowhere is there an echo of the Irish opponents’ references about Brussels mandarins wanting to build a European super state.

Ireland was seen as a champion of the European project and a country that had greatly benefited from membership. For those involved in developing Irish- Hungarian relations over the past 20 years it was no easy matter last year to try and explain our rejection of the Lisbon Treaty to Hungarians for whom Ireland had been the role model as they pursued their EU ambitions in the decade leading up to formal accession in 2004.

Although Hungary has 10 million people, it sees itself as one of the smaller states. Having suffered the ravages of two World Wars, and a failed uprising in 1956 to try and shake off the shackles of Soviet domination, Hungary aspired to membership as a bulwark against any regression to super power domination as soon as the Soviet block imploded in the 1990s.

Historically and economically, Ireland, too, had been cut off from mainland Europe, and was reduced to the role of a cheap-food supplier to Britain until we secured the economic liberation of EU (or Common Market, as it was then) membership back in 1973. Even then we were delayed until France’s General de Gaulle lifted the veto on Britain joining.

Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall back in 1989, the Irish Hungarian Economic Association (now the Irish Hungarian Business Association or IHBA) was established to promote two-way investment, trade, commerce and tourism between the two countries, and to enable business people and companies to share their experience.

Study trips and trade missions played an important role in opening up links in those early years as the Irish tip-toed into the uncharted former communist Europe. Enterprise Ireland and the embassies of both countries gave active encouragement.

In the early 1990s, Hungary was fertile ground for Irish consultants as it endeavoured to modernise its infrastructure. Investel, an offshoot of Telecom Éireann, was an early entrant and was responsible for raising the capital to modernise Hungary’s telecommunications.

Today, several Irish companies have expanded into Hungary – thanks to the openings brought about by the EU. Opening a direct air link was seen as vital. We supported a campaign that saw Malev Hungarian Airlines open routes to Dublin and Cork. In the past 10 years Malev has carried half a million passengers between both countries. Aer Lingus and Ryanair followed with direct flights. On most summer days there are now three return flights between Dublin and Budapest.

In its support for business growth the IHBA annually presents an award to the company or individual “judged to have made a significant contribution to Irish-Hungarian economic relations”. Recipients have included Kingspan, AIB International Financial Services Ltd and various technology companies. Another winner, Grafton Recruitment, is today the leading recruitment agency in central eastern Europe.

The years leading up to Hungary’s accession in 2004 also saw many delegations coming to Ireland to see at first hand how much we had benefited from EU Structural and Social Funding. We enjoyed an emblematic status as the one to emulate if and when they joined this European family of nations. And when that happy day arrived for the EU’s enlargement from 15 to 25 states in that year, it was particularly proud and poignant that it should happen in Ireland during our EU presidency. Who can forget that wonderful Farmleigh ceremony when so many former Iron Curtain countries joined the EU family of democratic nations?

That enlarged Union, and Irish-Hungarian economic ties in particular, have been good for Irish business and providing jobs for Irish people. This has been two-way. International healthcare provider Euromedic, which has expanded into Ireland providing work for over 150 people here, was founded in Hungary and has its headquarters there.

Close political relations have also developed. This is particularly useful at the EU negotiating table when smaller countries co-operate.

With the EU further enlarged to 27 members (Bulgaria and Romania joining in 2007), it was hardly surprising that institutions devised for a union of 15 countries, required further reform. Hence the Lisbon Treaty.

During its gestation, and in view of the fact that the Irish Government had played such a leading role in its development, it is fair to state that the political establishment, the business community and opinion makers in Hungary presumed that the last place this reforming treaty would run into major opposition would be Ireland.

They are simply baffled by our referendum result last year. They point to the benefits of the enlarged common market, the single currency and the EU Structural and Social Funds for Ireland, and they ask why we would want to jeopardise those developments not only for newer accession countries, like Hungary, but also for ourselves.

Certainly it’s not an easy one to explain.

Seán Eustace is vice-chairman of the Irish Hungarian  Business Association and chairman of Euromedic