Interview with Hungarian news portal Origo

When you accepted President Obama’s nomination as United States ambassador to Hungary, were you expecting to land in such a turbulent scene?

When I received the call from the White House that I had been nominated to serve as U.S. ambassador, I was extremely excited by the opportunity. I had travelled to Hungary before, and I liked the country very much.  I also knew that Hungary is a geopolitical axis, a very important country that is both a member of NATO and the European Union. So yes, I understood that there would be a complexity of issues that I would be dealing with.

Ever since the migration crisis escalated, we’ve been waiting for a statement from the Embassy, but it seemed there would be none. Why have you been silent until now?

Don’t mistake our public silence for inaction. We have been communicating with the Hungarian government, with NGOs, and with the public regarding the crisis since I arrived here in January. We know that the migration issue is dynamic and complicated. We also know that Hungary as a sovereign nation has the right to secure its borders. What we promote is for the European Union – including Hungary — to come up with a comprehensive and unified approach to this very difficult situation.

You mentioned the Hungarian government. Does that mean that you are also speaking to Prime Minister Orbán on migration issues?

No, I have not spoken to the prime minister directly on the topic, but I am in frequent conversation with Foreign Minister Szijjártó and a variety of other government officials.

Does that mean you have also expressed your opinion on the border fence?

How Hungary chooses to protect its borders is a sovereign decision.  I have had detailed conversations with a variety of people on the migration issue. Also, as a representative of the United States Government, I have had the opportunity to offer assistance to the Hungarian Cabinet.

What assistance?

Most recently, we have had the opportunity to offer technical assistance and information sharing to the government.  During the height of the crisis, we understood that Hungary was in the very difficult position of trying to abide by the expectations of the European Union, as members of the Schengen Zone, and in compliance with the Dublin Agreement. The technical assistance and information sharing is meant to help meet the logistical and humanitarian challenges Hungary faces in trying to deal with an influx of vulnerable, displaced people.  The U.S. Government has already committed 4.5 billion dollars worldwide to help address the situation of the more than 12 million Syrians displaced by this long, devastating conflict, and the Embassy has also given directly to organizations that are helping to provide assistance.  For example, we provided a grant to the Hungarian Red Cross to help them establish an office to assist the migrants and refugees at the border.  That is in addition to a larger commitment by the U.S. Government to the International Red Cross, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, and other international aid organizations.  And on a personal level, many of my colleagues here have donated clothing, shoes, and money through local religious organizations, schools, and NGOs, to help with the assistance efforts.  We have been doing what we can, at many levels.

And could you also offer a solution to the treatment of refugees?

We understand that Hungary is in a difficult position, trying to abide by the expectations of the European Union, and also to act in compliance with the Dublin agreement. But we promote the humane treatment of refugees. The United States is not in a position to prescribe a solution to this problem, but what we can continue to do is advocate for the humane treatment of the refugees and migrants.

Have you followed their situation personally? Have you visited any refugee camps?

I’ve been following it very closely ever since I arrived here in January and I can tell you the anti-immigration rhetoric that we hear and what I read in the papers is not helpful to the situation. Also, it doesn’t represent the Hungarian people. The Hungarian people I know and that I’ve come to love are hospitable, caring, generous, and compassionate people.  The loudest voices don’t always represent the values of Hungarian people that I know. I personally know people, NGOs, and religious institutions that have been down at the border, volunteering, helping the refugees.

Foreign Minister Szijjártó often said that the international media is not always depicting events as they are actually happening in Hungary. Does that mean you agree with that?

Some of the international news that I’ve seen coming out of Hungary during this time has only shown one side of the crisis. But we need to talk about the other side, the Hungarians that have been available and committed to helping the refugees and migrants. This is where reasonable Hungarian voices could help better tell the story.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Berschinski, arrived to Hungary today. Is there a reason for the timing of his visit?

Deputy Assistant Secretaries come through Hungary quite often – that’s a good thing.     DAS Berschinski is from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.  There’s no specific reason for his visit other than spending time with us here at the Embassy and meeting members of the government officials and NGOs, and a variety of other people.

On the international scale, Orbán Viktor and even Áder János, president of Hungary, proposed an international refugee resettlement program. Would the United States be ready to take part in it?

This migration crisis is a global crisis, so there would have to be a broad range of burden sharing in managing the situation. Recently the United States has committed to receiving at least 10,000 more refugees from Syria. But it is also important to note that the United States takes in refugees from over 70 countries from around the world. We are committed to helping integrate and assimilate people who are fleeing conflict zones all around the world.

There are voices within the European Union – including that of the British prime minister David Cameron and the German chancellor Angela Merkel – who say that a softer stance should be taken on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Assad is overwhelmingly responsible for the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Syria today. Over 250,000 Syrians were killed and 12 million displaced in the country.

Still, there needs to be a Syrian solution to the problem.

I agree it’s important to look at the root causes. Most of the people who are fleeing the conflict would like to go home and wouldn’t generally leave their homes and jobs. That is why the international community, including the United States, will need to work together to find stability so that these refugees would not have to flee. The United States is also committed to helping the victims.  The White House is providing $419 million in additional life-saving assistance for those affected by the war in Syria.  There is a fact sheet that the White House just issued on this issue that we have posted in Hungarian on our website, under the policy blog.

Returning to the relationship of Hungary and the United States, it was quite evident that the visa ban put a strain on it. Now that Ildikó Vida has resigned, do you see an improvement?

I can’t comment on specific travel bans that have been issued, but what I can tell you is that the United Stated is still committed to combating corruption wherever it exists. We are still willing to use the travel ban as a tool when there is sufficient evidence that corrupt activities have taken place.

Economic ties between Hungary and the U.S. are very strong, but some American investors have complained about the investment climate recently. Do you see that as a setback?

It is true that the two countries have had strong economic cooperation for decades, and it’s a great success of our bilateral relationship. However, we continue to advocate for healthy investment climate in Hungary. For a good investment climate it is necessary to have predictability, fairness, and transparency in the country.

Does that mean these are not always present in Hungary?

Many U.S. companies here are very happy with their experience. They have an excellent workforce, great infrastructure, and in some industries, very good tax incentives. But I do hear from some investors – potential ones as well – that they would like to make sure that there is consistency and predictability in the marketplace. They want a level playing field.  This should be important in promoting future foreign investment.

On the personal note: you arrived to Hungary in January. Have you managed to settle since then?

I feel like I settled within the first 24 hours. I was so happy to finally arrive, as it had taken such a long time to be able to get on a plane and come to work. My family loves it here and I love waking up in the morning and coming to work, no matter how complicated my job is.   People always ask me, and I can say professionally the work is extraordinarily interesting — enjoyably demanding.  Budapest has excellent cultural opportunities, great restaurants, and the Hungarian people are warm and friendly.  On the weekends we like to take a drive out in the countryside, or go hiking at Normafa.  I’ve also been to all the tourist spots, including Széchenyi bath, MÜPA, the Opera House, Aggtelek, Mohacs, Hollókő and Szentendre. I must tell you I am having so much fun exploring this beautiful, vibrant, and dynamic country.