Dutch ambassador to Hungary: The anti-LGBTQ-law causes anguish in Hungarian families
August 13. 2021. – 03:55 PM
A law that conflates paedophilia and LGBTI issues is harmful, says Dutch ambassador René van Hell, who will leave Hungary at the end of August. He says that Hungarian politics is also a topic for the Dutch press. Although there are often disputes between the two countries, environmental protection is a common bond between the Netherlands and Hungary. Van Hell had no regrets about coming to Budapest as an ambassador and even traversed the country – left and right, south and north, east and west.
Last year on the 100th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Netherlands and Hungary, you said in a video message that you chose Hungary, that you wanted to be an ambassador here. In spite of the last four years, do you still think it was the right decision?
Oh, absolutely, for all the reasons that I applied for this job. I very much like working in the context of the European Union, and I visited Hungary when I was young. I went with my parents to Balaton – it was in the south, I think it was Balatonlelle. And of course, we saw other cities, and of course, a few times Budapest, so that sort of created my curiosity. Hungary is in the center of Europe, so I really was and am happy about my choice. In some diplomatic circles, you cannot apply, but in the Netherlands, you can, so it makes life quite easier or nicer because at least you get to do some things that you are really interested in.
This was a normal four-year period for you as an ambassador, but the way you arrived in 2017 was hardly normal. At that time, foreign minister Péter Szijjártó got into a diplomatic scuffle over the words of the then Dutch ambassador. Has there been any conflicts in the last four years, or was the relationship between you and the Hungarian Government officials rather peaceful?
There was definitely not a conflict like that, and I mean, as an ambassador, you're responsible for keeping open relationships, and we did, and we were always able to work in a cordial and polite way. So, we didn't have those kinds of scandals. Of course, you're also aware that in the European Union, in the context of the European Council or any Councils, there's quite some discussion between my country and Hungary. But that's also why we are in the European Union. I mean, it's about cooperating, but also differing in opinions and interests. I had and have cordial working relations with people in, for example, the Prime Minister's Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Justice, which is of course also important for us, because it deals with the EU.
According to your work, environmental awareness is a very important issue for you – which is particularly important for the Netherlands in general, too, because the sea level rise is a real danger for the country. Where do you see Hungary in terms of environmental awareness?
The problems with water are different in Hungary, you're not below sea level – or if you are, then you don't have to worry about the rising sea tides so much because of the mountains around you. But of course, I think that is an important issue, climate change also affects Hungary like it does many countries. Balaton is a pearl of Hungary, so you don't want that to dry up – of course, there's no short-term chance that it will. But yeah, I think it's important, there's always a lot of discussion in Europe, and, for example, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and President Áder were on the High-Level Panel for Water – and they've formulated recommendations together for the UN.
The fact that the Netherlands and Hungary, within the context of the European Union, agrees on the climate change policy – I think it really shows how effective the European Union can be, because it helps you to cooperate, and it also stops you sometimes from not doing the right thing.
If we mentioned him: since 2010, Mark Rutte and Viktor Orbán have been continuously in office as prime ministers. This is a striking coincidence, but Rutte is one of Orbán's toughest critics in the EU. Is the political situation in Hungary an issue in Dutch domestic politics?
You know Mark Rutte and Prime Minister Orbán have a lot of discussions. I don't think that they're personally each other's critics, but their parties that they represent or the policies that they represent are definitely food for thought and discussion. Does Hungary receive attention in Dutch newspapers? Yes, I think so. And of course, I'm the Netherlands' ambassador to Hungary, so I'm maybe a little bit biased when I open De Telegraaf or Volkskrant or Algemeen Dagblad. But Hungary is definitely in the news. And then, of course, the differences of opinion – sometimes political, sometimes a bit more fundamental – are described, but there's yeah, it's definitely part of a discord in the Netherlands.
René van Hell was born in Amsterdam in 1964 and graduated from the University of Amsterdam in 1988. Previously he worked as an advisor in several ministries, and from 2004, he was Head of Economic Division at the Dutch Embassy in Washington. From 2012, he was Director of International Enterprise at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in 2017 he arrived in Budapest as Dutch Ambassador. Van Hell will move back to the Netherlands at the end of August and will be succeeded in Hungary by Désirée Bonis, who has previously served as Dutch ambassador to Syria and Morocco, and will take over the embassy in September.
When the anti-LGBTQ law passed in Hungary in June, you said in an interview that everyone should have the freedom to choose whatever way they want to live their lives. This 'freedom of choice' resembles what Prime Minister Rutte said at that time, that Hungary has the freedom to choose to leave the European Union. What is the Dutch view on this Hungarian anti-LGBTQ law?
I think when this was said by Rutte, this was, to a certain degree, of course, rhetorical. It's a Fidesz policy that Prime Minister Rutte criticized, and I think that one of his main concerns is that it seems to conflate paedophilia and the persons from the LGBTQI-group. No matter in which country the Netherlands has an embassy, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is active, in all those countries, human rights are important to us – and within human rights, the position of LGBTQI is a priority. Which is personally also important for me because I'm gay, and it's of course valuable to work for an organization that embraces your own human rights.
Do you feel maybe personally affected by this law, or do you have any personal opinion about that?
You know that's a good thing to ask, as European citizens, you can have personal opinions about everything, but I'm an ambassador. So when I speak with you, I have professional opinions. But of course –
I mean, if there was all of a sudden a law that said something about relatively young male journalists with beards, it would've also caught your attention.
But it's definitely something that I hope we can work out. It's of importance that Hungary has laws against paedophilia, and it's also perfectly fine that Hungary has different opinions or has no gay marriage. I mean, that's not what we're talking about, but it's mixing those two.
And perhaps an observation based on common sense: children are raised straight, but some of them are born LGBTI, like me. I know from experience that when you find out when you're young that you're gay, it's helpful if people sort of realize that it's just a variety and not something weird or crazy or stupid. So, in that sense, if kids get some education that it exists and that it's just a variety of many things that we have in life, I think it helps in understanding each other and in that sense, I think it is important to have some education, that people can be gay or lesbian or transgender or heterosexual or asexual.
The government must make sure that LGBTI human rights are respected and equally important and promote that LGBTI-persons get the same kind of respect as any other citizen in society.
A law that conflates paedophilia and LGBTI issues is therefore harmful. Conflating the two causes anguish in Hungarian families, that's the making of this law. Any storyline that 'Brussels' on this issue goes after the well-being of Hungarian families is inaccurate, hence nonsense.
Not just human rights are important for the Dutch embassy but also press freedom. You took part in the organization of Transparency International's Soma-Award for Hungarian investigative journalists. According to the Reporters Without Borders, Hungarian press freedom is in danger, and Prime Minister Orbán was recently called an „enemy of press freedom” by them. What do you think of the media situation here in Hungary?
Let's first talk about Soma. I think the beauty of press freedom is that it can offer such strong checks-and-balance on other institutions in a democracy. For example, if the New York Times would not have come out with the Hillary-emails on her private server story, I don't know, you never know what kind of a role that played [in the US elections in 2016], but it was good that it came out. At one time, Volkskrant published the news about the previous Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs and then he had to step down. So, I think that when you speak about media, there is a pluriformity, there's independence, and there's freedom of speech. I think that how Telex organized itself, you guys organized yourself, was a great show of being daring and entrepreneurial, so I have a lot of sympathy for that. Having a strong news portal that strives to be independent – and that writes sometimes critical things about the Netherlands –, I think that's very healthy.
It is my impression that people can say what they want in Hungary, but it's also important to have strong venues like yours to bring across messages. There's, of course, this element of having strong venues, and then there's of course also the incredible impact of social media, whether it's in Hungary or the Netherlands or the United States. If I look back then, I still think that the insurgency on January 6th against the US Capitol – sort of ignited by the lies of former President Trump that he had won the elections – was one of the most impactful things that I witnessed over the last four years, and which still has an impact, because there are still people who believe his lies.
So, how to deal with the pluriformity of the media, including social media, is very important. I'm also active on social media, and I also try to really be careful not to sink in the bubble of people who I like or not; I really try to keep an open spectrum. But there are people, who have access to social media, but then they also sometimes sink in their own bubble – or people who are so isolated that, for example, they do not have access to the internet and, for example, cannot read Telex and then they just read whatever is available. I know that, and some people tell me that that is an issue also in Hungary.
Back in 2019, you commented on the plan of establishing administrative courts in Hungary – which plans were eventually dropped by the government – that without independent courts, we cannot talk about the rule of law. Recently, legal experts commissioned by members of the European Parliament concluded that Hungary lacked the guarantee of independent courts enforcing EU law. What do you think about this? Are the Hungarian courts still independent?
These things are said and written also in the context of the Article 7 procedure that's going on in the European Council, in the General Affairs Council. On top of that, the Commission has started with a new working method, that's the annual rule of law plan, that has chapters on countries. I think the beauty of this working method is that these issues are discussed in Brussels. It's important that it's looked at these incidents, and, of course, Minister Judit Varga also plays an important role in the General Affairs Council in explaining what she thinks of the Netherlands' position and then of the position of other Ministers of Foreign Affairs. I think it's important that there is a discussion in Hungary about its institutions just as much as in the Netherlands – and that their functioning is discussed widely in Hungarian newspapers. The institutions of the state are only as strong as they are backed up by transparency and by people understanding what they're doing, so it's important work for you to point that out.
How have the restrictions affected your work? Where have you been in Hungary in recent years?
The work keeps you for quite a little bit in Budapest, but I've really traversed the country left and right, south and north, east and west. And the pandemic was, anyway, even more of an invitation to also go outward, so I went for a lot of hikes in Pécs and in Mátra and near the border of Slovakia. Of course, the pandemic, and everybody who obeyed the rules were put to limitations. Having meetings and meet one-on-ones or two-on-twos – this is, of course, the oxygen of being a diplomat. But we were still able to work, and though I couldn't go for example to restaurants, to the Zeneakadémia, Müpa or whatever sports events, I just compensated it with walking around a lot.
You're not just walked, but also maybe biked a lot: you were in part organizing the event „I bike Budapest”, you have opened this parade. Is that the thing you are most proud of from the last four years? Or is it something else?
I'm very happy as an embassy to participate in „I bike Budapest”, but it is an initiative of Hungarian citizens, so it's something that I'm happy to contribute to. What am I most proud about? I think what I'm really proud of is that the network I built, that is very diverse: with sportspeople, politicians, opposition or Fidesz, NGOs, companies, GONGOs, not only urban intelligentsia but also mayors of small towns, rural farmers/villagers or winemakers in the countryside etc., so that was really a lot of fun.
We have a great team at the embassy, which I'm also proud of, and I'm also proud of that I was able to convince headquarters that we should make Hungary a priority country for cultural cooperation. So, there will be more money to set up cultural projects, and I'm actually very happy about that because that is really a very good way to create some understanding and to raise some curiosity.
It was also a nice cultural thing: I was part of a book club, and the criteria was that you should be able to speak Dutch. So, there were Hungarians who spoke Dutch and Dutchies who of course spoke Dutch. All of them lived in Hungary, so it was a very inspiring way to discuss Hungarian literature – but then also in the context of the country.
In recent years more and more Dutch people have chosen Hungary as their new home. There are many reports that because of living conditions and the costs of living, they make it better here than in the Netherlands. Have you met Dutch people who settled here in Hungary?
Yeah, many. I mean it's many Dutch people, but there's also a lot of companies that have their headquarters in the Netherlands and have now set up a shop here in Hungary. I think 700. Moreover, the bilateral trade is strong and yes, and there's a lot of Dutch people who like the lifestyle here, the quality of life, and they probably also realize that with their euros they can buy a little bit more in Hungary than in the Netherlands, especially when it comes to houses for example. For many reasons people live here, and I'm also friends with some of the Dutch who live here. And I think that's also great about the European Union that you have that freedom to move to other countries. And don't forget: Hungary, even when it was under the influence of the Soviet Union, it had a relatively positive image, and that's why also a lot of companies immediately after the change of regime, or let's say of the instalment of democracy, the end of dictatorship, chose Hungary as their regional hub for Central and Eastern Europe.
Are you considering moving to Hungary? After the ambassador years, somewhere in the future?
You know, I'm now 57, I'm going to work another 11 years, I don't know where I will end up. I will probably live in a couple of other countries, but I also very much like where I'm from, from Amsterdam, so I think Amsterdam makes for an ideal home base to travel the rest of the world when I would be retired when I'm 68. But luckily, that's a good 11 years from now, so I still have a lot of time to work, I'm glad. But if you ask me: do you come back to Hungary? Absolutely, I made friends, I will definitely come back.
The famous politician of the Dutch right-wing, Geert Wilders calls Hungary his second home because his wife is from here, and he has a famous pop-musician friend here, Bunyós Pityu. Have you got some musician or famous Hungarian, with whom you got into a friendship during these four years?
Oh, that's nice that you said it. I mean, I very much admire the work of Iván Fischer and his daughter Nóra. I met with his daughter, and I watched and listened to the performances of Iván Fischer; I definitely have a lot of respect for what he is doing and the position that he has in both of our countries. I think that's a wonderful example.
This article and its Hungarian original was created as part of a cooperation between V4 media outlets coordinated by Visegrad Insight, with the participation of the Czech Denik.cz, Slovakian DennikN.sk, Polish Res Publica Nowa and Onet.pl, and Hungarian Telex.hu. The English version of this article was first published on Visegrad Insight.