Paul Fox, the United Kingdom’s new ambassador to Hungary, introduced himself to Hungarians in a video back in September, in which he showed off his excellent Hungarian skills as well. Hungary Today had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with Ambassador Fox and talk about the challenges in arriving to the country in the middle of the coronavirus crisis and after Brexit, and talk a bit about the ambassador’s favorite sport, football.
In your introductory video, you said that the infamous 6:3 Hungary-England match does not hurt anymore. Remember who scored those goals against the British?
It still hurts a bit, but we have learnt a lot from it. And yes, I still remember the footballers who scored the goals. Puskás scored two, Hidegkuti three, and then Bozsik. Puskás scored the really famous third goal, the drag-back, and well, the first goal of Hidegkuti was also extraordinary, because it was in the first few minutes. I’ve watched it on Youtube, it’s available there.
Actually in the World Cup qualifiers, we will be in the same group, so we’ll see if we have reason to be “angry” again.
Yes, that’s right! The plan is England comes here in September. In the group, it is interesting that there’s England, Hungary, Poland, all the awkward Europeans. That will be interesting. I hope that spectators can also attend it.
I know you’re a big football fan, have you ever seen a Hungarian team play? Now, because of the coronavirus, it can only be on TV, but still. What do you think of us?
I went to see Ferencváros against Juventus in the Puskás Ferenc Arena, it was in October, just before the lockdown. Ferencváros lost 4-1, which was a shame, because in the first half they were doing quite well, but in the second half they seemed to lose energy. And you know, Juventus has more experience and they have Ronaldo.
Let’s leave football behind. How did you get to Hungary? Your predecessor, Ambassador Lindsay said that ambassadors have to apply for a certain country. Why did you choose this particular country?
Yes, we have to apply to the job in the Foreign Office, but anyone can apply from other government departments or from outside as well. I applied because it is a region I loved. I served in Poland, and I had a very happy time there. I studied the region at university, so I knew a bit about the culture, the history, and when I was the deputy ambassador in Poland, I would come down to Budapest for conferences and I thought I’d really love to work here. And when the job came up, I thought, why not?
I was keen to try to learn Hungarian, even though it is incredibly difficult, and I was very fortunate and got the job. And it is a real privilege and honor to be here.
What did you know about the country before you came here?
I did know a fair amount, mainly about its 20th century history. In particular about Hungary’s post-war experience, obviously the ’56 revolution, the so-called goulash socialism, the new economic mechanism of 1968 – I actually studied that at university, would you believe it? And of course the change of the system in 1989, when I was actually working at the Foreign Office department dealing with this part of the world, when the wall went down. Changes also took place in Poland, during that incredible period in October-November, when basically we saw the massive changes in all the regimes in the Eastern bloc.
So you know a lot about communism then. What do you think about the fact that for many, especially in this part of Europe, the socialist regime is a trauma, even for those who only heard about it from their parents and grandparents, while for others, especially in western Europe it is an exciting utopia. How do you see this and do you understand what it means for Hungarians?
Well, as the famous English poet Samuel Johnson said, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” And I think it captures communism in a sense that in its terms of intentions and aspirations it is admirable, but in terms of its practice it is abominable.
I don’t think I know another system – not even nazi Germany – under which more people have suffered and died. And it is interesting, because everybody still talks about East and West, but in my opinion it is rather a false idea, because there is Central Europe as well. One of the real changes after 1989 was the re-emergence of Central Europe. It does have a distinct culture and history. And nowadays, in terms of the EU, it is very much about North and South.
Well that’s true. You said we have a distinct culture here, what have you seen of it so far? Have you traveled around Hungary a bit?
I went to Miskolc before the lockdown, and I was hoping to go to Veszprém next month. And I spent a good portion of the summer in Pécs, (continues in Hungarian:) Különösen augusztusban, amikor magyarul tanultam az egyetemen. Nagyon jó tapasztalat volt, nagyon hasznos nekem. – Especially in August, when I learned the language at the university. It was a great and useful experience.
És hogy megy a magyar? (And how does the language learning go?)
Azt gondolom, hogy nagyon rosszul beszélek magyarul, de megpróbálom. – I think I speak really bad Hungarian, but I am trying. (laughs).
No, you are great, really! How long have you been learning it?
I started to learn Hungarian in the UK before I came here, but it was disrupted by the pandemic last spring and I lost about 3 months of language training. Then I continued it in Pécs and I have been trying to take lessons since then. I took an exam in February.
I saw on social media pages you asked for advice on what to read. Maybe it would be good practice, especially during lockdown.
I have read a lot about Hungarian history, but not much Hungarian literature yet. I’m still meeting a lot of people, have a lot of work to do. But recently, I was in a meeting with politicians and they gave me a book of poetry, Ady. I think it is quite difficult, modern Hungarian poetry from the 20th century.
I’m sure you can manage. And what about Hungarian food, have you been able to try some?
My colleagues at the press team took me to a place that was the best lángosh place in Budapest, there’s a picture of me on Instagram. It was huge, and I wanted to share with them, but everyone said “oh, we are on a diet, we can’t have any.” So I had to eat the whole thing. It was quite nice, but not good for the waistline. Hungarian food is extraordinary, very different from what we have in the UK.
Emlékeztek még arra, amikor megkérdeztünk benneteket, hogy melyik magyar ételt kóstolja meg feltétlenül Fox nagykövet?…
Közzétette: UK in Hungary – 2021. február 7., vasárnap
What are your impressions of the Hungarian people? I know because of the lockdown its harder to meet with us, but from the few experiences you’ve had?
It’s been a challenge. I mean, lockdown in particular has been a challenge. I’ve met a lot of people though, but there are no receptions, no conferences, or other events so meeting people in a group is a challenge. But you know,
Hungarian hospitality has still been excellent, they are very welcoming, and they feel strongly about things. That’s the impression I got. And I think there’s a strict rebellious streak I noticed as well.
Do you think it is a diplomatic difficulty, or rather a challenge to arrive at such a time during the coronavirus and after Brexit?
Coronavirus is a big challenge, not just personally, but in terms of the sort of environment I had to start working in. And it’s a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and even though we have vaccines and even though in the UK the figures are going in the right direction, it is going to be hard. So that is a challenge and it certainly will overshadow the first part of my ambassadorship.
Brexit is different. I will be the first post-Brexit British ambassador to Hungary. It can provide an opportunity, particularly with our European partners. Because we are no longer part of certain institutions, which means we’ve got to refresh our bilateral relationships. And I think, with Hungary, it will be a particularly important relationship because of your role in the region and the V4, and the profile that your Prime Minister has. I mean, after Angela Merkel steps down, he will be the longest serving European head of government and he is an influential figure.
How much does Brexit complicate Hungarian-British relations?
I don’t think it would complicate it, it can be any relation, that’s the thing. It’s a refresh. I won’t say there won’t be difficulties, but there are so many areas where we can work together. One particular area is climate change. At the end of this year, we are hosting a climate conference. And I think Hungary’s activities in this field are under-reported and not very well understood. And I think they can play a key role in bringing other European countries from this region with them with their high climate ambition.
How much will Hungarian workers and students be missed after Brexit? Can you see that there are fewer of them?
Well, yes, it’s one of the difficulties of Brexit- the people’s side. Freedom of movement no longer exists, but Hungarians can still freely travel, visit us as tourists, and people can still register for settled and pre-settled status until June this year. Quite a significant number of Hungarians have already applied for residency.
So, although freedom of movement no longer exists, it doesn’t mean we are the fortress of Europe.
People can come and go to the UK, it’s just new arrangements. It is still possible to study in the UK as well. It’s more expensive, yes, but our education is still one of the best in the world and those expenses existed before. Who wants to learn at the best universities in the world will still pay for it.
As you said, the British are getting on well with their vaccination plan and the figures are going in the right direction. Is it possible that Brexit plays a role in this? I mean, the EU has its own contingent of vaccines, the distribution of which is sometimes harder, while the UK could act on their own.
I think the success of the vaccination is planning. To be perfectly honest, we all make mistakes; we made mistakes early on in the crisis and we have learnt from that. We invested in vaccines early on and we negotiated in particular with AstraZeneca, hoping that their vaccine will be effective – which it is, thanks to the brilliant work of the scientists, and the contribution of Oxford University. So I think it is only very good planning, from early on.
I wouldn’t want to compare our experiences with the EU’s experience. It’s not a competition, we should be working together to combat the coronavirus. And we will work together with you as well.
Did you share your country’s experience with the Hungarian government?
Yes, I have spoken to the Ministry of Human Resources, who are responsible for the medical side of things and I am more than happy to share experiences and information.
In your introductory video, you also mentioned the importance of democracy. You have already taken a stand on an issue – the family is family campaign – which is a more divisive issue here in Hungary than in western Europe, both for the public and in political terms as well. Can we expect you to take a stand by similar issues in the future?
Yes, I think so. One of the things I would like to stress that the UK was, is, and will remain a key international player.
One of the things which we are very passionate about are the values we believe the UK represents. Whether that be democracy, belief in the rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of belief, and so on. And I would say the UK has shown itself to be – well, it’s a loaded term but a liberal democracy.
And when it comes to issues like the family, the UK showed over the years that it’s a great supporter of families, as a group of people love and support each other. It’s as simple as that. Do we politicize it? I don’t think so. It’s a basic human right. Family is a family. What we in the UK say is that families are important and love and support within families is also important.
Speaking of democracy and the rule of law, the British have not been as involved in the debate on the Rule of Law as for example, the Germans. Why? Do you think everything is alright in Hungary?
No, because that’s the matter of the European Union and we are no longer part of the EU. Of course we were interested, but we are now just interested observers rather than active participants. We will follow the outcomes and conclusions of these debates, but it is not for us to get involved in it, we are no longer part of that discussion.
The former ambassador was very active on social media sites- can we expect the same from you?
Look, I think I will, social media is really important. The British Embassy in Hungary is not unique in using social media. Of course, the use of it varies from country to country, because for example here in Hungary, the most popular platforms are Facebook and Instagram, the latter with the younger demographics, but Twitter is not that widely used. When I was running the Embassy in Dubai, Twitter was really important, everybody was on it. But social media is a great way in getting across what we as an embassy do, what values we believe in and what interests me. And we can also use it to build bilateral relations in a fun way.
Will you also recite poems for your social media followers or invent something new of your own?
Yes, I’ll have something different, another area of interest.
Maybe singing Hungarian songs?
Trust me, you don’t want to hear me sing, I can tell you that. But maybe, for me, it will be football. For example, later on, I will meet the Hungarian Tottenham supporters club (Tottenham is Ambassador Fox’s club – ed.) and they will hand me a shirt. You’ll probably see me getting more involved in local football. As the pandemic allows, I might see Ferencváros again.
Great, just be careful not to offend the other Budapest clubs either!
Oh, yes, I know I must not express a certain interest for a certain Budapest club, because there are a lot of great clubs in the city.
Photos by Attila Lambert/Hungary Today