After a long six months the Hungarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union ended in glory on the last day of June 2011. Croat accession negotiations to the EU have now officially closed; the next phase is the drafting of the accession treaty, followed by a referendum in Croatia and ratification in the EU’s 27 national parliaments. Then, hopefully on 1 January 2013, Croatia will become the EU’s 28th Member State. This is probably going to be by far the greatest legacy of the Hungarian Council presidency.
Where were we six months before?
Six months before, on 1 January 2011, when Hungary took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union, expectations in Brussels and other European capitals were either low or extremely low and the mood rather sombre. There was strong criticism of Budapest concerning its new media law; people also remembered a series of rather alarming facts that if taken together appeared to provide little hope. First, the country had almost gone bankrupt eighteen months earlier and needed a bailout brokered by the EU and the IMF. Second, the newly elected government in the late spring of 2010 had challenged the terms of these loans from international institutions. The same government has since struggled with the economic situation. Third, alongside the government with its constitutional majority a new extreme right wing force has appeared on the Hungarian political scene: the Jobbik. The anti-Roma radicalism of this party coupled with the structural weakness (or, as some put it, intellectual and ideological bankruptcy) of the Hungarian left put Mr. Orban’s Fidesz in a semi-monopoly position in parliament. The socioeconomic situation of the Roma minority remained an issue not only in Hungary but also across the Union. The issue became particularly visible three months before the Hungarian presidency when France threw out most of Romas who had migrated there from Central and Eastern Europe. And fourthly, the newly installed Orban government took the radical decision of reshuffling some of the most important persons, who were supposed to run the presidency, just a few weeks before it started. In short, it was a new government, economically unstable, challenged by the extreme right, with major domestic socioeconomic tensions and last minute changes to those who were to run the presidency. If there were any Hungarian Council presidency optimists left they were likely only to be found in Budapest or the Hungarian Permanent Representation.
Two factors have, however, been beneficial to the Hungarians. First, when expectations are very low it is relatively easy to meet and surpass them. Second, the Lisbon Treaty has completely changed the role of the rotating presidency. Before, the nature of the rotating presidencies was as much political as administrative. They were responsible for (almost) the entire European project. Under the new treaties the “political” aspect has largely evaporated. The main task of rotating presidencies in the new institutional system of the European Union is to take care (within the Council and with the European Parliament) of ongoing legislation. The Hungarians embraced this to the maximum and remained actively engaged in negotiating ongoing dossiers.
Success, failure and the issue of relevance
The Croat accession success is the most visible success, yet there were more. The Hungarian presidency is proud that it was able to conclude over 100 legislative files, with the most important – the six-pack on economic governance – being “almost” concluded by the end of June. The Hungarian list of official successes goes beyond the aforementioned and includes: the completion of the European Semester, the directive on consumer rights and progress on the Single Market Act, the progress of negotiations with Iceland, progress on the European Patent, cooperation with the High Representative on issues in the Western Balkans, North Africa, the United Nations and in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, adoption of the Danube Strategy and the Roma Strategy.
In Brussels in June, many were truly amazed as to how much the Hungarians were able to conclude. This positive image, however, was hardly visible outside the EU’s headquarters. The problem for the Hungarian presidency was that there was a large discrepancy between public attention (in the first two months) and the delivery of results (mainly in June). When good news items were to be reported the media were too busy with other topics to sum up Budapest’s achievements. Hence in many eyes the Hungarian presidency was, at best, a limited success because it did not turn out to be a major failure. One major setback was the cancellation of the May Eastern Partnership summit in Budapest. This was to have been a major event. It was postponed and is now scheduled to take place in Warsaw before the end of September 2011. One needs to remember that the event will officially be co-hosted by both the Poles and the Hungarians. Another major problem was a letter sent to the European Commission critical of the European Semester – this created some confusion as to what the presidency really wanted (one Hungarian minister was apparently pushing for fast European Semester assessments, while another was critical that they were being done too quickly). Another element that raised some eyebrows was the fact that some of the new officials working on the Hungarian presidency were still being trained in January: they were learning on the job. However their commitment helped public administrators and the Permanent Representative to achieve substantial results.
The larger issue at stake, however, is: is the rotating presidency at all relevant? All the major issues for the European Union over the first six months of 2011 did not fall within the remit of the rotating presidency. Yes, the Hungarians were there and helped as much as they could. On the key issues, however, they were either absent politically (not being a member of the Eurozone, the Hungarian finance minister did not participate in the Eurogroup meetings) or structurally (the situation in North Africa and the conflict in Libya were primarily the responsibility of the High Representative). All in all the Hungarians have provided good services of high quality, but with, or without, them the system would have functioned (or not) as usual. What is the added value of the rotating presidency for the EU? Should the system of rotating Council presidencies be maintained or limited in the future?
In the Hungarian case, initial expectations were so low that it was no challenge to surpass them, though early criticism of Hungarian domestic politics in the European press did not make life easy. Some comments during the presidency were very negative, even offensive. At the same time these criticisms reflected not only a specific view of Hungarian domestic affairs but also two other developments. First, the Hungarians ran a low profile presidency, in which the political class did not challenge the efforts of the bureaucrats, but neither did they provide much assistance. Second, despite the good efforts of public officials, the image of the country has not improved over the last few months. Post-Lisbon, the added value of having rotating presidencies could be twofold but the Hungarians scored poorly on one count and potentially very well on the other. The first six months of 2011 was the perfect opportunity to promote the image of Hungary but this was not exploited as well as it could have been. This was mainly due to the domestic political situation but also limited activities. On the second count the result was better. Investment in public officials, who know in detail the functioning of the EU machinery, cannot be overvalued. This should contribute to a more effective Hungarian participation in future EU integration.
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This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.