Natalie Hamill: Eastern Promise?

The new Hungarian Presidency of the EU Council of Ministers has successfully shifted attention to Eastern Europe. However, so far, the focus has been for all the wrong reasons. After just two weeks at the helm, Hungary has set the Presidency on a very different course to its Belgian predecessor, clashed horns with EU heavy-weights France and Germany and rolled out a ‘welcome mat’ (a series of ‘carpet maps’ in the Council of the European Union building) that harps back to the Hungarian empire.

The Hungarian Parliament’s decision to push through a law that supposedly curtails national media rights mere days before taking over an EU leadership position was illjudged at best. The Hungarian foreign minister believes their national policy should be separate to EU presidential issues. However, the EU frequently justifies its raison d’être on its normative power base (particularly its democratic values) and its leading by example doesn’t work so well when the new ‘face’ of this agenda is simultaneously imposing restrictions on the freedom of its national press.

The EU Commission admitted that it is ‘uneasy’ about the media law and France and Germany didn’t waste any time in publicly criticising Hungary, condemning the law as incompatible with ‘EU values’ – criticism to which Hungarian President, Viktor Orbán, reportedly retorted ‘get real!’

Perhaps President Orbán may have some call to be indignant (pot... kettle... black…springs to mind, recalling France’s unpopular round of Roma evictions last summer); nevertheless he is foolish to let the row continue when Hungary has the EU’s undivided attention for the first time since its accession in 2004, and an extensive list of pressing priorities.

Hungary’s main priority is consistent with the EU’s longterm goal towards improving economic stability across the Eurozone. It will have to navigate previously unchartered waters to develop the permanent bailout fund (the European Stability Mechanism), due to be established by 2013. Outside of economic stability, the Energy Summit in February will also be an important opportunity for Hungary, who will be looked on to guide the negotiations regarding gas flows. Security of supply is an issue long in need of ironing out.

But it is progress in the east where Hungary’s leadership could hold real promise. In May, Hungary will host the second Eastern Partnership Summit, facilitating discussion with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia,Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus. The next six months should see the accession of Croatia to the EU, and Hungary will also revive discussion on Serbia’s potential accession, mapping its path to official candidate status. Furthermore, Hungary will be expected to preside over Bulgaria and Romania’s entrance to the Schengen zone (due by March 2011). On top of all this, Hungary has declared itself ready to try to resolve the bitter name dispute between Macedonia and Greece, should talks be required.

Arguably, however, since the rotating presidential role has been altered by the introduction of the permanent EU Council Presidency (currently Herman Van Rompuy), results are better realised when the rotating president adopts more of a mediator role, smoothing ruffled feathers and fostering consensus. From this perspective, the key priorities for the next six months involve divisive issues (enlargement towards the east still engenders polarised opinions) and it is clear that tact, diplomacy and perseverance are the skills most in demand to achieve results – skills that, over the last two weeks, Hungary has appeared to be somewhat lacking.

But... all is not lost. Belgium endured its fair share of critical headlines when it took over the role in July last year (the collapse of its government a month earlier and its inability to establish a new one didn’t bode well for the 6 month term). In spite of the tumultuous events, however, it still managed to fade quietly into the background and get things done. If there is one area in which the Belgians excel, it is effectively managing long, drawn out discussions, and during their time at the helm, they umpired a satisfactory solution to the lengthy 2011 EU budget negotiations, an agreement on amending the Lisbon Treaty, as well as improvements in regulating the banking sector.

So the important question now must be whether Hungary is capable of similar transformations? Its bullish national programme so far, and refusal to backtrack, would suggest not. Bludgeoning the national press and introducing brutal new taxes on European firms in Hungary, does not sit well on the world stage. But, if Hungary redirects this energy into the current challenges facing the EU, the presidency could deliver some trailblazing results. Let’s not forget, Hungary has one big advantage; a far cry from the arguably Western/Central Europe centric stance of the last year, the new presidency moves the focus eastwards. Here Hungary has credibility, together with an inside knowledge more likely to wring satisfying results out of a number of pending discussions.

There is no doubt that Hungary has the enthusiasm for the role; now they just need the political finesse – and judgement – to succeed.

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