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Hungary's EU presidency - a historic opportunity? | Dávid Harangozó

Hungary's EU presidency - a historic opportunity?

As Hungary prepares for its presidency of the European Union, the basic message its government wishes to convey echoes one of the pieces of advice our first king, Saint Stephen gave his son some one thousand years ago: unity built from multiplicity.

Hungary will get a unique, one may even say, historic opportunity during the first half of 2011 when it takes over the EU-Presidency from Belgium. In fact, 2011 may even become the ’Year of Central Europe’ as it is Warsaw that Budapest will hand over the presidency to. Thus, the region will have a second chance to demonstrate its ability to provide leadership to the European community after the more or less failed presidency of the Czech Republic and, on the positive side, to show that the region between the Russian and German speaking peoples is one of the fastest growing areas in the world. The prospects for a successful Hungarian presidency are mixed at best.

The state of the economy is rather shaky; very few if anyone really knows how the Hungarian economy will be performing under the pressure of the international financial institutions and the domestic social and political circumstances. The Fidesz-government has committed itself to downsizing the administration on both the national and the local levels; the austerity package is bound to create, at least, temporary disturbances in the functioning of these institutions. In comparison to the above problems, the financial one seems to be of negligible importance; however, it may cause hiccups in the preparation that the previous government did not provide for the required funds for the presidency and the financial hole has to be plugged in by taking away HUF billions from the cash-strapped government institutions. On top of it, the existing infrastructure, especially that of Budapest, will be put under a severe test, as well.

Hungarians and the EU

The political gains can easily offset the financial and technical difficulties. The Presidency will provide a rare opportunity to introduce Hungary to Europe at large and, conversely, to introduce the European Union to the Hungarian people.

Popular support of Hungary’s membership in the Union has dropped since our accession for a number or reasons – unfounded and excessive expectations, the specter of secondclass citizenship, the perceived or real favors heaped upon multinational corporations at the expense of local medium- and small-sized enterprises feature prominently among the frequently heard complaints. The Presidency may have a healing effect on the overheated Hungarian domestic political life, too. At the beginning of the preparations for the Presidency in 2007, a five-party understanding was struck and the then parliamentary parties agreed that the success of the Presidency should transcend party politics.

Pax presidentiae?

Although, as a result of the parliamentary elections in spring 2010, an openly Eurosceptic party got into the legislation, the Jobbik is not likely to thwart the efforts of the government in managing the tasks related to the Presidency – in the words of Secretary of State in charge of the EU-issues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Eniko Gyori –, a pax presidentiae is desirable during this period.

In principle, an EU-Presidency is not about pushing the respective country’s priorities; instead, accepted European programs and projects should be promoted. Nevertheless, each country has been able to ’smuggle in’ issues which are more in unison with her national goals than some other more universal ones. The basic message, which the Hungarian government wishes to convey – and to represent visually on the walls of the Justus Lipsius building of the Union in Brussels – echoes one of the pieces of advice our first king, Saint Stephen gave his son some one thousand years ago: unity built from multiplicity. As Foreign Minister János Martonyi put it: linguistic and cultural diversity lies at the core of European identity and heritage.

The question is whether Hungary (and Poland) will be able make this idea, and its logical consequences such as the recognition of the linguistic and cultural identity and autonomy of local indigenous communities, a central one in the European integration process. In another key question, specifically, creating new  jobs, the Lisbon Treaty and the Hungarian government’s goals are almost completely overlapping. Between the previous and the next It is stating the obvious that one country’s presidency cannot be viewed separated from at least the previous and the succeeding ones.

The current Belgian Presidency concentrates on, among others, measures dealing with the impact of the economic crisis, including strengthening fiscal discipline. Its major provision is the requirement that each member state should share the budget numbers with Brussels so that the EU might decide whether they are sound or not. The Belgians also push for tougher measures fighting climate change, for a more coordinated energy policy, for the implementation of the 2009 Stockholm Program (the mutual recognition of court decisions), and for the simplification of the free movement of the citizens of the EU.

It has also started to think about the priorities of the next EU budget cycle (2014-2020); Hungary intends to give a higher profile to this question while Poland is determined to tackle the most controversial items in the EU-budget such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the cohesion policies, and energy security. This latter issue is also high on the agenda of the Hungarian Presidency as well as one of the top priorities of the Polish one, namely, Eastern Partnership. (Budapest or Godollo is likely to be the site of a summit on this problem.) Hungary is able to act as an ’honest broker’ in this question; moreover, it is a prime EU interest that Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova remain independent states. Given Poland’s geopolitical position, it does not come as a surprise that Warsaw is planning to deal intensively with the strengthening of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), especially the crisis management capabilities and the broadening of the cooperation among the member states.

Balkans issues

The Hungarian-Polish cooperation on energy security related questions  seems to be of exceptional importance. Both countries, and especially the states in Central and Eastern Europe, have a vested interest in diversifying their energy ’mix’. One of the strategic goals here is establishing a north-south energy network by, for instance, linking Polish and Croatian LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) terminals with the gas pipelines of the intermediate countries.

Energy diversification is, of course, a much more complex problem which incorporates renewable energy resources or a more efficient use of energy, as well. An overarching European interest, which has special importance to Hungary, is the expansion of the Union. Budapest hopes that Croatia will be able to conclude the accession talks during the Hungarian Presidency and sign the accession treaty in the Hungarian capital.

Besides the symbolic significance of such an event, it would lend Hungary new opportunities in the Western Balkans and in an enhanced southeastern cooperation with Slovenia and Italy. Hungary would not only wish to see the accession of one Western Balkans country to the EU, but it would also like to be present at the beginning of the accession talks of another country from the region, namely Serbia.

In general, Budapest intends to be one of the champions of the so-called European perspective of the states in the Western Balkans. Another country’s accession talks might start under Hungary’s Presidency, too. Iceland’s eventual membership in the EU is bound to be a much smoother process than that of Serbia.

Danube-strategy

The overlap between the EU and specific Hungarian priorities is, perhaps, most manifest in the ’Danube-strategy’. As Foreign Minister Martonyi repeatedly emphasized it is not only about the Danube River and its tributaries but it covers an extended Danubian region with a vast array of issues starting from shipping through water-security to environmental protection.

The geopolitical and geo-economic realities have rendered the peoples along the river or living in its vicinity interdependent, therefore, Realpolitik itself demands close cooperation from the states in the region. The Danube, at the same time, is an appropriate metaphor linking a great number of countries, ethnic groups, different religions, languages – in short, representing the diversity, which has been one of the formative features of the history of Hungary and that of Central Europe first and foremost.

Tamás Magyarics

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