Hungary Prepares For Adulthood In The European Union

  • 29 Nov 2010 1:00 AM
Hungary Prepares For Adulthood In The European Union
"In January 2011 Hungary will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Its six-month term will be an interesting period for Hungary and the EU alike. Hungary will coordinate the Council’s vast bureaucratic and decision-making apparatus while not being able to rely on any significant wealth of accumulated knowledge about some of its workings due to the novelty of the Lisbon institutional framework currently being implemented.

he EU itself faces a series of intractable but essential policy decisions about the new financial perspectives for 2014–2020 and the “2020” goals, promoting the bloc’s competitiveness, sustainable growth and social cohesion. It must deal with the periodically re-emerging challenge of financing agricultural policy while also setting the pace in external relations in areas as diverse as the Eastern Partnership for post-Soviet states and the thorny integration process of the Western Balkans.

Accordingly, Budapest and Brussels share an interest in a successful presidency. Success won’t be measured in breakthroughs or permanent solutions but in terms of progress made in various knotty areas. As a result of the complex and lengthy policymaking processes currently underway, the Hungarian presidency will be mostly concerned with “rolling policies” (inherited issues) and providing follow-up to the mainly Spanish initiatives, since the current Belgian presidency has limited capability and political will to add to the already crowded agenda.

Recent institutional changes

Ordinary Europeans see the rotating presidency as an opportunity for member states to leave their mark on EU policies. Political analysts, however, tend to see a pattern of fragmented policy advocacy and supervision. Originally, the presidency’s job was to set the strategic course but it soon became enmeshed in decision-making and micromanagement.

 Two recent institutional innovations serve as correctives: the top tier of EU governance has been overhauled as part of the Lisbon Treaty and the Council presidency has undergone structural reform as well.

The 2011 Hungarian presidency will operate in an incomplete institutional setting: one innovation will be already in place while the implementation of the other will likely be approaching completion. The new structure of the Council presidency is the simpler affair. Rather than having semi-annual changes in administration and programme at the helm of the Council, a more robust framework of 18-month programmes is overseen by three member states (the presidential trio). This fosters cooperation and aims to diffuse potential disputes and forestall fractured policies at the strategic level of governance. This move towards a more unified framework is a definite bonus for a new member state such as Hungary, whose experience and bureaucratic resources are limited.

In practice, however, the new team presidencies have proven challenging. The first of these trios, Germany, Portugal and Slovenia, fared relatively well, partly owing to revitalized German participation in European affairs after the derailment of the draft constitution. It presented the draft of the Reform Treaty and launched the ratification process, thereby helping European integration along.3 The French-Czech-Swedish trio, however, demonstrated the new structure’s pitfalls. The Franco-Czech haggling over the programme, their diametrically opposed strategies and visions, and Prague’s partial self-incapacitation during its term left the Swedish government with the added burden of restoring a sense of normalcy to the presidency at the end of the trio’s term.4

The new rotating presidency structure is far from failsafe. But the current Spanish-Belgian-Hungarian (SBH) trio looks certain to avoid repeating the Franco-Czech fiasco. Whereas the joint programme proposal drafted by an expert panel in 2008–2009 has not been adopted by governments in its entirety, the latter have accepted its most important elements, establishing the required degree of coherence for the presidency. This unofficial “core” programme largely outlines a vision for an EU which is fiscally and economically more robust, focusing on budgetary reform and the competitiveness agenda while maintaining the pace of foreign policy. So the SBH team presidency has so far appeared reasonably committed to the strategy of both deepening and widening integration.

These two dimensions will be treated slightly differently: the deepening of internal reform will take short-term precedence over enlargement and integrative partnerships without bringing the latter to a halt. This formula is a sound compromise, which is unlikely to alienate a large number of member states. Yet, in the spirit of the original informal proposal, it also bequeaths Hungary with the task of revitalizing EU external relations, especially as regards the Western Balkans and post-Soviet states, both somewhat neglected recently as a result of economic concerns dominating the EU agenda.

The Reform Treaty presents a more complex set of issues. The institutional innovations which it lays down are widely seen as a sustained attempt to tighten policymaking in the EU. The Treaty introduces a number of new offices and refashions existing ones.

But it is also a classic case of incomplete contracting: details concerning routine functions and responsibilities have been left to the implementation phase.5 Of these, the new position of the (permanent) President of the European Council will have the most direct consequences for the Hungarian rotating presidency since the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will operate in more autonomous issue areas, where the important players are her office with the Council Secretariat, the Commission and large member states as informal policy co-shapers.

So far it seems that the permanent President, Hermann van Rompuy, has skilfully cooperated with the Commission and large member states to oversee the past year’s hot topics (the Greek crisis and post-crisis management strategies) leaving the rotating presidency with long-term (and less glamorous) tasks.

This may be a loss keenly felt by an ambitious European statesman such as Spanish PM Zapatero, yet it actually makes it easier for a more bureaucratically minded rotating presidency to concentrate on its pre-set programme, while emergent issues are left to the nimble permanent President. Given Hungary’s limited resources and her commitment to moving forward in areas involving complex bargaining processes, van Rompuy’s presence in the institutional framework turns out to be more of a boon than something negative (even if this entails more fine-tuning of responsibilities).

Furthermore, the recent trend of close cooperation of large member states and the Commission, which van Rompuy seems to complement so well, also limits the playing field of the rotating presidency. It is clear that these strong players expect the incoming rotating presidencies to leave some contentious issues—including the changing of euro-zone fiscal rules—well alone. In sum, the influence of the rotating presidencies has been diluted. But this also contributes to the ability of smaller member states like Hungary to efficiently manage and potentially influence the issues on their agenda. Hence the net effect of recent changes to the institutional structure of the EU can be seen as limiting the weight of the rotating presidency while enhancing its ability to realize its programme—a deal Budapest should have no qualms accepting.

The trio programme and Hungarian priorities

Spanish-Belgian-Hungarian representatives have shown a commitment to turning the Presidency into a meaningful tool for tightening the cohesiveness of community governance. They present themselves as the “team presidency”, insisting that the individual six-month strategies should be encompassed by a common programme with the 18-month ownership of some (very limited) duties, while also attempting to agree on some common positions in areas where preferences may diverge.

Presidency programmes are traditionally interpreted as composites of ongoing undertakings, often referred to as rolling policies, combined with an individual presidency’s own initiatives. Rolling policies make up the biggest slice of the cake. As regards Hungary, an 85–15 per cent ratio was mentioned early on, which also suggests that there is a sense among experts and politicians that, come 2011, the EU will still be in the midst of its potentially most significant institutional overhaul since the Maastricht treaty.

Most recently, the new state secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responsible for the presidency, Enikô Gyôri, has even gone as far as to set the share of rolling policies at 95 per cent, showing the commendable caution of the new Fidesz government as regards trying to use the six-month term as a showcase opportunity. This of course does not exclude leaving a distinct “Hungarian mark” on the events and decisions of the period, but it does signal a commitment not to cram the agenda with items that are not relevant to or acceptable for the majority of member states.

Another common approach is to divide presidency responsibilities according to their nature. In this perspective, the presidency is a complex bureaucratic leadership challenge that comprises a number of roles. Clearly, there is the need for assuming a “management” role that involves mainly coordination and overseeing the agenda and timing of work in the Council. As regards the latter, “brokerage” is also required—in fact, the “honest broker” role is the most frequently mentioned and analyzed aspect of presidencies.

A further role that some feel is currently threatened by becoming overly absorbed in policy micromanagement is that of “strategic guidance”, which should ideally help the whole of the EU to embed initiatives in larger, forwardlooking strategies that take account of emergent challenges as well.7 A closely related task is to lend impetus through innovations or new items added to the agenda.8 Finally, the presidency is also expected to carefully introduce a limited set of national priorities where state preferences meet those of the EU.

The series of preparatory meetings attended by Spanish, Belgian and Hungarian experts and government officials in 2008, called the Lillafüred Process, produced a “Strategic Framework for the SBH Presidency”. The original framework included a number of initiatives, most of them now under way, helping the incoming Hungarian presidency to gain a better understanding of the possibilities of (and limits on) progress in respective areas.

The first priority was defined as “implementing the new treaty”, a signal that the experts involved in the preparatory work expected the Lisbon Treaty to be ratified by 2010, but far from implemented. Working towards “a peaceful and constructive cohabitation” between the new offices and the rotating presidency was seen as essential. In this area, the Hungarian presidency will have little to do. It is clear that implementation is making good progress (with the notable exception of the European external service, a thorny issue which is in any case treated outside of the rotating presidency framework).

The second was to give “new impetus” to the original, fledgling, Lisbon agenda. This meant contributing to the draft of a new ten-year comprehensive sustainable growth strategy. In its final form, the 2020 strategy received a seven-tier structure in 2010 under the Spanish presidency. It is now clear that any major reform of the oversight mechanism is out of the question: the strategy will (or will not) be carried out by the individual member states through the relatively flexible mechanism of “open coordination”. This avoids policy deadlocks, as all states have the chance of adopting their own programme in order to realize common goals; but it also reduces expectations, given the lack of the means of enforcement.

The Spanish presidency has done its work in finalizing the draft and added more emphasis to the social dimension, linking the fight against poverty and exclusion to growth. What the complementary 2011–2015 Social Agenda will look like, and whether it will have a serious impact, is still unclear however. As a result, the Hungarian presidency is between a rock and a hard place: there exists an all too “soft” growth strategy for the next decade, which will have to be pushed forward, and a nascent sub-strategy, which would in all likelihood divide member states into opposing camps depending on how “liberal” their overall approach to managing the European economy is.

Based on the priorities of Hungary’s current conservative government, it seems reasonable to assume that the government’s ambitions will be limited to making the most of the existing 2020 Agenda while not aggressively pursuing the further integration of the Social Agenda into the strategy. It is also unclear to what extent the original SBH focus on climate change, energy and sustainable development—a clear nod to the previous decade’s major emerging areas—will be pursued.

Hungary has little to offer in terms of innovative know-how. In any case, the Copenhagen fiasco in early 2010 hardly helped to strengthen the EU’s commitment to further pursuing sustainability in the economy given that the EU is already the greenest large economic area in the world. These will not endanger movement towards the already ambitious goals, but there is little sign of serious political will and also little real possibility to leave a strong imprint on this sector during the presidency term.

Budget reform was another priority in the informal joint programme. This anticipated movement towards a policy-driven financial perspective and greater focus on linking expenditure to a tangible outcome as well as increased reliance on “own resources”. This constitutes a neat programme which most EU experts and economists heartily support. Still, politicians are wary.

Launching the budget talks will be a daunting task for Hungary, as member-state governments will be reluctant to negotiate an agenda which could see them challenged at home for pouring more money down the Brussels drain— even if it would be just such a reformed financial perspective which would go farthest in making community expenditure more efficient. In its presidential role, the government will have to engage in very complex brokering while at the same time representing Hungarian preferences as one of the 27 member states. Given Hungary’s limited clout, appearing as only a moderately self-interested player and adopting a “soft bargaining strategy” could be the only way to increase bargaining power and add to the efficiency of brokering by Budapest.

The priorities of the trio programme related to the European “area of freedom, security and justice” (justice and home affairs) were summed up in the commitment to pursue the idea of a “Europe of citizens”. Despite its simple name, this is bureaucratically challenging, especially since the SBH trio is faced with putting the 2009 Stockholm programme into practice.

The programme contains a complex set of goals for the next five years. It is already clear that work on European human-rights protection and intensified cooperation in harmonizing prosecution procedures in the EU (pointing towards a future European Public Prosecutor’s office) will be high on the agenda during Hungary’s term. One of the most sensitive areas within this area concerns the common procedures for European asylum policy, planned for 2012, where, given the sensitivity of the issue, any measurable progress by the Hungarian presidency should be considered a success.

EU external action policies are clearly in a critical phase where a relance appears necessary to politicians and analysts alike. Such a relaunch would involve a new partnership and cooperation agreement with Russia, promoting a new and revitalized transatlantic dimension and, perhaps most importantly, an overhaul of the relations with EU neighbours, be it rethinking, realigning or even redesigning the institutional framework through which these relations are conducted.

In this area, the Spanish presidency has achieved little, given the reluctance of the Obama administration to engage with an EU in the midst of a transition with an unclear power structure and Israeli–Arab tensions which prevented any significant progress in the Mediterranean. Belgium is widely seen as having little vested interest in pushing any of the items on the agenda. So the Hungarian presidency has the opportunity to bring added dynamism to some relatively neglected areas.

For Hungary, moving forward with the Europeanization of the Western Balkans will be the most important priority. It will include an attempt to finish the Croatian accession negotiations, start the substantive phase of the Serbian and Montenegrin integration processes and potentially help Bosnia-Herzegovina out of the domestic political deadlock between Muslim Bosniaks and ethnic Serbs. The last item would certainly not be among the official responsibilities of the presidency, but the Spanish foreign service has already experimented with working in tandem with Catherine Ashton, proposing a model for the future in which national diplomats cooperate with the European external relations bureaucracy, bringing in know-how and added resources where needed.

Less clear are the opportunities for the Hungarian presidency to contribute to the reframing of the old-new Common Security and Defence Policy, where the new High Representative will hopefully be proposing a new European Security Strategy after years of work on it started by Javier Solana and promoted most vocally by the French presidency of 2008. Similarly, the Eastern Partnership, proposed by Poland and Sweden and launched by the Czech Republic in May 2009, holding out the promise of deeper, more targeted and more equal cooperation between the EU and its eastern neighbours is obviously in need of attention, but there is uncertainty as to the ownership of the project.

While the above overview of the metamorphoses and afterlives of the items on the agenda assembled by SBH experts has its share of question marks, a picture emerges in which the main elements are falling into place. It is evident that the programme will focus on rolling policies, a virtue out of necessity as well as political choice. In its original incarnation, the proposal by the expert panel was conceived in the spirit of a “productive membership” in the EU more than by any ambition to summarily define what the EU is or should be about— a preference that has largely been preserved and adopted by the trio members, including Hungary.

The ongoing essay series published in the Foreign Ministry’s integration journal Európai Tükör (European Mirror) also suggests an approach which emphasizes thorough bureaucratic preparation and a commitment to making headway on existing issues rather than showering other member states with overly ambitious propositions.12 In particular, this attitude seems to dominate the areas of immigration/asylum and police/judicial cooperation, treaty implementation, defence and the relationship with major global players, certainly as far as Hungary is concerned.

These represent “management” areas, where a number of tasks await, but which do not require giving major impetus or securing grand bargains (at least not in early 2011). This admirable self-restraint is in contrast to the two opposing ambitions characterizing the French and Czech presidencies—one concentrating on consolidating, the other on opening up Europe across a range of issues from foreign policy to the internal market.

Apart from the above items, which form part of the common trio programme, the new government has, via senior Foreign Ministry officials, emphasized that it will be looking to add two items to the agenda. One concerns water-resource management, which is to be embedded into the Danube strategy, originally an initiative of the German government intended to establish a multidimensional framework for cooperation among Danubian states, thus linking up members and non-members. It has to be admitted that, at present, it is hard to see how the Danube strategy and water-resource management can be listed as a single priority.

The Danube strategy is a very innovative proposal to link up states in a series of low-policy areas which would ideally contribute to the enhancement of economic ties, yield additional growth, foster dialogue, contribute to knowledge-transfer and the spread of European norms and standards: in short, it is a cunning, relatively low-profile attempt at transformative diplomacy with both members and non-members looking to benefit from it in a number of ways.

It has the potential to produce pay-offs for the enlargement of the Western Balkans and border states of the EU, as well as in the struggle against (mainly environmental) public bads and growth-hampering transaction costs in the respective economies. Water management is certainly another innovative proposal well worthy of inclusion in the presidency programme, but in order to be a viable EU initiative, it needs to extend beyond the Danubian area, and is thus more a separate policy area with strong links to the Danube strategy proper, which holds the potential to integrate non-member states into this nascent EU policy. In an ideal world, the Hungarian government will have the resources to pursue both initiatives as full-fledged and autonomous projects, since letting either of them stagnate (as is currently happening with the Eastern Partnership, another complex and innovative proposal) would be a definite loss for the presidency and the EU as a whole.

The other Hungarian “item” will be the preservation of cultural diversity with special regard for small cultural communities. This is clearly the single point on the agenda where specific Hungarian preferences dominate. It is not hard to see the link between the existence of numerous Hungarian minorities in neighbouring states and the initiative to produce EU guidelines on the preservation of cultural diversity directly targeting communities rather than guaranteeing the rights of individuals.

This area could reveal itself to be a minefield should centralized but historically diverse countries (France, Romania, etc.), or states with large immigrant communities, be made to feel threatened in their existing policies. Yet careful diplomacy emphasizing the intimate linkage between the emerging European system of human rights and the development of cultural communities which suppose each other could in fact succeed in making modest inroads into this territory hitherto largely neglected by most EU institutions (with the exception of the Parliament) and community regulation.

A final, if less formal, item on the agenda which has been added due to recent developments in the European Union and a favourable intra-EU climate as evidenced by initiatives by for instance Jacques Delors and the Paris-based thinktank Notre Europe is that of energy security, which seems to have gained a more pronounced role if contrasted with the original planning phase. In the case of energy security, there is a natural synergy between Hungarian national interests (being largely dependent on imports of natural gas) and overall European concerns in the field.

Hungary stands to gain a lot from any broadening of the common energy policy agenda which started to crystallize mainly around market regulation during the term of the first Barroso Commission, and so it should work in tandem with the experts and various lobbies in the EU that have been increasingly vocal about energy security. With or without the presidency, Hungary alone does not have the clout to push for any meaningful new initiatives in the field, but the recent climate of opinion should serve as an important catalyst for action. Hence, even if resources are limited, it would have been a grave mistake for Hungary not to put energy security on the Council agenda, as this would represent an almost ideal coalescence of community and national interests in an area where progress seems possible.

Finally, the neglected “strategic guidance” role of the presidency should also be given consideration. Enlargement policy, so far the most successful external relations instrument of the EU, is an obvious candidate for such policy-shaping, given the state of affairs and the intensity of Hungarian preferences related to the integration of the Western Balkans. The latest round of enlargement has drawn very mixed reviews and, coupled with “enlargement fatigue” and an overall loss of dynamism in the EU, threatens to freeze the enlargement dynamic for quite some time.

States with a formal accession outlook include Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia. Of these, Croatia enjoys widespread support.13 Macedonia and Turkey, however, are both contentious, while other Western Balkan states are, at least in formal terms, even further from accession. For many, these official and potential candidate countries represent a hard boundary for EU enlargement in the sense that once Europeanization hits home in these states, stable and deeply rooted basic social customs (the black market and illicit trade, clientelism, ethnopolitics etc.) would have to be transformed or replaced.

As a result elite resistance to EU influence is expected to rise accordingly. In sum, what enlargement policy needs most is a rethink of how to deploy existing mechanisms and what sort of political will to put behind getting to the point of accession with new candidate countries. The previous two rounds have seen expectations being informally watered down in order to facilitate enlargement, but this trend has come under serious criticism and has lost its momentum.

In this situation, Hungary has to try to prevent the enlargement process from freezing altogether. This can only be achieved by sticking to rules fixed in advance about how to evaluate and reward progress achieved by candidate countries. Such a consensus can only be reached in the Council (possibly with the aid of the permanent President and the High Representative). The basis for this will definitely remain the “Salzburg bargain” (the principle of no new conditions applied to applicant states on the one hand and no preferential treatment on the other). It is very clear that the EU needs an enlargement policy if it is to complete its grand project of securing stability for the continent in the long run. The Hungarian presidency and others can contribute ideas and much else if this ambitious goal is to be achieved.


Any preliminary evaluation of Hungary’s presidency can take two previous ECE member states (Slovenia and the Czech Republic) as points for comparison. Budapest appears to want a “Slovenia-plus” presidency: a solid managerial effort with modest increases in the “strategic guidance” roles concerning the financial perspective, the Danube strategy and cultural diversity. There are no signs of such ambition as that suggested by the Czech presidency programme. But its more realistic agenda at least enjoys the solid support of Parliament at home and greater internal cohesion than the Czechs did during their presidency.

Even if the fate of some initiatives is difficult to foretell, the managerial duties/rolling policies will in all likelihood be adequately seen through the six-month period. It is also important to note that experts are pointing towards an overarching constraining factor that merits further analysis. This factor is the (reputed) limited willingness of (large) member states to move towards positions and propositions which do not originate with them. Currently, the view predominates among experts, and is also indirectly supported by some research, that any amount of Hungarian planning and preparation will be in vain if a group of large member states does not support a given initiative and that such states tend to support only what they have planned, or at least partially planned, themselves. In light of this, it may actually be a sound idea not to concentrate on large initiatives, but focus instead on constructively adding to longer, ongoing policy tasks, thus preventing deadlock.

The Danube strategy for instance enjoys extremely strong German backing, making Hungarian entrepreneurship possible in the field, as long as this is done in dialogue with the currently most influential large member-state government headed by a very ambitious Angela Merkel. While the current Fidesz government, due to a somewhat different philosophy of handling the presidency, may turn out to be more pro-active than their Socialist predecessors would have been, the basic ratio of management and innovation is unlikely to change. And, to be sure, even this largely managerial presidency with its responsibly added own initiatives will be a daunting task of which no real assessment can be given until the actual test takes place."

By Gergely Romsics is Senior Research Fellow, Hungarian Institute of International Affairs, Budapest, and Assistant Professor, Institute of Political Science and International Relations, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest.

Source: The Hungarian Quarterly

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