The Hungarian Government has published its priorities for the Presidency of the European Union – and they have in mind a very political Presidency with a rather ambitious programme for the next six months.
This is the first time Hungary has held the rotating Presidency position since it became an EU member six years ago and Budapest is determined to make it a success. With the help of Spain and Belgium, both of which were Presidency office-holders in 2010, Hungary has put in a lot of planning and preparation for their big break on the European stage.
Hungary is the eager new kid, showing signs of impatience with the lack of any real progress made by the Council over the last 12 months. In the first half of 2010, Spain was distracted by the fall-out of the financial crisis – and tried to run the Presidency from Madrid rather than send civil servants en masse to Brussels. Belgian civil servants didn’t need to leave home for their Presidency during the second half of 2010 but they had no Government in place to report back to. So while it may not have been an annus horribilis for the EU (it has had worse years), 2010 has been a little pedestrian as far as policy achievements are concerned. Without Mr. Herman van Rompuy at the helm, it would have been hopelessly directionless. The dynamic Hungarians hope to change all that.
While Presidencies are required to push the European interest, they inevitably reflect the national priorities of the office-holder. Hungary will be no exception. The priorities reveal a particular emphasis on issues that have pre-occupied them at home in the hope that there will be a European solution where national measures have failed.
Security of energy supply, the environment, and ethnic minorities and immigration are big priorities for Hungary.
Hungary is vulnerable to severe gas supply disruptions and so will use the opportunity of the EU Presidency to score some quick wins on security of supply. Budapest wants the EU to establish a truly common energy market and has scheduled a special Council meeting on energy on 4 February.
The toxic chemical mudslide which emanated from the Ajka resevoir in western Hungary in October and polluted the Danube river affected 5 European countries. The Hungarians see this as a cross-border issue that requires EU leadership and have prioritised progress for an EU Strategy on the Danube as well as a wider EU water policy.
Hungary has been criticised for the treatment of Roma and the country was offended when France sent hundreds of Roma back to Central Europe. The EU Presidency will include new initiatives to ensure better integration of migrants. Similarly, immigration into the EU – and within the EU - is high on the agenda. Hungary promises a better migrant flow management and will want to secure the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen system of free movement. Hungary is also strongly in favour of Turkish membership of the EU and this will set it on a collision course again with France and Austria, which are resolutely against the idea of Turkish membership.
The draft Presidency programme has some very lofty ambitions. The priorities of jobs and growth will be the most pressing on the EU agenda. There will be some tough negotiations on the macroeconomic surveillance mechanism and on European economic governance. The Hungarian Presidency will start on the actual implementation of the EU 2020 strategy. They will work on the Single Market Act in the hope of stimulating job creation and growth through new legislation on taxation, counterfeiting and a revision of the Small Business Act. They will also hope to secure a deal on legislation for a common European patent which has dogged the Belgian Presidency. It will be up to the Hungarians also to make a success of the European External Action Service – the EU diplomatic corps - which has suffered teething problems over the last 12 months.
Hungary also wants to salvage something from the wreckage of the Copenhagen summit on climate change last year. The low key Cancun negotiations are flagging and the China-US bilateral talks have squeezed out the EU as a driving force on climate change policy.
Regardless of its grand ambitions, Hungary will have to prove it is a steady pair of hands and that it can be trusted to steer the EU’s 27 member states through some very difficult decisions. The signs are that it will not be so compromising. At a time when views are deeply polarised on the size of the EU budget, the Hungarians seem indifferent to the austerity pressures to EU spending from the UK and Germany. Speaking earlier this week at the London School of Economics the Hungarian Foreign Ministry Janos Martonuyi said, "I don't think it is time to discuss about percentages and figures. First let's discuss policies, let's discuss substance, and thereafter of course we can look into the financial resources and the possible [...] ceilings or caps as far as the financing of individual policies is concerned," He wasn’t speaking on behalf of the Council, of course, but nevertheless, Mr Martonuyi and his government colleagues will soon have to learn the difference between what Hungary can do in its national interest and its role in leading the European interest.