A Strong Europe with a Human Touch

Hungary took over the six month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union with the motto “a strong Europe with a human touch”.

The fact that Hungary took over the six month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 January was overshadowed by Estonia replacing its beloved Kroons for the embattled Euros on the same date. But the Hungarian presidency is neither unimportant nor uncontroversial. Last year, there was some muted concern in European capitals ahead of Prime Minister Orban taking over the presidency from the Belgians. Growing assertiveness at home, such as the new and controversial media law, has not played well with Brussels, and some serious commentators have even argued that Hungary should be thrown out of the EU. That may be an exaggeration and Hungarian diplomats have been busy ensuring their colleagues that the media law is fine and that the presidency will be smooth and successful.

The diminishing role of the presidency influences Hungary’s agenda

Hungary has set up four main priorities – growth and employment for preserving European social achievements, strengthening Europe, a union closer to its citizens, and enlargement and neighbourhood policy – but the overall focus will most likely remain on the economic crisis in general and the Eurozone, of which Hungary is not a member, in particular.

The role of the rotating presidency has diminished with the Lisbon Treaty and the economic crisis. Illustratively, Alexander Stubb, the Finnish Foreign Minister, shared his top eleven tips for running a successful presidency with the Hungarians (the list is now put in the elevators at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and the first one pointedly read “The Presidency is run from Brussels.”

Hungary has the possibility to influence issues important to them

The presidency is not a completely unimportant task however. The Hungarian government will chair hundreds of meetings and will be able to devote time and resources to issues dear to them. They are, for instance, expected to work hard to ensure that the accession negotiations with Croatia are concluded, that Romania and Bulgaria can join Schengen, and to initiate talks between Serbia and Kosovo. They will also host an Eastern Partnership Summit in May, focusing on Eastern Europe. Budapest is also expected to direct a lot of attention to “Energy 2020”, which is the union’s long-term energy strategy. In particular, the Hungarians are keen to move ahead with the discussion about gas supply and the legislation on nuclear waste. To this end, an energy summit is scheduled for February.

Low expectations and a bad start

The expectations of the Hungarian presidency are not very high, and they arguably got off to a bad start, so they may very well surprise positively later on. Whether Europe will be stronger and more humane when the presidency expires this summer remains unclear, and will be decided in Brussels and Frankfurt rather than in Budapest. Regardless of the outcome, Prime Minister Orban will hand over the EU torch to Poland’s Prime Minister Tusk on 1 July, who will try to lead Europe while facing a general election. That will be a challenge.