The skilled Hungarian public administration is performing better than expected but Hungary's presidency is politically irrelevant. What went wrong – and what has gone right?
The Hungarian presidency of the European Council is slowly coming to its end. Aiming at a first premature assessment of it, the following conclusion comes to mind: we see clearly that the Budapest government is nowhere to be seen when it comes to political leadership of the EU. Quite to the contrary, the media law created much unwanted confusion and focused the attention on bilateral problems between Hungary and the European Commission instead on the Presidency activities. The changing of the constitution further damaged the image. Hungarians were also equally absent from the most important political debate this spring, on the Pact on the Euro Plus.
By staying outside of the Pact the Hungarian government chose a political path of the further marginalization of Hungary in Europe. As a country outside of the Eurozone, its natural tendency should be to be at the center of European decision making; holding the Council Presidency could have been an instrument in achieving this objective. Instead, Budapest’s role on the Pact for the Euro was none, not to mention its decision to opt out from the Pact.
The realization of the Hungarian Presidency’s priorities is mixed, but on this one needs to wait until the end of the term. Calling off the Eastern Partnership summit was probably the most visible blow, but another problem is that no progress was possible on the Schengen enlargement to Romania and Bulgaria. Even if the lack of progress on this issue is not a Hungarian responsibility, it was the government in Budapest that labeled it as a priority.
The Danube Strategy is to be adopted in the second part of the semester, while debate on the EU Roma Strategy has been started. The domestic Hungarian situation is backfiring on the presidency on the Roma issue. The risk of a meaningless strategy is reasonably high.
What is much better perceived than initially expected is the administrative side of the Presidency, especially in the context of the so-called six-pack, or the six legislative proposals implementing the economic governance package. This is the absolutely central piece on the Hungarian legislative agenda and they are doing it well. Here and in many other areas the Hungarian public administration staff is doing a much better job, despite the fact that many of them were changed only a few months before the Presidency began.
Overall, the assessment can be only mixed. On the one hand, the image of Hungary outside of the country was negative due to the timing of the domestic issues: the media law and constitutional reform. At the same time, the expectations were reduced and that helped the skilled public administrators to rather smoothly carry their tasks, at times despite a deteriorating atmosphere in Budapest. Politically, however, Budapest and Prime Minister Orbán did not play any major role thus far.
Piotr Maciej Kaczynski is a research fellow with Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a Brussels think tank