By taking over the six-month EU presidency on January 1, Hungary is about to step onto the center stage of Europe. Sharp-eyed critics are going to follow its performance, the outcome of which is likely to shape the country’s reputation in European circles for a long time.
First impressions always count. Regardless how the image changes later, those very first moments remain vivid forever. That is the reason why actors fear their first performance so much or women choose their outfit so carefully for the first date. The rule applies on the grand scheme of things as well. Hungary’s first stint at the EU presidency can be considered as a debut performance in the European arena. Based on how it performs, the country can leave a lasting impression in the heads of European pundits, who are not exactly known for being lenient. Whether the assessment is going to be positive depends on a number of things. Strangely enough, an overall good performance is not necessarily sufficient to get a good mark. It is often the small details that count. Just like in real life.
Preparations therefore must begin well in advance. The majority of the time, there is no problem with that as the official programs and the main points of the agenda are usually well-known months or even years ahead. Hungary, however, was to undertake these tasks in a somewhat unlucky spell. Just when preparations were supposed to switch into high gear, the country‘s leadership was preoccupied with the general election, the IMF debate and the implementation of reforms.
Politicians turned their attention to the most urgent national problems while presidency-related issues received less attention. (As a result, for example, there was a few-month break in the meetings of the special parliamentary committee whose members, delegated by political parties, were responsible for preparation.) Budgetary problems and personnel changes in key positions – such as the appointment of Péter Györkös, Hungary's ambassador to Croatia to replace Gábor Iván, the head of Hungary's Permanent Representation to the European Union in Brussels, shortly before the start – haven’t supported the image of a well-prepared organization either. These faults, however, can be forgotten if the country is able to get a firm grip on the actual problems lying ahead.
In fact, there are numerous difficulties, most of which may baffle even seasoned presidency holders. If the preparation phase was hampered by hardships, the presidency itself promises to be even more challenging. Among the predictable difficulties are the creation of the European Union’s next multi-year budget (2013–2020) or the widely-debated Roma question. Both are already causing a headache for the current Belgian presidency, but it is Hungary that will bear the brunt of it next year. Should the country – for all the skepticism – be able to handle these matters, its reputation within Europe could rise high.
Hungary’s to-do list is obviously much longer, so its ability to prioritize is crucial for a good grade. The order of importance, that is, which programs are pushed ahead or left behind, can affect the outcome of the decision too. It is not unusual for presidency holders to leave important matters to the end – just like Great Britain did in 2005 with the 2007–2013 EU budget – thus putting pressure on the member states to make a quick decision.
Besides the ability of prioritize, resilience is a major element of success. When unexpected events happen, presiding countries are put to the test: they have to resolve newly arising issues as effectively as they would have their original plans. There is no need to dig deep for examples to that scenario as in the recent past nearly all EU presidents were forced to readjust their plans along the way.
The immigration policy, which topped France’s presidency program, had to be waved goodbye due to the armed conflict taking place in South Ossetia in 2008. Similarly, the preparation for the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, a prestigious item on the Slovenian agenda, had to be replaced by the salvage of the Lisbon Treaty after it was rejected by a referendum in Ireland. Although the Czech Presidency did add energy security to its the list of themes, it was to conduct negotiations on the implementation of the Action Plan on an Energy Policy for Europe (2007–2009), rather than counsel the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute in January, 2009. The country was not the most successful in contributing to the Gaza war resolution or in soothing the effects of the financial crisis either, which all contributed to its poor evaluation.
It is not only the resolution of divisive issues or the completion of lengthy documents that qualify countries for a positive final assessment. Being the president of the Council of the European Union is only partly about forwarding spectacular policies; ensuring smooth case handling is equally important. Hundreds of programs and thousands(!) of meetings have to be organized during six months. Here timeliness, punctuality and a practical approach are essential to succeed.
According to Bruxinfo, a Brussels-based think tank, “slips” like beginning meetings with huge delays (Portugal) or failing to provide delegations with printed materials in time (Slovenia) can overshadow the otherwise bright results (the approval of the Lisbon Treaty by Portugal in 2007 or the completion of the proposal of energy market liberalization by Slovenia). Since no one wants to be remembered as “the awful host” or “the poor manager,” Hungary is no exception either; a substantial part of the preparations are aimed at preventing such errors (see article on infrastructure and preparation).
Clearly, running and chairing a European institution of crucial importance for half a year is complicated business. It requires heavy investments, and a range of skills from precision to ingenuity. However, Hungary should not be daunted by this challenge. Staying well-focused and being a generous host could do much more for this little country’s European future. (Zsófia Végh)