Are you sure?

Three months to get ready

For the first time since its accession, Hungary will assume the presidency of the European Union as one of a trio with Spain and Belgium. Other newcomers to the bloc have already proven that they can perform a good job, while others’ stay in the position is something many prefer to forget. With very little time left until January the Foreign Ministry controlling the preparation is working overtime to have everything ready. Despite lingering doubts about what the Hungarian presidency may bring, the government remains confident it can take the six months being caretaker and turn it into a resounding success.

Enikő Győri was appointed state secretary to the Foreign Ministry on September 1, tasked with the heavy burden of fully preparing Hungary for taking over the EU presidency. Earlier, she was a Member of the European Parliament as a Fidesz representative, besides holding several other important diplomatic posts during her career, including Ambassador to Rome from 1999 to 2003. She has published a book as well as numerous pieces in a range of professional journals which she co-authored. She is mother of two children.

(Photo: András Péter Németh)

Q: How are we doing when it comes to finding and training professionals for the upcoming EU presidency?

A: We have a far more concentrated government structure with a far more concentrated way of working . The prime minister wanted all issues to be settled at the lowest possible level. This very concentrated ministry structure means that every conflict can be settled at the level of policymaking. This also coincides with creating a smaller political elite, which is cheaper, smaller and more efficient. I say this because you have to know this to see how the government structure fits with the EU presidency.

There was a discussion in Fidesz before the election about how the preparation would look like and we decided that the Foreign Ministry should be in charge and coordinate in EU matters. But it should be more concentrated than before so the idea was to appoint a state secretary within the ministry to lead. And each ministry of course now has an EU department. The new structures are being set up, most of them are ready. The EU staff will have the final set up hopefully by next week [week of September 27]. Then I will be able to say how much our staff coincides with previous EU presidency staff.

Most of the experts are the same. If you look at the leading personalities in previous years, those people who used to play key roles earlier are back, including the foreign minister, the chief advisor of the prime minister, our representatives. They all played important roles in the accession negotiations. Myself, I have been an ambassador these years. I can say that this is a “new old” team. Everybody who is involved has dealt with EU matters already. As for the ministry experts, their training already started before the change of government, including professional language training.

There was international public procurement which the previous government called, but it had no results, so we had to reopen it, restart it. The final stage of the training will take place in a couple of locations until the end of the year. So I don’t see any major changes politically. The previous government wanted to measure the so-called capabilities of the EU staff, but they didn’t do anything about improvement of their skills. That is what we are doing now.

The professionals receive all kinds of trainings that are related to their future work in the EU. I don’t think Hungary is any special in this respect.

Q: Slovenian diplomats said that the key to a successful presidency is having the ties, the personal relations in Brussels at every level that help get things done. Does Hungary have this kind of relationship?

Yes, of course I agree with the Slovenians. All our government members who will chair council formations are in permanent contacts with their EU counterparts and respective EU institutions. They have a strict work plan about who to meet during the presidency. And during this preparatory phase the prime minister will meet all his counterparts either in Budapest, other capitals or during the course of other EU meetings. He will meet all the important political group leaders in the European Parliament. So contacts, naturally, are going on at all levels. I think we have what is necessary for doing the job.

How many sessions do delegates of the president nation have to chair during the term?
You have to know that there are 50  council working groups which will be chaired by Hungary. Which working group meets how often I can’t tell you but the answer is thousands. Several thousands of meetings for the half a year. Most of them take place in Brussels.

What  we know is that we will host approximately 250 events, of which one is a summit, the eastern  partnership  summit with heads of state and government. The foreign ministers’ meeting which is  an EU-Asia foreign ministers’ meeting will take place here in Budapest, which involves 47 ministers from Europe and Asia. We will host 60 informal meeting, 40 of which will be in Gödöllő, Balatonfüred and Debrecen.

It’s a huge challenge not only for the Hungarian government and administration but also for Hungarians as such.

Q: Then I suppose you are relieved that the Lisbon Treaty lifted some of the burdens from Hungary that come with shaping EU foreign policy.

Yes, of course. There is a new institutional setup, we are aware of that. Our prime minister will fill the role the treaty prescribes for him. We will be in close cooperation with European Commission President Barroso and the council secretariat. The prime minister has an extremely important role in finding compromises in various topics and we will have to talk with the member states about the political objectives. Not only Hungary’s but the EU’s. We will have a very balanced approach to this institutional setup. Not to overplay our role, just to serve Europe’s interests. That’s our approach.

Speaking of foreign policy, there have been some tensions in the EU lately from the situation in Greece, Portugal or Hungary for that matter. How does the government regard the question of expansion at this stage?
It’s not a political issue, it’s an economic issue. We all know that after the crisis the world will not be as it was before. We are all aware of the challenges. We all know that Europe wants to keep the standard of living that EU citizens enjoy. Not at the same level of course but we still have a European way of living. We have a social economic model and we want to safeguard it.

We need much tighter economic policy and public finances. The Hungarian government is very much committed to keep the 3.8% budget deficit target and even to go under 3% next year. You have to know that the 3.8% figure is very good, it is one of the lowest in the EU. Hungarians had to pay a very high price for that. We know that under previous governments we were spending too much. Unlike other countries that could use stimulus packages to revive the economy we could not do that. We needed IMF money. But after the measures taken this year, I think that we will manage to finance ourselves from the market and hopefully next year we will have economic  growth. We have to put our house in order. And it will be possible only of course by having very tight budget policies.

Q: Are you already preparing to mediate arising conflicts like the dispute between Greece and Slovakia?

That’s the role of the presidency. We are doing it, we are now contacting all our partners to find out which are the priorities for the member states and where we could find compromises. We are working in a so-called listening stage. We are expressing which in our views are the priorities of our presidency and see our partners’ reactions so that we could finalize the programs and find true European compromises.

Q: What responses have you received so far to the already expressed Hungarian priorities?

The first priority is that the EU has to produce economic growth so we have to start creating jobs, and we have to do that by social inclusion. There are some hot issues in social inclusion so we have  a European Roma strategy. We would like to diminish child poverty. The EU needs a clear strategy on that. And we also want member states to learn from each other good strategies in the field of democracy and policies, although this is not strictly connected to legislation. We are convinced that in the democratic situation in this continent we can learn from each other good strategies and policies.

The second heading of the Hungarian presidency will be that we have to build a foundation for the future. We need good common policies, we have to move forward. We want a healthy agriculture policy and cohesion policy. With cohesion we are more competitive. We don’t believe that if we are as fragmented as we are now we can’t compete with rising economic powers.

We would like to move towards a common energy policy. In energy policy we will have a very heavy dossier put on our table in our presidency. We hope that in energy infrastructure not only east-west but also south-north connections will be created. We want the European Council to adopt the Danube Region strategy which is about water policies but also multimodal transport, energy networks as well as culture and identity. It’s very good that 14 countries inside and outside the EU will be connected even better.

We believe in an EU that deals with the everyday problems of its citizens. We would like Romania and Bulgaria to come into the Schengen zone to allow free movement of people from the Black Sea. We believe that cultural diversity is a positive issue and it has to be promoted by the EU.

The final issue is the continuation of responsible enlargement. We would like to have projects with the administration in ongoing enlargement. We would like to finish the accession talks with Croatia. Hopefully the signing will be done but I’m very cautious about this statement. There are factors which are out of our competence but I wouldn’t give up on that.

And I already mentioned global engagement. If Europe wants to be more competitive it has to have friendly relations with neighboring countries which are connected as part of Europe and that is why we need a good neighbor policy not only to the south but also to the east. Eastern partnership is a very good idea and we would like to involve these countries in concrete projects. When we host the Eastern partnership summit we will be able to promote concrete projects.

Q: EU officials stress that the presidency is a distinguished but nonetheless a caretaker function. Is your department feeling any pressure from within the government or other civil groups to use the presidency as a means of forwarding national interests?

I think that our position is very clear on that. Europe first, that’s our approach. We are convinced that our goals and the EU’s goals strictly coincide. So it’s easy to identify ourselves with the EU common goals. Just look at the priorities. I already mentioned cooperation, and that we don’t have any more important problem than job creation. People will only believe that the EU cares about their interests if we put an end to the crisis and provide people with sources of living.

An of course I think all our national priorities are part of the EU agenda so we don’t have to make any additional efforts to include our national issues because all are part of the EU’s goals.

Q: They say that the true measure of any presidency is whether it can live up to unforeseen challenges and extraordinary conditions. Are you confident Hungary will be able to cope?

Well I very much hope so. We will create our own reaction  chain so that we can react not only to the press but also crisis situations. We are working on that. And I am confident we will be able to react to unforeseen events.

It’s a huge risk for all of us, but there is much we can learn from the previous EU presidencies which had excellent strategies for these unforeseen events and we are working hard on preparing.

Q: Are there any particular best practices that you are keeping in sight when preparing?

We are in contact with many of the previous presidents  and there were exchanges of experts who came here to speak to our colleagues. It has become part of the normal routine, part of everyday life.

Q: We understand that you were chosen for this position because of t our earlier criticism of the preparation. How do feel as a politician about what you are doing in this short time?

It’s a huge exercise for all of us. There are many people in our department and in other ministries involved. All these people are very committed. I won’t tell you how many hours a day we work, it’s really tiring. All our families, all my colleagues’ families, I hope they will be able to forgive us for this year. Since the government was established, and even earlier when we did not know the outcome of the elections we were starting the preparation, so the process is more than a year. We are all aware of that. I have to say that our working conditions are not easy. You might know that Hungarian civil servants are not that well paid. This government is in a difficult financial situation and we had to economize ourselves. I can tell you and assure you that it is very difficult. (BBJ)