Hungarian EU Presidency slithers through last debate
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán appeared before the European Parliament yesterday (5 July) in a debriefing exercise with MEPs after the end of the Hungarian EU Presidency. He was commended by political allies for his steering of the EU, but was also strongly criticised by many others for his handling of domestic affairs.
Just as Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk had done when the baton was passed between presidencies on 1 July in Warsaw, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) family said Hungary's performance at the EU's helm had been "faultless".
The conclusion of accession talks with Croatia, which fell on the very last day of the presidency, was highlighted as the jewel in the crown of Hungary's stint.
EPP group leader Joseph Daul said the Hungarian Presidency had shown that the rotating presidency continued to play an important role in Europe's decision-making process, in spite of the fact that the Lisbon Treaty had introduced a permanent Council president.
Daul particularly commended Hungary's handling of the economy, common policies and external relations.
He regretted, however, that due to "a change in attitude of certain political forces in the European Parliament," the legislative package on European governance could not be concluded this week.
"Yet we were successful in 95% of what we asked for," he said.
But the Socialists & Democrats, the left-wing GUE/NGL group, the Greens and the Liberals were savage in their criticism of Hungary, in particular over its recently adopted national constitution and media law, which was in fact amended during the presidency and received the European Commission's blessing.
"Brussels is not Moscow," Orbán fired back, implying that no-one had the right to teach Budapest any lessons.
After the debate, MEPs adopted a resolution expressing "great concern about the Hungarian constitution on numerous and serious issues".
Lawmakers urged the European Commission to "conduct a thorough and profound examination and analysis" on whether the constitution respects the bloc's human rights standards.
But the EU commissioner responsible for institutional relations, Maroš Šefčovič (who is also Commission vice-president), said he saw no problems with it.
"The Hungarian constitution does not raise issues of compatibility with European Union law," Šefčovič said.
Šefčovič is Slovak and his country is in fact concerned about elements of the Hungarian constitution which appear to target Hungarian minorities abroad, including in Slovakia.
Eyes wide shut
Asked by EurActiv to comment on the performance of the Hungarian EU Presidency, Marco Incerti, a research fellow and head of communications at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a Brussels think-tank, said it was important to distinguish between the work done by Hungary at EU level, which it had "not done so badly," and internal developments.
On whether the Commission had not been too lax by closing one eye to Hungary's controversial internal decisions, Incerti answered: "By the current Commission's standards, the Commission has been as tough as possible with Hungary."
"The problem is of course that the Commission at the moment is not really tough in general. Apart from everything, the economic crisis has limited the room for manoeuvre for the Commission," he said.
The expert explained that had the Commission been tougher on Hungary, this could have backfired, as many would have seen the EU executive "being tough on small relatively new member states, and never picking a fight with the big guys".
Incerti said the Council of Europe had been much more critical of Hungary and the story was "not over yet". But he added that upcoming presidencies would not pick on Hungary.
The present Polish Presidency would never do so for regional and geopolitical reasons, and the subsequent Danish one has its own problems. Copenhagen is under fire for its push to impose control at the EU's internal borders, he explained. "This is realpolitik," he concluded.
Hungary was the final member of a 'trio' that also includes Spain and Belgium to take over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council of Ministers. The next trio is composed of Poland, which took over on 1 July, Denmark and Cyprus.
When Hungary took on the EU presidency on 1 January 2011, Budapest was already under fire over two pieces of legislation adopted by the country's ruling centre-right Fidesz party.
A contentious media law passed on 21 December, as well as 'special taxes' imposed on foreign businesses, prompted a wave of criticism from inside and outside Hungary and strained relations with the European Commission.
The new press rules imposed a strict supervisory regime on all forms of media and, amid complaints from MEPs and journalists, the Commission investigated whether they were compatible with EU law.
At the EU executive's request, the Hungarian government agreed to amend parts of the media law in an attempt to draw to a close an episode that had poisoned the beginning of its EU presidency.
On 18 April, Hungary's ruling Fidesz centre-right party pushed a new constitution through parliament, bypassing an opposition boycott over complaints the move lacked consensus and will cement Fidesz power beyond the end of its term.
Upon a visit to Budapest, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concern on 30 June about democratic freedoms in Hungary and said essential checks and balances should be strengthened, Reuters reported.
"As friends of Hungary we expressed our concerns and particularly call for a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press and governmental transparency," she added.
Clinton said she discussed with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a wide range of issues including the constitutional court, the media law and Hungary's new constitution.
MEP Nigel Farage, leader of the Eurosceptic UKIP, ironically lauded Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for in fact being "the Eurosceptic's secret weapon".
"I think you have proved to be the secret weapon of the Eurosceptic movement and your six months tenure in this presidency has indeed been historic. Because in the last six months the peoples of Europe have finally woken up to what an undemocratic and failing project this is."
"The real highlight of your presidency was that the Danes tore up the Schengen Agreement, so all in all I would say that you have had a remarkable, superb six months in office. More has happened to re-awaken democracy and the future of the nation state perhaps than ever before."
"I think there is a growing realisation both here and elsewhere that the worm has turned, that we have seen the beginning of the end of this extremely dangerous project."
"Mr Orbán, jolly well done," Farage concluded.