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".

'Realpolitik'

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.

Georgi Gotev