Budget talks, farm reform and economic governance top the agenda of Hungary's EU presidency, but the country's six-month stint at the bloc's helm has been overshadowed by criticism of a controversial media law adopted by Budapest.
Hungary is 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. It did so on 1 January.
Formal talks on the next EU budget and future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) kick off during its six-month term at the bloc's helm.
Another potential landmark for the Hungarian Presidency could be the enhancement of Central Europe's visibility on the world stage as it seeks to implement the Danube Strategy before Poland, another Visegrád country, takes up the task in July.
On social issues, the Hungarian Presidency considers it a priority to "break taboos" and tackle the EU's demographic challenge, improve family policies, alleviate child poverty and achieve a breakthrough in the area of Roma inclusion.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party won April's legislative elections and his EU presidency programme was described as being "very ambitious" by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso at the beginning of October.
In November, Orbán was forced to shelve two original priorities – water management and cultural diversity – because of more pressing issues on the economic front, namely the need to secure treaty change in order to accommodate the euro's bailout mechanism and dealing with the first EU semester of economic governance.
Hungary is not a member of the euro zone but its finance minister will still have to chair Ecofin Council meetings during the next critical months of negotiations.
With the Hungarian population typically apathetic towards the EU, expectations for the presidency could centre on its nationalistic rhetoric, which is back on the rise.
The last general election, held in April, saw far-right party Jobbik win 47 seats, becoming the country's third largest party after the ruling centre-right Fidesz (263 seats) and the socialists (59 seats). Jobbik also has three elected MEPs in the European Parliament.
"We should not be afraid of being good patriots," Orbán stated following the final EU summit of the Belgian Presidency. "The idea that nationalism is a danger for Europe is an idea I cannot accept."
The presidency got off to a bad start after the adoption of a controversial law on media in Hungary before Christmas. The move drew criticism from various corners of the EU and strained relations with the European Commission (see 'Issues').
Hungary's traditionally Eurosceptic government will see its diplomatic skills tested as it oversees a treaty amendment for the euro zone's permanent bailout fund. It also faces a baptism of fire in managing the new institutional arrangements under the Lisbon Treaty.
Balint Odor, Hungarian deputy state secretary for European affairs, said the basic principle of their approach would be to promote the EU interest above all and sort out other ongoing issues "by playing the role of honest broker".
The number of meetings between heads of state is yet to be decided and depends on the turn of events, but 15 informal ministerial meetings are already scheduled for the six-month period.
Gödöllö Castle near Budapest, a symbol of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, has been chosen to host high-level meetings during the presidency.
- Growth, jobs and social inclusion: Launching a European Semester of economic policy coordination including a revision of the Stability and Growth Pact, the creation of a macroeconomic surveillance mechanism and a permanent crisis mechanism, and the adoption of the next long-term EU budget as quickly as possible.
- A stronger Europe: Discussing the future of the Common Agricultural Policy, taking into account its values but also future challenges such as the provision of public goods. Cohesion policy to be discussed, retaining the objective of an internally unified Europe in order to become more competitive globally. New priority of creating an efficient common energy policy.
- A Union close to its citizens: Working to create a common European asylum system and furthering other justice and home affairs cooperation under the Stockholm Programme. Increasing the efficiency of the fight against organised crime and cybercrime. The EU's incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights into the Lisbon Treaty will also undergo its first assessment and the European Year of Volunteering will be promoted.
- EU enlargement and foreign policy: Promoting the continuation of enlargement, including Croatian membership, which "should not be delayed unnecessarily". Bringing about the operation of the EU's External Action Service and bringing added value to the Eastern Partnership, which involves the EU's six immediate neighbours.
Media law controversy
When Hungary took up 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.
Péter Györkös, Hungary's permanent representative to the EU, said the major issue for his country's presidency would be to exit the crisis and design a new form of economic governance.
Speaking at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in November, Györkös said Hungary would be the first presidency to steer the European Semester, a new procedure agreed after the Greek debt crisis that seeks to align economic policies under the Stability and Growth Pact and the Europe 2020 strategy for growth and jobs.
The Hungarian Presidency has expressed its intention to oversee negotiations on reforming financial supervision, including transparency in capital markets, elaborating a crisis prevention framework and revising capital requirements for banks.
In the short term, efforts will be made to reassure markets as to the stability of the single currency.
Speaking after an EU summit on 16-17 December, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said his country's presidency would strive to "help the EU send a clear message to markets that regardless of classic debt crises in member states, the stability mechanism will not weaken the euro as a currency".
"The euro as a currency is not in crisis. What is going on is a very conventional debt crisis in some member states," he stated.
EU budget and farm reform
The December 2010 summit saw UK Prime Minister David Cameron lead calls for a cap on the EU budget for 2014-2020, securing the support of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and some other leaders.
At a time of economic crisis, member states are divided between those who argue in favour of reducing the overall budget and poorer member states who feel the EU budget must be increased in real terms in order to help kick-start the economy. Some are also arguing for a larger EU budget in order to meet the bloc's expanded competences, such as the establishment of an EU External Action Service.
Janos Martonyi, Hungary's foreign minister, has already spoken out against UK proposals to cap spending and predicted a "huge fight" over the EU's long-term budget negotiations.
Hungarian Ambassador to France László Nikicser earlier this year indicated that Budapest wanted to leave its mark by taking advantage of Hungary being a small country and pushing a more political agenda during the presidency.
"We need to develop new common policies [such as climate, energy or innovation], and then see how we can fund them, not vice-versa," he stated at the presidency trio's launch of their joint programme.
Hungarian EU Affairs Minister Enik? Gy?ri, who is responsible for organising the presidency, said this month that European development must be "sustainable" and not built on loans. She also said she was in favour of a "strong" CAP and regional policy.
The presidency programme pledges that Hungary "shall not forget about citizens' expectations concerning the sustainability of a high quality and safe food industry" with regard to the CAP, hinting at a more holistic approach.
"In fact, it doesn't only provide food but it also contributes to the preservation of the landscape and a rural lifestyle, offers ecological services, increases employment and helps to tackle certain demographic problems," the programme reads.
The Commission is set to publish its proposal for the new CAP in July, kicking off formal negotiations with the European Parliament and EU member states.
EU leaders agreed to add a single paragraph to Article 136 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union in order to put in place a permanent rescue mechanism for heavily indebted countries, under strict conditionality.
The treaty change, highly contested by member states in which a referendum is normally necessary such as Ireland, should come about relatively smoothly as it can fall under the category of "simplified revision procedures" in Article 48.6 of the Lisbon Treaty, thus not requiring popular ratification.
If agreed upon at the March summit of EU leaders, the European Parliament would then have to approve the Treaty change before July for Hungary to have overseen the whole process.
Introducing eurobonds was widely considered not to be timely at the December 2010 EU summit, where EU leaders spoke in favour of advancing fiscal union. The Hungarian Presidency may therefore have to oversee the tough task of advancing negotiations on common labour and corporate taxation levels.
A major stated priority of the Hungarian Presidency is to implement the Stockholm Programme on Justice and Home Affairs, described by the presidency trio as pursuing the idea of 'A Europe of citizens,' according to Péter Györkös, Hungary's permanent representative to the EU.
Hungary is particularly interested in the Roma minority, who represent up to 4% of its population if those not registered are taken into account. A "positive approach" to the Roma population under a formal 'Roma Strategy' that tries to make better use of European funding already earmarked for that purpose was pledged when the Hungarian prime minister met Commission officials in November.
Three headlines of the 'Europe 2020' strategy are "absolutely relevant" in the context of the Roma issue, Györkös told reporters when presenting the presidency's priorities in November: unemployment, early school leaving and poverty.
Györkös said that since the Union was determined to be closer to its citizens, Europeans "should be closer to the twelve million citizens in Europe who are Roma". But the Roma issue should not come up until the second half of the presidency, when a synthesis report will be presented at the June European summit.
According to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, "cultural diversity will be a very important issue" during the presidency, but this should not run counter to nationalism.
Schengen and enlargement
Hungary is expected to use its presidency to push for the extension of the border-free Schengen Area to include Romania and Bulgaria, planned for March 2011. Prime Minister Viktor Orban told reporters at the December EU summit that he would "fight with the Romanian president for Romania to enter the Schengen Area".
But France in particular has linked both countries' Schengen bids to better management of Roma migration flows, arguing that current policies are insufficient to contain Roma migrants.
Prime Minister Orban has also said it would be "good for the EU" if Croatia were to join the bloc during its presidency, promising to speed up preparations to integrate the Western Balkans. "Look at the map - you can't have the EU on the left and a lot of black holes on the right - we have to resolve those conflicts," he said in December.
Speaking at the EPC briefing, Hungarian officials also said they would try and persuade member states to open more benchmarks in Turkey's accession negotiations.
Thanks to its geographic location, Hungary is also expected to bring added impetus to the Eastern Partnership, in particular ahead of the 2012 European football championships, when neighbouring Ukraine must deal with fans crossing its borders.
In an interview, Hungarian European Affairs Minister Enik? Gy?ri said civic relations, the protection of intellectual property and early warning systems for the prevention of energy supply crises would be addressed "concretely" in this context.
Together with Poland, which assumes the EU presidency after Hungary, Budapest is keen on pushing forward issues that are specific to Central European countries.
The two countries have already made a habit of coordinating their positions on EU matters as part of the Visegrád Group of countries, which also includes the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The so-called 'V4' group has common interests in many fields related to their geographic location and former communist past.
In particular, they are expected to defend the EU's regional policy budget. "We want a strong European Union, not a two-speed Europe, and to strengthen cohesion and cooperation in Central Europe," Hungarian Deputy State Secretary for EU Affairs Bálint Ódor announced in September.
Other issues of common interest include the Danube Strategy, which the European Commission formally adopted on 8 December. Hungary has announced that water management will be its priority topic in this regard, after 100,000 cubic metres of caustic red sludge entered the Danube River in October.
Eight EU member states - namely Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany (Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria), Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia - are involved, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Moldova, Montenegro and Ukraine.
"There is no contradiction between European and Hungarian national interests," Foreign Minister János Martonyi said of the Danube Strategy, with the Baltic and Adriatic macro-region initiatives treated with the same importance by Hungary's permanent representation to the EU.
Regarding environmental issues, the new EU strategy on biodiversity will also be discussed at the Environment Council in March.
Advancing a common EU energy policy and diversifying the EU's energy supply routes was announced as a priority at the start of the trio of presidencies, by former Hungarian State Secretary for EU Affairs Tibor Kiss. Sales agreements for the Shah Deniz II gas field, one of the EU's major potential new sources of gas for the planned Nabucco pipeline, are to be signed in April.
The Hungarian Presidency aims to agree joint conclusions on the EU's Energy Efficiency Action Plan by 2020 by June, when energy ministers will also discuss an Energy Roadmap for 2050.
A common energy market and policy is to be discussed at a special EU summit on 4 February. Issues such as sustainable energy use, regulating the transparency of energy wholesale markets and energy production and cooperation will also be addressed, tying in with the work of previous presidencies.
The establishment of a rolling programme for building energy infrastructure by 2020 is to be completed following a high-level conference on the matter in Budapest in May.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said the economy would rank at the very top of the agenda when outlining his presidency priorities to the European Parliament on 19 January.
He stressed the need for better economic policy coordination, growth, sustainable job creation, deregulation and a supportive business environment for SMEs, asking MEPs to back six pieces of economic legislation.
Orbán said it was ''unjust'' that Croatia is still outside the EU and wants its accession treaty signed by the end of the Hungarian Presidency. He also reiterated his support for Bulgaria and Romania joining Schengen as soon as possible.
As for the controversy over the media law, Orbán told MEPs: "Don't mix up criticism of Hungarian internal politics with the Hungarian EU Presidency." The government is ready to modify the law if the Commission deems it necessary, he added.
Enik? Gy?ri, Hungarian minister for EU affairs, said in an interview for Hungary's Európai Tükör that the greatest challenge during a presidency was building consensus.
However, "the fact that we live in an historic moment, when the main goals of the member states coincide – from the strengthening of economic governance, through crisis management, eventually to the fight against climate change – facilitates our task greatly," she said.
The bulk of the presidency's work is to be focused on the Economic and Financial Affairs Council. "I am perhaps not exaggerating if I say that in the course of a half a year we shall accomplish about two years' work, which will obviously test the efficiency of our whole public administration," she warned.
She also claimed that "rolling policies" tackled as part of a team with the Spanish and Belgian Presidencies would take up 95% of the presidency's programme.
EU Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner László Andor highlighted Hungary's potential contribution to social issues during the presidency.
"Hungary, as a third member of the Trio Presidency, takes over a heavy agenda from Spain and Belgium in the area of employment and social affairs," he said, underlining that "Hungary has an opportunity to shape the future of the European social model and make a decisive contribution to the implementation of Europe 2020".
French MEP Joseph Daul, chairman of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), said Hungary and then Poland were taking on the presidency at a time when the EU-27 is undergoing "not only a financial crisis, but also a crisis of values".
The priorities of the Hungarian Presidency will "be dictated by European events," he said, citing the euro crisis and budgetary challenges. "With me, [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán wants the EU to face the difficulties of the moment with a sense of responsibility," said Daul, expressing his confidence in the prime minister’s "European policies".
Hungarian MEP Lívia Járóka (EPP), the only Roma member of the European Parliament, is currently working on a blueprint for a legislative proposal to be presented under the Hungarian EU Presidency on funding Roma communities.
She welcomed the Hungarian government's statement on launching a European Roma Strategy during its presidency, and called for actions to be based on economic attributes rather than ethnicity. "The primary cause behind the social exclusion of most European Roma is not racism or discrimination, but the interdependence of several historical and economic factors," she explained.
"The strategy must therefore define its target audience not by ethnicity, but on the basis of its common economic attributes and must focus on alleviating geographically concentrated deep poverty, treating Roma and non-Roma alike in certain disadvantaged micro-regions," she said.
Gergely Romsics, a senior research fellow for the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs, believes that an overarching factor could constrain the presidency's work regardless of its ambitions.
"The view predominates among experts, and is also indirectly supported by some research, that any amount of Hungarian planning and preparation will be in vain if a group of large member states does not support a given initiative and that such states tend to support only what they have planned, or at least partially planned, themselves," he stated in a preview of the presidency.
"In light of this, it may actually be a sound idea not to concentrate on large initiatives, but focus instead on constructively adding to longer, ongoing policy tasks, thus preventing deadlock," he explained.
According to Steven Van Hecke and Peter Bursens of the University of Antwerp, low expectations for the presidency could be in its favour. "If they are low, and in the case of Hungary they are low, one can always say that low expectations have at least one advantage: it will be very difficult not to surprise people in a positive way," they wrote in a paper previewing the presidency.
Tamas S. Kiss, editor of Hungarian daily the Budapest Report, wrote that the country's programme for the presidency is expected to "put Hungary back among the leading European economic countries".
"During the 1990s Hungary's economy was the front-runner of the CEE region, but has reportedly heavily fallen back under the heavy taxation and other economic burdens implemented by the social-liberals," Kiss wrote.
- 1 January: Hungarian Presidency begins (see final calendar).
- 25 January: Hungarian ministers for education, sport, culture and social policy present their work programmes for the presidency.
- End January: 1st European Semester on economic governance: Commission presents Annual Growth survey to European Parliament.
- 4 February: EU summit to focus on energy.
- 24-25 March: EU summit aims to reach agreement on treaty amendment for euro zone's permanent stability mechanism.
- By April: Commission to publish proposal for EU Roma Strategy.
- 2-3 May: Informal meeting of energy ministers to debate energy roadmap 2050.
- 26 May: Eastern Partnership summit.
- 10 June: EU Energy Summit in Luxembourg.
- June: Commission to publish communication on EU 'own resources' to finance budget.
- 1 July: Poland takes over EU presidency.
EU official documents
- EU Council of Ministers:Programme of the Hungarian Presidency
- European Council:The Trio of Presidencies
- European Commission:Incoming Hungarian Presidency welcomed by the College(17 Nov 2010)
- Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs:The Hungarian EU Council Presidency
- Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs:Priorities and programme of the Hungarian Presidency
- Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs:Interview with Enik? Gy?ri, Minister of State for EU Affairs
NGOs and Think-Tanks
- Steven Van Hecke & Peter Bursens:The EU, Belgium and the 2010 Presidency: Back to Basics
- The Hungarian Quarterly:Hungary prepares for adulthood in the European Union
- European Anti-Poverty NetworkBelgian and Hungarian Presidencies commit to making progress on the adequacy of minimum income schemes
- Budapest Report:Hungary takes EU Presidency from Jan 2011
- Budapest Business Journal:All for one, one for all – the program of the Hungarian EU Presidency
- EurActiv France:Présidence de l'UE : la Hongrie change ses plans
- HuLala La Hongrie prépare le terrain pour présider l’Europe en 2011