As the second so-called “new” Member State to take over the EU Presidency after the much-maligned Czechs in the first half of 2009, Hungary was eager to showcase itself and demonstrate its leadership potential.
However, due to circumstances both inside and outside its control, it is hard to assess the Hungarian Presidency as anything other than a slight disappointment.
The big story of the last six months – indeed the last year – has been the Euro crisis, but as a non-Eurozone member Hungary was forced to retreat to the shadows whilst the two Jean-Claudes (Juncker and Trichet) hammered out a series of provisional solutions together with the big-hitters in the Council, President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel.
This, in addition to the degrading of the rotating EU Presidency following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, also prevented Hungary from taking leadership on the issue of fiscal governance, which has divided both the EU and the Eurozone.
Yet Hungary also managed to shoot itself on the foot on several occasions, particularly at the beginning of its tenure, insodoing calling to mind their Czech predecessors.
The now infamous “media law”, which is causing concern for the Commission regarding its treatment of the press, the imposition of emergency taxes on foreign companies in Hungary, and an ill-judged carpet placed in the Council building which appeared to reference the idea of a much larger “Greater Hungary”: all emphasised the gap between established core European values and a Hungary that in recent months has been treading on dangerous ground.
But what of the successes?
It is true that Hungary has been key in supporting Croatia’s accession process, which now looks likely to take place on 1 July 2013, and has also successfully pushed through EU strategies on the Danube region and the Roma people – both of which give a distinct Hungarian flavour to this particular EU Presidency.
And yet, in these areas too, Hungary has been found somewhat wanting. Whilst Croatia was indeed a success, particularly given the supposed “enlargement fatigue” plaguing the EU today, the much heralded “Eastern Partnership” Summit has been pushed back for the Poles to organise in September, the Danube Strategy lacks teeth and does not bring any new funding to the table, whilst the Roma Strategy only affects a handful of Member States, as worthy as it may be.
Since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, EU Presidencies have had to focus even more on compromises. However, decision-making in the EU has always been centred on so-called “horse-trading” between various interests, and as ever the devil is in the detail.
This is why, when looking to influence the decision-making process within the Council, it is critical to focus on the Presidency as well as the other 26 Member States.
Building consensus across national boundaries is, after all, what EU decision-making is all about.