The Hungarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union: Focus on the Neighbourhood and on a European Roma Strategy

Article excerpt

This article attempts to offer a concise overview of the main developments relating to the Hungarian presidency, notably in the areas of regional stability and interethnic relations.

The first year in office of the new Hungarian government-elected with unprecedented popular support in April 2010-was characterized by groundbreaking legislative changes and fevered domestic political debates (especially on a new media law and on the new constitution).1 These debates received broad media coverage and public attention both at home and in the international arena, which threatened to overshadow Hungary's turn in the presidency of the European Union (EU). In this context the Hungarian government attributed outstanding importance to its performance during the rotating presidency semester.

As with each member state, during its presidency Hungary attempted leave a strong imprint of its own vision on European politics. In the first half of 2011 three main policies reflect this approach: efforts to strengthen economic cooperation in the EU, the improvement of regional cooperation in Central Europe, and the adoption of a European Roma Strategy.

The EU Council and the Hungarian presidency

There are two main approaches to understanding the role of the presidency. One school of thought argues that the EU Council presidency is a supranational, technical role which, although a great responsibility for the state that holds it, does not return any particular political power.2 It offers no significant opportunities to member states to pursue their own agenda, but is restricted to the management of a common EU policy agenda. However, a second school of thought promotes a more intergovernmental approach, arguing that the presidency offers a unique opportunity for member states to lead the European agenda and to pursue their national interest from a privileged position.3 One can find relevant periods in the history of European integration that support both interpretations, but a convincing argument is perhaps that:

[...] the significance of the Presidency for the member states has varied throughout the process of European integration in accordance with the transformation of this institution and that such transformation has been driven by the institutional decisions taken by the member states at critical points in the history of European construction.4

From this perspective, since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force the role of the member state holding the presidency has been more limited than before-both in its competencies and in its shared role with the permanent president of the European Council- reflecting a lower profile position than in earlier phases of integration. We thus need to take into consideration Hungary's restricted ability to manoeuvre in accordance with its own priorities and initiatives. In fact the main elements of the presidency's program are broadly reflective of issues that have been on the EU policy agenda for a longer period of time-for example, enlargement, closer economic cooperation, and macro-regional strategies. However, prioritization is important here and may provide the best indication of the political preferences of the member state presidency. Hungary's strong support for closing accession negotiations with Croatia, its support for Romania and Bulgaria in their quest to join the Schengen group, and the promotion of regional cooperation through the Danube Region Strategy, all underpinned the importance of neighbourhood relations. The adoption of a Roma Strategy was quite uniquely associated with Hungary's long-time policy to address problematic minority issues, including within the EU.

Hungary took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union from 1 January 2011, launching its program under the slogan, "Strong Europe with a Human Touch". The Hungarian government identified four main priorities: growth and employment for preserving the European social model; strengthening EU policies in the field of energy, food and water; the creation of a citizen friendly Union; and the promotion of enlargement. …