Storms ahead for Hungarian EU presidency

GYÖRGYI KOCSIS AND GYÖRGY FOLK

23.12.2010 @ 09:57 CET

Hungary is approaching its forthcoming presidency of the EU in the middle of internal turmoil caused by its new media law, which is seen by many as a danger to press freedom.

Budapest will take over the steering wheel of the European Union on 1 January, but it is not just recent events that raise doubts about Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government. As well as the country's economic decline, the governing Fidesz party has used its two-thirds majority to revamp political structures in a way that could damage the government's international standing.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban meets EC president Jose Manuel Barroso. (Photo: EC)

At the most recent EU summit, the audience was able to watch an unusual but symbolic episode; just before the start of the final press conference by Mr Orban, a member of his delegation removed the EU flag from the background, leaving only the Hungarian one in view.

But there are more practical difficulties to worry about. In terms of personnel policies, Hungarians could fare even worse even than Czechs, whose government collapsed mid-way through their EU presidency in 2009. According to Richard Whitman of the London-based research institute Chatham House, Prague at least retained its team of public servants and diplomats who perform most of the work during the six-month tenure.

This is not the case with the Orban government. Budapest has made important staff changes just months before the presidency, including key positions such as EU ambassador and leading posts in the economic and financial team. The delegate to the Political and Security Committee, the EU's common foreign and security policy body, was exchanged in September.

New legislation allowing public servants to be sacked without an explanation has heightened a feeling of insecurity, increasing the risk of self-censorship and discouraging professional initiative.

Hungarian weekly HVG reported that, according to government sources, some ministers and state secretaries destined to chair EU ministerial meetings do not speak any languages apart from their native Hungarian. This is not a promising starting point for those meant to facilitate negotiations among member states.

Relations between the Hungarian government and the European Commission are also strained. Budapest was rebuked by Brussels for skipping its deficits targets for this year and the next. The nationalisation of the country's private pension system as well as a salary drop for the director of the Hungarian National Bank, which could compromise his independence, were also frowned upon in EU circles.

The European Commission is likely to try to keep a truce since the first half year of 2011 will be a critical period for the EU's economic governance. But Mr Orban may not be so lucky in finding support from the European Parliament, which is generally more outspoken in its critical opinions than the commission.

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