Hungary

Day one of the European Union summit finally broke up after midnight Friday, with leaders finalising the structure of a new eurozone bail-out system that will go into place in 2013 and some tough language on Libya, including the promise to push for more sanctions against Libyan oil and gas companies.

Most everything else in the much-anticipated “grand bargain” to shore up the eurozone was decided before the summit, so the rest of the conclusions on economic and fiscal issues were widely reported and expected.

One thing worth reflecting on, however, is the fact that what was once one of the most contentious proposals to reform the EU’s economic governance – new budget rules that allow the EU to fine wayward member states – was agreed to without much controversy. That may require Brussels elites to reconsider the Hungarian presidencyRead more

For those who might not have noticed, Marton Hajdu, an affable and always reliable spokesman for Hungary’s EU presidency, has taken issue with our Brussels Blog item from last week about the covering put over the controversial Hungarian carpet during Friday’s European summit here in Brussels.

In a posting in the comments section of our blog, Marton gently prods us for constantly writing about the carpet issue to begin with – admittedly a somewhat tangential issue, but what’s a blog for if not to occasionally write about tangential issues?

Importantly, however, Marton says there’s a more prosaic reason for why the carpet – which includes a map of Hungary in 1848, riling Slovaks and Romanians, since parts of their countries were Hungarian at the time – was covered during the summit: “presidency decoration” is no longer allowed at the Justis Lipsius building during EU summits. Read more

For those, like the Brussels Blog, who have been following every twist and turn of the saga over Hungary’s carpet in the European Union building that hosts major summits, here’s another twist: the carpet has been covered up.

For those not following the drama so closely, a quick summary: To mark their turn at the EU’s six-month rotating presidency, Hungary laid down the carpet with symbols of the country’s history – including a map of Hungary from 1848, when parts of current-day Slovakia and Romania were within Hungarian borders. It has added to concerns about the nationalist tendencies of the government in Budapest.

Suffice it to say, the Slovaks and Romanians haven’t been amused.

But for today’s heads of government summit in Brussels, the first during the Hungarian presidency, the carpet has been covered by a giant Hungarian-green rug, raising questions of whether Budapest has backed down in the face of criticism.

We’ve been told, however, that no such climb-down is in the works. Read more

As we reported last week following an interview with Hungary’s foreign minister, the government in Budapest appears to be willing to diffuse the dust-up over its controversial media law, which critics charge is intended to stifle press opposition.

In a letter sent to the European Commission Monday, and posted by our colleagues at the Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag, Hungary’s deputy prime minister and justice minister Tibor Navracsics said his government was willing to amend the law, if the Commission deemed it necessary. (English translation of letter here.)

My half-hour interview with Janos Martonyi wasn’t all about the media law, however. We talked about his desire to see Friday’s summit of EU heads of government focus on energy issues – as originally planned – and not get overshadowed by the ongoing eurozone debt crisis.

And we also talked about The CarpetRead more

Fellow Brussels Blogger Stanley Pignal and I have a story in today’s paper about a letter sent to the Hungarian government on Friday by Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner in charge of broadcast and digital media, in which she gives Budapest two weeks to avoid legal proceedings over its controversial media law. Read more

Monday’s meeting of EU energy ministers marked the last such ministerial conclave of the six-month Belgian presidency, a period that diplomats seem to agree will be remembered as extremely effective – even without a Belgian government in place for the entire span.

As we reported in today’s paper, there is a good amount of trepidation heading into the Hungarian presidency, particularly amid moves by Viktor Orban, the populist prime minister, to consolidate power in the hands of his government, most recently through a much-criticized media law.

Mr Orban himself has been a bit unpredictable. When I spoke with him during the October summit of EU heads of government here, he was his usual colourful self, saying his fellow European leaders were frequently too focused on EU institution-building in response to the economic crisis: Read more

The European Union’s rotating presidency will pass on July 1 from Spain to Belgium, and then six months later from Belgium to Hungary.  The direction of EU affairs will therefore soon be in the hands of a centre-right Hungarian government that has wasted little time, since its massive election victory in April, in asserting its patriotic – some would say ‘nationalist’ – credentials.

Policymakers in Brussels are anxiously watching this development.  They recall the unhappy experience of the Czech Republic’s EU presidency in the first half of 2009.  The last thing they want is another turbulent presidency run by one of the 10 central and eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004-2007.  It would give critics of EU enlargement even more ammunition to fight with. Read more

With Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour party heading towards defeat in Thursday’s British general election, the European left may soon be in even worse condition than it was just one year ago.  The trouble started in last June’s European Parliament elections, when centre-right parties swept to victory in the European Union’s six biggest countries – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK.

Then came the Social Democrats’ crushing defeat in September’s German election: the SPD took a mere 23 per cent of the vote, its worst result in the Federal Republic’s 60-year history.  Finally, Hungary’s ruling socialists were decimated last month in an election that saw the triumph of the centre-right Fidesz party and a strong performance by the ultra-right Jobbik party. Read more

There are all sorts of threats to the European Union’s unity, but something tells me that the biggest threat isn’t the Visegrad group.  This appears to be a view not shared by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

Speaking after the October 29-30 EU summit in Brussels, Sarkozy criticised the fact that the leaders of the four Visegrad countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – had held a pre-summit meeting to co-ordinate their positions.  “If they were to meet regularly before each Council, that would raise some questions,” Sarkozy said. Read more

After the fall of communism in central and eastern Europe, one compelling argument for bringing the region into the European Union was that the experience of prosperity, democracy and everyday multinational co-operation would ease national and ethnic tensions there.  Who knew, perhaps eventually it would get rid of them altogether, just as France and Germany were gradually reconciled after the second world war?

A flare-up of tensions last month between Slovakia and Hungary will serve as proof, to those western Europeans who were always hostile to enlargement, that such hopes were premature.  Worse still, it will confirm them in their opinion that, by admitting the two countries in 2004, all the EU succeeded in doing was to trap a nasty virus inside its own borders. Read more