‘A good start’ – Hungary’s EU affairs minister on the first nine days of EU presidency

July 10. 2024. – 04:49 PM



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"I am confident that all member states and institutions will act in the spirit of sincere cooperation," Hungarian Minister for EU Affairs János Bóka said in Brussels on Wednesday, according to EUrologus. The minister spoke about the upcoming programs of the Hungarian presidency of the Council of the EU, but EUrologus stressed that the questions raised by the journalists were not about that.

At the request of member states, their permanent representatives to the EU had been discussing Viktor Orbán's "peace missions" at their meeting on Wednesday. The body is also part of the Council, so they also meet under Hungarian presidency. As Népszava previously reported, the rotating presidency had banished the report on the Hungarian prime minister's recent visits abroad among "other" agenda items, listed after the important topics to be debated, which inherently limited the space for discussion.

Orbán visited Ukraine a few days after taking over the presidency, after which he also went to Russia, the meeting of the Turkic Council in Nagorno-Karabakh and then on to China. On several occasions, he posted photos of his trips with the logo of the Hungarian EU presidency, while during their press conference in Moscow, Vladimir Putin said that he believed Orbán was there on behalf of the EU presidency, a claim the Hungarian prime minister did not refute on the spot. Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó blurred the line between the EU presidency and the "peace mission", with statements such as: "The first week of the Hungarian EU presidency is over, and it should now be clear to everyone that this will be a peace mission for the next six months".

The problem is that, while members of the Hungarian government can go wherever they want and negotiate bilaterally with whomever they like, the rotating presidency is in no way authorized to represent the EU in matters of foreign policy.

As previously reported, the Council is the only one with the authority to influence the duration of the Presidency. Dániel Hegedűs, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund, suggested on X (formerly Twitter) that this option is in principle still available. For instance, the beginning of the Polish presidency that will follow the Hungarian one could be brought forward to 1 September, right after the end of the summer break. There is no mention in the Népszava article discussing this, whether this is something that has been considered in relation to any government so far, but Politico says that such plans are starting to gather momentum. "Not yet," a diplomat said when asked if they would consider shortening Hungary's presidency. “But I will say again: not yet.”

As EUrologus reported on Wednesday, Bóka said there were currently no motions before member states that would affect the mandate of the Hungarian presidency. He expressed his confidence that the presidency "can contribute to the EU in the next six months".

Bóka also said that Orbán had not organized the trips of his "peace mission" in the name and on behalf of the EU. He did inform member states and the president of the European Council afterwards, although he is not obliged to do so. "I am deeply shocked by the tragic loss of life," the minister said of the Russian attack on a children's hospital in Kyiv, adding that this also underlines the need for a sustainable peace.

The European Commission is also starting to get fed up

The European Commission has not analyzed the standards, the body's senior spokesman said on Wednesday in response to a question. Eric Mamer recommended that this question be referred to the Council, as it is for the Council to decide, and added that they would cooperate with the rotating presidency as far as the EU treaties allow.

Mamer had previously indicated that it was not certain that they would visit Budapest in September, although such a visit is customary during all presidencies. (The visit has already been postponed once, citing scheduling difficulties.)

According to Szabad Európa, the body's budget chief Johannes Hahn canceled his visit to Budapest, originally scheduled for just an hour and a half on Monday at the last minute, citing "recent events" according to his colleagues. The only official confirmation provided to the paper was that the visit had indeed been canceled.

The body was also not represented at commissioner level at the first informal meeting of the Council presidency in Budapest. At Tuesday's press conference at the end of the event, Márton Nagy, who chaired the meeting on competitiveness, was not able to say why this was so. "It was not our decision. We welcome everybody, our doors are kept open," the Minister for Economic Affairs said.

The European Commission said on Wednesday that an EU commissioner, Werner Hoekstra, would be present at the next informal Council meeting in Budapest on 11-12 July.

Could member states be launching a silent boycott?

However, Szabad Európa and Politico also noted that not only was the EU Commissioner absent from the meeting on competitiveness, there were hardly any ministers present. It is not uncommon for a member state to be represented at a lower level, for example by state secretaries, if, as in the Hungarian government, some areas (such as the environment in Hungary) do not have a minister responsible for them, and summer holidays may have affected attendance as well.

However, Politico was told that Orbán's trips to Moscow and Beijing "definitely played a role" in this, and that the idea of a boycott is "gaining momentum". “The low turnout at the Competitiveness Council is probably just the beginning.”

“It was a good start”

– Bóka said in spite of all of the above on Tuesday, according to the paper, adding that the presidency "has been very political and very active from the beginning". At Wednesday's press conference, he described it as "distinctive", according to EUrologus, while a Dutch journalist commented that it seemed as if he and the minister were not on the same planet.

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