In the last few weeks and months, Budapest has played host to a seemingly endless parade of dignitaries and heads of state and government, confirming the city's reputation as the perfect setting for high-level conferences. Anxious to allay fears about any delay creeping in to the Enlargement process, these public figures (undoubtedly acting in good faith) adopt a conciliatory tone: there, there, we know you have been doing your best and we are very impressed by all your efforts... Their solemn declarations and statements before the press are all remarkably similar. It seems that, although everyone agrees in principle on the necessity of EU accession, no one is willing to be pinned down in practice about a date.
Thus the optimistic tone struck does not ring true in the ears of those desperate for some hint of when they might expect their earthly reward. The EU is like a coy fiancée, blushing at the ardent advances of her intended, who is becoming increasingly insistent that the courtship is over and the time has come to tie the knot at last. Against this backdrop, the visits cease to look like flattering attentiveness to Hungary as a potential Member State and assume the appearance of a hollow exercise in appeasement. We feel that we are being fobbed off, and the more evasive our guests are on the subject of a date, the more this increases suspicions about the process grinding to a halt.
Let us review some of the results of recent discussions. First we had the pleasure of welcoming Lord Irvine, from the House of Lords, who presented János Áder, Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, with a facsimile of the Magna Carta in exchange for a facsimile of the Golden Bull (issued seven years later in 1222). Áder, with his customary aplomb at exploiting any link, no matter how forced or tenuous, as part of a relentless PR campaign in favour of Hungarian EU membership, declared that, although there are no geographical or linguistic ties between Hungary and Britain, the fact that the documents ceremonially swapped were drawn up so close in time to one another demonstrates that, historically at least, the two countries showed similarities pointing in the same direction. Hopefully, Hungary will soon have EU as well as NATO membership in common with Britain.
The Lord Chancellor was equally forthcoming in his discussions with Viktor Orbán, emphasising the UK's unflagging support for Hungarian accession and reiterating his government's stance that each country should be judged on the basis of its own merits and performance. He also expressed his approval of the level of support to the Enlargement project amongst ordinary citizens (I cannot resist the temptation of reminding readers of why he might have made a remark of this nature...we have not yet been infected by the jaded scepticism of a long-standing, battle-weary member!).
Then there was Chancellor's Wolfgang Schüssel's lightning visit (Hungary takes a more practical view of the Austrian government than certain other countries for obvious reasons, refusing to treat it as an un-salonfähig pariah). Schüssel stressed Austria's continued support of Enlargement, that negotiations should be completed as swiftly as possible, whilst Orbán stressed that he deemed relations between Hungary and Austria to be of strategic importance and that Budapest would not deviate from its traditional approach of viewing those relations in the long-term.
On 28 and 29 April, twelve Central European heads of state met in Székesfehérvár and Veszprém (the venue was selected as a gesture of farewell to Árpád Göncz, whose term of office as President of Hungary is coming to an end). Göncz listed the various peoples inhabiting Central Europe, focusing on their common role as a the frontier of the West and bridgehead to the East in spite of their differences in status as far as NATO and EU membership are concerned. Thomas Klestil reaffirmed Austria's commitment to the Enlargement process, pointing out that respect for European values is of the utmost importance and in everyone's interests.
(During the Székesfehérvár meeting, Orbán was in Gniezno commemorating the beginnings of the Polish state together with the other Visegrád Prime Ministers and Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor. In his contribution to the occasion, Mr Orbán made use of the opportunity to remind his audience that Europe is incomplete without full integration of Central Europe and that the concept of unity remains devoid of substance in the absence of this integration. Schröder did not come up with any new information on a date for Enlargement - he had previously mentioned 2004 - making do with repeating that it is in Germany's vital interests for the EU to embrace the countries of Central Europe).
On 3 May, it was Lionel Jospin's turn to exchange niceties with his Hungarian counterpart in Budapest in the framework of a two day visit. Accompanied by Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, Environment Minister Dominique Voynet and European Affairs Minister Pierre Moscovici, Mr Jospin, whose government will take over the EU Presidency in July, had a busy schedule of meetings with Göncz, Gábor Demszky (Mayor of Budapest) and László Kovács (President of the Socialist Party), as well as with the Prime Ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland and the Slovak Republic.
On the Enlargement front, Jospin stressed that the process of internal reform underway within the EU would not be allowed to hold up accession, and that it was important for the candidate countries to be able to join a properly functioning organisation. Each country would be admitted according to its own merits and the political will required for the IGC to conclude its deliberations in Nice exists. Beyond predicting that the EU would be ready to admit new members into its ranks by the end of 2002 during his discussions with his Visegrád colleagues, no further mention of dates was made by Mr Jospin.
By way of reaction, Mr Martonyi (our Foreign Minister) remarked that Hungary's demand that accession negotiations be concluded by the end of 2001 and voiced hopes that the Nice summit would clarify the timeframe for Enlargement definitively.
Quizzed on the matter of a date in an interview with Népszabadság, Minister Védrine classified Hungarian (and other candidates') earlier hopes for swift Enlargement as "Utopian." The existing Member States would have to be ready for letting in those candidate countries that had themselves prepared for EU membership by 2003. The main point was not to rush Enlargement through on the basis of an artificial timetable, but to allow the accession negotiations to proceed at a measured rate.
Prior to these visits, the Hungarian government officially announced in Brussels that the deadline for accession of 1 January 2002, which it had imposed on itself was being replaced by 1 January 2003, thus bringing Hungary into line with the target date set by the remaining candidate countries. In many respects, this can be interpreted as an admission of defeat, a grudging acceptance of the fact that Enlargement will not happen overnight after all. It has finally been recognised that our leaders have been a tad over-ambitious in respect of Enlargement and that they have come to their senses at last. By definition, applicant countries cannot dictate the pace of accession (at least not without creating the impression of being arrogant and unduly demanding).
From an EU vantage point, negotiations may have been chugging along nicely, but it is possible to detect a change of mood nevertheless: Hungary's patience is running out. Dissatisfaction at the EU's methods is being voiced openly (Endre Juhász's frustration has gone down on record. He issued calls for problems to be discussed openly in February, although his annoyance at the endless barrage of EU questions is not in the same league as the impassioned Polish outbursts directed at Commission President, Mr Prodi, but then we were always renowned for our gallantry...).
In mid-April, negotiations were opened on two new chapters, regional policy and financial surveillance and the Portuguese Presidency (in its dying embers) promised that by the end of June the five outstanding chapters would also be opened for the first time.
Regional aid is likely to be one of the most arduous chapters in negotiating terms. The EU itself is likely to request a derogation on implementing its own provisions in the new member states once they are admitted (the newcomers, in other words, would not profit from financial assistance under the same conditions as countries had previously enjoyed, but would have to put up with a gradual phasing in period). The reason? Money. Displaying an admirable degree of solidarity towards less favoured regions, the EU has transferred billions in an effort to close the development gap between centre and periphery. Up to now, Greece, Ireland and Portugal have been the main beneficiaries of Structural and Cohesion Funds resources. The eligibility criteria for being awarded support from these funds are as follows: to qualify for resources from the Structural Funds under Objective One (general development), per capita GDP must be below 75 per cent of the Union average. Objective Two concentrates on smaller areas suffering the effects of economic crisis and Objective Three provides assistance for initiatives taken to combat lack of education and training and unemployment. The Cohesion Fund, set up in 1993, aims at helping the poorest countries and in order to benefit, per capita GDP for the country as a whole may not exceed 90 per cent of the EU average.
Clearly, if the current criteria are maintained, regional development policy will swallow up a huge proportion of the Union's budget. All of the candidate countries would be eligible for support, since only Budapest, Ljubljana and Prague have a per capita GDP rate in excess of the 75 per cent upper limit. The current average for the region as a whole, with its 100 million inhabitants, is somewhere around 40 per cent.
Hungary is not happy about its willingness to compromise being taken for granted. Regional aid is desperately needed and the prospect of massive investment from EU partners is one of the features that make the whole business of undergoing the sometimes painful process of adaptation and transformation worthwhile. As long as Brussels persists in being tight-lipped, regional aid will seem like the proverbial crock of gold at the end of the rainbow...
Let us not forget either that there are other sticking points for the EU: what to do about agriculture, for example, or freedom of movement. These matters touch raw nerves amongst the ordinary citizens of the EU, many of whom look upon a sudden influx of what they perceive of as sponging, opportunistic parasites with dread. It is all very well for Europe's political elites to espouse the cause of Enlargement, but it is the taxpayers, who foot the bill and the voters, who decide whether the project will be ratified (a government foolish enough to go over the heads of their populace can expect to incur the electorate's wrath at the polls). There has been precious little effort to woo the public over the forthcoming round of accessions and this may yet prove the undoing of a brisk Hungarian entry.
In concluding, I consider it necessary to devote a few words to the much-discussed internal reforms. Issues such as the weighting of votes in Council and the number of Commissioners each Member State should be allowed to have may not look as pressing as getting Enlargement off the ground at last. These matters, referred to in EU parlance as the "leftovers" of Maastricht and Amsterdam, are bound up with prestige, but to ignore their deeper philosophical content would be a major omission. What is at stake here are the EU's democratic credentials, its approach to striking a fair balance between the influence of large countries and the interests of their smaller partners. Up to now there has been a laudable bias in favour of the small. What a pity if Enlargement, a project of benefit to the whole of Europe, were to be wielded as a pretext to erode the rights of the numerically weaker...
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 8 May 2000.
Sources used in the preparation of this article:
HVG 15 April 2000
Népszabadság 4 and 5 May 2000
Magyar Hírlap 5 May 2000
Magyar Nemzet, 26, 28 and 29 April 2000