Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 24
6 December 1999

Csardas C S A R D A S:
Hungary and Enlargement

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

Last week's resolution in the European Parliament marked the culmination of a flurry of activity related to enlargement in the EU's only democratically elected institution. The resolution addresses a pragmatic agenda, restoring a sense of proportion to the run up to Helsinki.

From the Joint Motion for a Resolution on the Helsinki Summit, European Parliament:


4. (the European Parliament) Invites the European Council to put an end to the invidious divide between two classes of applicant countries and to adopt the recommendations made on 13 October 1999 by the European Commission, bringing its policy into line with the "regatta model", opening the prospect of a fully flexible, multi-speed accession process, based exclusively on merit.

5. Urges the Commission and Council to pay particular attention in the implementation of the pre-accession strategies and during the negotiations to social progress in the applicant countries, protection of the environment, energy safety and security, protection of minorities, gender discrimination, and asylum and immigration policy;

6. Considers that available financial resources must be redirected in order to allow investment in small-scale infrastructure projects suited to the needs of local and regional communities

An area of freedom, security and justice

20. Calls, both generally and in the context of the pre-accession strategy, for the Council to give high priority to combating drugs, particularly by stepping up co-operation in the fight against the trafficking and transit of drugs with the applicant countries of Central and Eastern Europe and with all the countries concerned"

The joint motion for a resolution, debated in the European Parliament in Brussels last week (Wednesday 1 December) following Commission and Council statements, marked the culmination of a flurry of activity related to Enlargement in the EU's only democratically elected institution.

Previously, there had been a two day meeting with the speakers of the national parliaments of all the candidate countries in suitably sumptuous surroundings, chaired by the President of the European Parliament, Madame Nicole Fontaine. The democratic nature of the event was symbolised highlighted by having the distinguished guests seated in alphabetical order, according to the name of their country in the original in its native language (so that Hungary/Magyarorszag's delegation, headed by Mr Janos Ader, was placed next to Lithuania). This Equality was further symbolised by the round table that avoided giving particular prominence to any single delegation.

The second leg of the twice yearly EU-Hungary Joint Parliamentary Committee had also been held in Brussels on 24 and 25 November (the venue alternating between the Belgian capital and Budapest).

One of the chief criticisms of the EU is that it is composed of an army of faceless technocrats, faceless, and grey men (and women!) in suits, whose sole concern it is to destroy cherished national customs and undermine sovereignty in the interests of harmonisation at all costs., Moreover, that this corps of unfeeling, pampered and, overprivileged bureaucrats is far removed, both literally and metaphorically, from the concerns of real people in their everyday lives. Remoteness, whether it be a figment of the popular imagination or not, is perceived as one of the greatest threats to the European project. Brussels (a term employed by many journalists as a simplifying shorthand for the three main EU institutions and their every pronouncement and deed, which glosses over the genuine differences of opinion and subtleties of procedure) is often synonymous with short-sighted quibbling over petty national interests in the guise of co-operation. Against this backdrop, the Helsinki summit may end up doing more harm than good if it concentrates exclusively on the - to many ordinary citizens both inside the candidate countries and amongst the populations of the existing Member States - process of institutional reform. This in the eyes of many sceptics is completely irrelevant, the ultimate proof of how out of touch the European institutions really are.

The European Parliament resolution addresses a more pragmatic agenda, restoring a sense of proportion to the run up to Helsinki. Alt Though the subtext could be interpreted as containing a note of one of anxiety concerning what is in store for an enlarged EU, with its litany of unresolved problems, it at least broaches delicate subjects such as nuclear safety and how to foot the enormous bill of decades of environmental degradation.

For Hungary, the concept of merit-based accession is especially appealing, since the country's leaders have repeated indefatigably that come 2001 Hungary will be ripe for membership. The Orban administration's strategy is clear: the ball is lobbed firmly into the EU's court, and Hungary (by extension her government) cannot be blamed if accession does not take place according to schedule. By this neat rhetorical device, Mr Orban is conveniently exonerated should Enlargement not take place within the term of office of the coalition his party heads, sparing him (at least in theory) from a backlash of frustration expressed in ballot slips. Fear that a dynamic founded on a continued deferral of gratification might have an adverse impact is not confined to Mr Orban's camp, however. Ambassadors in Budapest faithfully scan the columns of newspapers every day with a view to discerning even the tiniest drop in support for EU accession.

Mr Gabor Szalay (SZDSZ, Free Democrats) echoed this at the JPC meeting in Brussels under point seven of the agenda when he examined recent developments within the EU from a Hungarian perspective, highlighting the need for candidate countries to be able to contribute with some positive input to the process of institutional reform.

Hungary's readiness was a recurrent theme in the course of discussions. In his keynote speech, Mr Zsolt Nemeth, Parliamentary Secretary, reminded the audience that Hungary complies with the political stipulations of the Copenhagen criteria (in other words that the candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities and the ability to take on the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union). He catalogued the progress made towards liberalisation of trade, drawing attention to the EU's role as a market for Hungarian exports, and reaffirmed Hungary's endorsement of the CFSP, in particular the country's vital interest in European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).

Mr Nemeth did not balk at raising more controversial issues such as immigration and visa policy. Here, he placed the government's aspirations in their broader general context, that of a careful balancing act between the demands of the EU and the wish to avoid, both, a rupture with the Hungarian communities living in neighbouring countries, and a deterioration in the good relations that have been established with these countries by means of the signing of the so-called Basic Treaties.

Although Hungary is more than aware of the obligations that go hand in hand with EU membership, Mr Nemeth also mentioned the desirability of full rights also being enjoyed., Further reiterating the official position that it would have, "an expressly positive effect if the Helsinki Summit were to confirm that it was ready to admit the new members by 2002, and if it declared that - through a more firm application of the country-by-country approach and by differentiation - substantive negotiations with the most prepared applicants could be completed in 2001".

Commissioner Verheugen, who also attended the meeting, refused to be drawn on the question of a specific date, beyond mentioning the possibility of 2002 being the deadline by which Member States could decide on such matters such as when the Accession Treaties could be signed. He was very careful to make sure that his remarks were made in the conditional: everything will hinge on the decisions to be taken in the Finnish capital. He was not about to issue personal guarantees.

As he stated at the press conference following on from the JPC, the next nine months will be crucial in terms of Enlargement, since the Commission intends, by the end of next year, to submit to Council a more detailed scenario for the steps to be taken. This proposal would give a clear indication of whether applicant countries would be assessed on individual merit or as a group alongside a timetable for the conclusion of the negotiating process.

That all eyes in Hungarian government circles will turn northward on 10 December is a foregone conclusion. Behind the scenes preparations continue apace. As the Minister of the Environment, Mr Pal Pepo, mentioned during an interview on Hungarian breakfast TV last week, the hope is that the remaining chapters for negotiation (such as the one falling within his sphere of competence) will be opened in the wake of Helsinki, bringing the exercise into its final phase. Holding out the prospect of EU membership in the near future is not just a simple matter of number-crunching, but of sustaining the momentum of adjustment and adaptation to very stringent criteria that represent a second "change of system" (the Hungarian term denoting the process set in motion as Communism collapsed) perhaps more radical than that which took place a decade ago.

Huge sacrifices have already been made, and Hungary cannot afford to let up in her efforts at reforming institutions and reshaping the very stuff of society itself if she truly wishes to be fully reintegrated into "Europe". The Ministers gathering round the negotiating table in Helsinki should be acutely aware of this if they wish to avoid creating a sense of disappointment which could rebound on the EU itself, jeopardising what has taken so many years of painstaking compromise to achieve.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 5 December 1999

Archive of Gusztav Kosztolanyi's Csardas series of articles on Hungary

Sources used:

Joint Motion for a Resolution, European Parliament, Document B-0308

Magyar Nemzet, 26 November 1999




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