When Hungary took over the EU Presidency on 1st January, it should have made for very satisfying news. The second Central European country to try its hand at the helm of the Union, to be followed by Poland later this year. The two countries that, together, brought down communism, will be leading the EU in a long, closely coordinated one-year Hungarian–Polish Presidency, and they are eager to prove their worth and to leave a mark of their own.

Instead of celebratory statements, there was an uproar of condemnation, so extreme especially in Germany that the conservative paper “Die Welt” allowed commentator Günter Lachman to describe Hungary as a country on its way to fascism and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as some sort of new “Führer.”

A caricature in Munich’s “Süddeutsche Zeitung” portrayed Hungary as a club-wielding caveman tromping into the halls of European civil-mindedness.

A frenzy of harsh media reports and damning statements by some, usually left-leaning European politicians seemed to boil down to one fundamental point: that the Orbán government, ushered into office by a landslide victory in fair and democratic elections, was antidemocratic, a danger to the EU’s values, and thus the Hungarian EU Presidency a matter of some concern.

A good measure of media hype and political posturing may have contributed to the furore – but Hungary-bashing does not seem to appeal to German officials and technocrats in Brussels. “I don’t think anyone in the German government has voiced anything resembling fundamental criticism of Hungary’s democratic credentials“, said Martin Kotthaus, spokesman of the permanent German Mission to the EU. “Of course not!”, he exclaimed with some exasperation, when asked whether there was any indication in his day-to-day conversations and political dealings with Hungarian colleagues, that they were potentially somewhat less than democracy-minded.

That Hungary is trampling fundamental European values underfoot is, however, the view of Germany’s Martin Schulz (SPD), head of the European Socialists’ parliamentary group in Strasbourg. “The EU Presidency must defend the values of Europe, but Hungary is suspected of breaking the very values it is supposed to defend”, he recently said in an interview. But his earlier calls for sanctions have become less ferocious after a long conversation with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in mid-January.

German officials in Brussels say that, whatever concerns there may have been, they are now largely “off the table.” In their view, although “some questions remain as to Hungary’s domestic policies”, the Hungarian EU Presidency as such is now free to concentrate on the tasks at hand, and has started off with a “solid performance.”

“Domestically, the Hungarians have made many mistakes. But the whole matter of the media law is now behind them, as they agreed to amend it,” said Elmar Brok (CDU), foreign policy spokesman of the EU Parliament’s EPP group and Co-Chairman of the German–Hungarian Forum. He added, however, that “suspicions remain,” and the European Parliament would “take a very close look” at Budapest’s planned constitutional reform. Another German official mentioned the fracas caused by a giant carpet that the Hungarians placed in the European Council’s building in Brussels, showing (alongside other historical themes) a map of Hungary at the time of its war for independence in 1848. This carpet was a cause of “continuing irritations in some partner states,” said the official, but added that these irritations were, in effect, limited to Slovakia and Romania.

Concerning the actual performance of the Hungarian EU Presidency, Brok said “everyone agrees that their program is good”, but that “it is much too early to say anything substantial. What we have seen so far is solid, experienced work”. Kotthaus agreed, saying “an EU Presidency’s worth can only be assessed in its last two months. So far all we can say is: good, professional work, let’s see what the results will be.”

A senior German EU-official offered the personal view that Hungary’s six months at the presidency will probably go down as a “middle of the road” performance. “It is certainly not a presidency like the French or the German, where a great array of important agendas are brought forward simultaneously and quite efficiently,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But within the more limited scope that the Hungarians have set for themselves, they are doing solid, well-prepared work to advance their priorities. They certainly can’t be compared with the Czechs, where very little got done.”

Specifically, the official said there was a good chance for success for Hungary’s “Roma” program, a set of policies designed to tackle the problems surrounding the Roma minorities in Europe. “The Hungarians have invested a lot of effort there and are making some headway.” A successful conclusion (perhaps already in March) would be an important point for Hungary, which has been accused of widespread anti-Roma racism. It would also compare favourably with recent French attempts to solve the problem with mass-extraditions of Roma to Romania.

Hungary’s “limited but solid” priorities are seen by German EU-officials to focus mainly on the former communist countries. “They are trying very hard to keep Romania’s and Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen zone on track”, said one official. A difficult proposition at best – French EU-affairs minister Laurent Wauquiez has “definitely” ruled out a quick accession of the two countries due to their failures to tackle corruption, illegal immigration and smuggling. Both countries were hoping to join the Schengen zone in March.

But it is mainly Croatia’s bid to join the EU that lies at the heart of Hungary’s focus on south-eastern Europe. In a determined effort to finalize the process, Budapest has been closely coordinating with Poland, which will take over the EU Presidency in July and is just as keen to see Croatia join the EU. The German government acknowledges the energy and willpower behind these efforts, but sounds somewhat worried about cutting corners. “We, just like Hungary, also see Croatia’s accession process as dynamic, and in its final phase. But it should be clear that there can be no “price reductions” for anyone wanting to join the EU” said John Reyels, spokesman for the German foreign ministry in Berlin.

Hungary is a small country, and beyond its immediate regional interests “other, bigger countries of course define the dynamics when it comes to the great, overarching agendas – like dealing with the Euro and the economic crisis,” a senior German official in Brussels said. “The Hungarians are wise enough to support the driving forces here, France and Germany, rather than try to dominate the discussion.”

One such “overarching agenda” is energy policy, but this is one area in which Hungary does try to shape the discussion. Budapest claimed a breakthrough for its proposals at the European Council’s energy summit on 4th February. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to concur. She placed this point at the top of her statement praising the achievements of the summit. “We are moving closer to a unified energy market, legally as well as with regard to further progress for projects and necessary consultations with companies and national regulatory authorities”, she said, and added that “the Hungarian Presidency will organize a number of conferences about this until June.”

The EU’s aim is to create a supranational energy market and to gain independence from Ukrainian pipelines for the transit of Russian gas (the “South Stream” project), as well as some independence from Russian gas, with new pipelines bypassing Russia and connecting to the Caspian region (the “Nabucco” project). For Budapest, this is also a core national agenda, as the pipelines for both projects would pass through Hungary, making it a key element of European energy infrastructure. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced that the European Council had decided to make the Hungarian plans for pipeline construction a priority. This would also mean financial support from EU coffers. A further step forward might come on 3rd May, with a major conference in Budapest.

Any substantial progress in these matters would go a long way towards making the Hungarian EU Presidency a success. So far, there is praise from Berlin: “The Hungarian Presidency has played a crucial role in preparing the Energy summit on 4th February, and has thus been able to contribute to the good results that were achieved there”, said German foreign ministry spokesman John Reyels. Can a good performance of Hungary’s EU Presidency change or at least nuance the negative public opinion in Germany about the conservative Hungarian government? That remains to be seen. The tone of German media reports about Hungary and Orbán has, for the time being, become slightly less agitated. Stefanie Bolzen, Brussels correspondent for “Die Welt”, who had found a way to combine the term “leninist” with “conservative revolution” to describe Orbán in December, is privately still not sure how far to “trust” him. But she wrote this about his appearance in front of the European Parliament in January: “Hungary’s Government may accept criticism, it may even implement it. But one thing is clear for Orbán: ‘We will not tolerate insults against our people. We do not accept that the functioning of democracy in Hungary is put into doubt.’ (…) Thus spoke a man who had fought against the communist regime and had done his part for a democratic Hungary. And who, because of this, (…) uses an extremely self-confident, and therefore in the European Union new tone, a tone supported by biographical legitimacy.”

So – what to make of Germany’s altogether rather positive official view of the Hungarian EU Presidency, and the simultaneous, very critical stance of most German media and leftist politicians about Hungary itself? It might indicate some sort of disconnect between the ways German journalists and governing politicians see the matter. It might indicate diverging interests – shrill headlines may sell a paper, but shrill politicians are usually ones without power.

But what is the real German take on Hungary? Are the Magyars drifting, or even marching away from Europe in Arrow Cross uniforms, as some mainstream German media and left-wing opposition politicians have been suggesting? Or is Hungary a responsible and constructive member of the Union? The foreign ministry in Berlin leaves little doubt that it sees Hungary as an honest partner for Europe. In the considered words of spokesman John Reyels, “Hungary’s active and dynamic EU Presidency, and especially the fact that Hungary has very much established itself as a dedicated advocate of the countries of southeastern Europe, shows that the country is committed to contributing its share to the shaping of Europe.”

At the very least, this means Hungary is not seen as a radical rebel. The carefully crafted phrase, the result of some deliberation in the ministry and no doubt meant to be encouraging, does however leave some room for a perception of Hungarian bloody-mindedness. It takes note of Hungary’s active participation in the EU (as opposed to the Euro-skeptic Czechs) but also of its self-limitation to issues of regional, and thus also more narrowly national relevance (“advocate of south-eastern Europe”).

For the rest, dutiful Hungarian support for some “overarching European agendas” and deliberate distance from the very same may well go hand in hand. Budapest’s reported support for the German–French economic reform package to save the Euro, for instance, does not mean that Hungary wants to be part of the Euro-zone any time soon. In fact, the government just announced that it had no intention of joining the Euro until at least 2020. One reason is the fear of common tariffs for corporate taxation – a proposed measure that Hungary, if it does defend the French and German ideas, would seem to accept, but only as long as it would not itself have to obey that particular rule. It feels no current urge to join the club. Other signs point towards a desire for more financial self-reliance, and for independence from the European economic crisis mechanisms. But a Hungary without Europe, German officials seem convinced, remains just as unthinkable as a Europe without Hungary, and Budapest remains a reliable partner.

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