Whilst the world's attention was focused on the signing of the Treaty of Nice, here in Budapest a more modest, yet perhaps equally significant event took place in the Parliament as the EU-Hungary Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) held its 15th session in the dignified surroundings of the Delegation Hall.
Whereas criticism was voiced by the European Parliament side concerning the results of the Nice summit (creating the impression that the Nice agreements represented a somewhat inept and inadequate compromise), the grass looks greener from the Hungarian side of the fence. The only fly in the ointment is the number of seats to be allocated to Hungary in the European Parliament. Co-chairman József Szájer's assessment provided an accurate reflection of the Hungarian stance:
Looking back at the Nice summit of December we can see that in the history of the European Union there has perhaps never been such a mammoth negotiating process in the interests of a successful realisation of the aims of institutional reform. The Treaty of Nice, which is due to be signed this very day, has not inspired unambiguous satisfaction and enthusiasm amongst a number of the member states and certain of the Union's institutions. The Hungarian view is that the compromises reached at the Nice summit in the realm of institutional reform have fulfilled their historical mission. The Treaty of Nice will guarantee the balanced functioning of the Union and has removed the final obstacle in the path of enlargement on the Union side.
Perhaps it will not be considered as putting a drop of poison in the chalice if I were to mention that in one respect the otherwise satisfactory results of the Nice compromise have put Hungary at a disadvantage. When the decision was taken about the number of seats to be allocated to Hungary in the European Parliament we received two seats less than we ought to have in accordance with the size of our population, which contradicts the principle according to which each country is awarded seats in proportion to its population. We attach a great deal of importance to seeing this horizontal discrimination remedied at an appropriate stage of the negotiations in keeping with the principle of equality between the member states.
The successful conclusion of the Intergovernmental Conference affords the Union the opportunity—in harmony with the programme of the Swedish Presidency—to deal with Enlargement and the accession negotiations as a top priority. In the course of the six months of the Swedish Presidency questions pertaining to the four freedoms [free movement of goods, capital, services and workers] will feature on the agenda of these negotiations. We harbour well-founded expectations that five to eight chapters can be closed during the Swedish Presidency and, provided that this breakthrough does indeed take place—by 2002 only the most difficult issues would remain on the negotiating table.
Anomaly or discrimination?
These sentiments were echoed by Ferenc Mádl, the President of the Republic, when he addressed the committee, emphasising first that Hungary is willing to put its money where its mouth is in terms of preparing for accession:
Let me tell you, Ladies and Gentlemen, that as far as Hungary is concerned, the central budget adopted by our Parliament for the next two years allocates more than HUF 100 billion, approximately EUR 370 million, to facilitating the alignment of legislation and institutional developments necessary to taking on board the acquis communautaire.
As far as the European Union is concerned, we find that, as a result of the hard work of previous years and the decisions made in Nice, the preconditions now exist for achieving a major breakthrough in accession negotiations in 2001. We have to make full use of this opportunity. We are confident that all the problems can be tackled and resolved, provided we assess and identify them properly and adopt a nuanced, individual approach.
In accordance with the resolutions of the Nice summit, the number of votes Hungary will be entitled to in Council is in line with its size. We will also be able to delegate a Commissioner to the European Commission. However, the number of seats that Hungary and the Czech Republic will have in the European Parliament is less than the number of seats that current EU members with a similar population size have at present. I believe that once we reach the stage of discussing the institutional chapters in the course of accession negotiations, we will have to broach this issue, because if it were not to be resolved then a fundamental EU principle would be breached. Such a state of affairs would imply discrimination between long-standing and new members of the European Union.
With his customary diplomacy, President Mádl referred to the discrepancy in the number of seats as an "anomaly," carefully avoiding the merest hint of annoyance or aggression, explaining that Hungary hoped the correction could be made in the framework of the accession treaty at the latest.
Judged on their own merits
On behalf of the Council, Swedish Ambassador Staffan Carlsson reiterated his country's commitment to focusing on the "three E's" [employment, environment and enlargement] and ambitions to speed up the negotiating process:
During the first half of this year, the Presidency will strive to pave the way for a political breakthrough in the accession negotiations. This means that we would like to open as many chapters as possible with the countries that started negotiations last year; to close as many chapters as possible depending on each country's progress, giving priority to the "Swedish chapters" including the free movement of persons and capital and the environment, but also a number of other chapters such as transport and energy; to begin discussing some of the other difficult chapters like veterinary and phytosanitary issues and, in accordance with the Nice conclusions, define guidelines for the successful completion of the enlargement process in Gothenburg.
With the "road map" for the period up to mid-2002 we now have a frame of reference that is both ambitious and realistic. It reflects the EU's commitment, for its part, to solve the problems raised by the negotiations. In this context, it is important to underline the principle of differentiation, which says that each candidate country will be judged on its own merits. This implies that those countries that are best prepared will continue to be able to make progress more quickly.
The ambassador went on to skim through areas where Hungary, ever anxious to occupy the position of teacher's pet, "could do better;" mentioning the need for tangible results in the medium term in combating discrimination against the Roma and to redouble its efforts in the fight against corruption. Although he recognised that Hungary had built up its administrative capacity, monitoring of state aids, market surveillance, transport, the environment and veterinary and plant health were areas in which capacity would have to be bolstered further. Suitable staff had to be attracted, trained and motivated. The SAPARD Paying Agency had to be put in place so that the EU could pay out contributions averaging at some 38.7 million euros annually with peace of mind.
Recognition and regret
The recommendations, which formally conclude the work of each session of the JPC, reflected the European side's solidarity, summarising the outcome of deliberations. The most important were as follows:
5a) took note of the significant recent progress of Hungary in the approximation to EU legislation, particularly in the areas of agriculture and transport; recommended a similar acceleration in environment and labour law. The JPC discussed Hungary's preparations for the implementation of the acquis in the field of justice and home affairs, and took note of the preparation of draft laws for the adoption of the Schengen provisions concerning aliens, refugees, border controls and citizenship;
5b) referring to the discussions at its last meeting in the presence of the President of the National Roma Self-Government and the Chairman of the Office of National and Ethnic Minorities in Hungary, the JPC reiterated the importance of continued efforts for integrating the Roma community into Hungarian society on a basis of mutual understanding;
12a) urges that [...] the accession negotiations with Hungary can be concluded by the first half of 2002 at the latest;
17) regrets the protocol attached to the Treaty of Nice, pursuant to which Hungary has received twenty seats in the European Parliament and insists that Hungary receive the twenty two seats that would correspond to the population ratio;
18) welcomes the fact that the European Council had set a clear time frame for the first accessions by expressing the wish to see the first acceding countries participating in the elections to the European Parliament in June 2004; expects that Hungarian citizens will be able to take part in these elections.
Unless some unforeseen serious problem were to arise, Hungary is well on the way to becoming a fully-fledged member state of the EU in line with the aspirations of all the political parties and over 60 per cent of the population at large (only eight per cent specifically opposed the idea of joining the EU).
Against this backdrop, the work of the JPC inexorably begins to resemble an exchange of pleasantries, as we are kept in a holding pattern with Brussels, constantly in view yet never quite within reach.
The only fear is that at the forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference in 2004 new hoops to be jumped through with acrobatic grace will be invented as a pretext to stall enlargement further. Between now and then, we have precious little choice but to comply with every request from the EU capital, to adapt and continue to make sacrifices in the hope of one day obtaining the reward our nation so desperately yearns for, that of being embraced back into the family of nations from whose arms we were so abruptly and cruelly wrenched.
That our merits will finally be awarded recognition and that we will no longer be regarded as poor relations queuing for handouts with all the grudging condescension such reliance entails. Certainly, if the Hungarian government's undertaking to complete preparations by the end of 2002 comes to fruition then the ball will firmly be in the EU's court and it will have to deliver rather than prevaricate and fob us off with less than the full equality our human dignity requires.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 5 March 2001
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