Major questions to be answered

Krisztina Vida
Highly active President of the European Council coupled with weaker role of the rotating presidency
As regards his new position, Herman Van Rompuy has pledged to fully implement the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty and to use his powers to the utmost possible. In the opinion of a high official at the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs,[1] Van Rompuy is absolutely acting according to his words. He is very active in representing the Union towards third countries and under his Presidency of the European Council, the role of the rotating presidency at the European Council level has significantly decreased. Van Rompuy is acting rather autonomously vis-à-vis the Council. Although there is cooperation with the actual presidency at both the Permanent Representatives Committee (Coreper) and Council levels, the President is preparing the conclusions of the European Council on his own, assisted, however, by the Secretary General of the Council. The conclusions themselves became shorter, more concise and more streamlined. Before finalising the text, the President takes up only those suggestions from the member states, which represent substantial change (no “stylistic” corrections are accepted).
As to the European Council meetings, the big change is that the foreign ministers do not take part in them, thus the circle is closer, restricted to the leaders of the member states. This meant an immediate weakening of the General Affairs Council, as the ministers cannot represent at the European Council level what they have discussed and adopted at the General Affairs Council level. This has resulted in a new phenomenon: the General Affairs Councils are often attended by the under secretaries for European or foreign affairs, instead of the ministers themselves. The ministers seem to be losing motivation, as they are aware that their direct influence on the final text of the conclusions is limited. As to the role of the actual presiding country at European Council level, it is also limited, due to the above-mentioned reasons.
The functioning of the High Representative needs more lubrication
As opposed to the President of the European Council, the position and functioning of the “double-hatted” High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy leaves more questions open. One of the main shortcomings is that, compared to her obligations, Catherine Ashton has too small of a cabinet. Another problem is that very often she has programmes in parallel, namely travelling abroad, as well as appearing at the Commission or before the European Parliament. In these cases, she would need a deputy High Representative, but this is not established by the Lisbon Treaty. Due to these organisational/institutional shortcomings, Ashton is not always able to fulfil all her obligations, despite her full commitment.
The rules on geographical balance still to be settled
The political agreement on the European External Action Service (EEAS) was welcomed by Hungary. The new office will be made up of officials from the Commission (one third), from the Council (one third) and from the member states (one third). Hungary supported this approach although an important aspect is still lacking, according to a high official of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.[2] This lacking aspect relates to the concrete details of the “geographical balance” and the way it should be implemented. Hungary is looking forward to the upcoming negotiations on this issue. Another open question is that of financing the EEAS and its diplomats. Furthermore, the status of European Commission delegations abroad should also be redefined upon full operation of the EEAS.
The rules on the ECI to guarantee equal rights to EU citizens

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is a new, absolutely positive element of the Lisbon Treaty, equipping EU citizens with a tool of direct democracy. However, according to a high official of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs,[3] the detailed technical rules of such an initiative are still to be worked out and adopted. A major issue here is that the EU rules on the ECI should be fully compatible with the national rules on a plebiscite. When formulating the exact rules, the equal rights of EU citizens must be a guiding principle. From a political point of view, a fast decision on this would be welcome. Apparently, the first such initiative will be about “free Sundays”, an idea fully supported by the Christian churches in Hungary as well as by the ruling Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP).

[1] Interview done at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 5 May 2010.

[2] Interview done at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 5 May 2010.

[3] Interview done at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 5 May 2010.