30 June 2011

Farewell to the Hungarian Presidency – or “is there life after the Presidency?”

(There is definitely life for this blog after the Hungarian Presidency, as we will carry on blogging and tweeting, so you are welcome to follow us.)

During the last six months the Presidency has fully occupied our days and part of our nights. A few presidencies had a rougher start than ours, but equally few have finished more successfully if we look at the actual achievements (we don’t want to bore you with the details, you can read them here if interested). This spectacular comeback was based on the solid moral strength and the concentrated effort of our colleagues. Such concentrated effort can of course lead to addiction, which will unavoidably cause a few weeks of post-presidency depression. (Even though at the moment we can’t wait to see our families in normal daylight and get our lives back.)

However what we are interested in this post is a wider question: Is the presidency just a passing moment or does it serve a higher purpose? How did it change us personally and how did it change Hungary’s role in the European Union? 

In the new post-Lisbon institutional setup the rotating presidency is the last link that connects the Brussels Bubble to the Member States. And we must protect this role! The fact that the presidency rotates between Member States lends it great importance, but also creates its Achilles-heel: presidencies come and go and each one tries to reinvent the wheel again. This is why we tried to look at the incoming presidencies as a continuous flow and not as separate, conflicting or competing entities. We did our best to involve the Polish (and the Danish) communication team into our work and share all good and bad experiences honestly. Hereby let us wish good luck to the Poles, we are really crossing our fingers for your success!

But what is going to happen to Hungary’s role in the EU? We fully agree with what Greg Dorey, UK Ambassador to Hungary wrote: ”The Hungarian EU Presidency has gone well, with much-needed legislation and business of importance to the EU as a whole steered through in a professional and competent manner. The challenge now is to preserve the expertise and skill that has been built up – it is only when a new Member State has held the Presidency for the first time that it can really understand how to use the EU to best effect.”

Even though the Hungarian Permanent Representation will now go back to a “normal” operation, we expect that: 
  1. the Hungarian public administration back in Budapest will be much more efficient in defining Hungarian national interest very early on, and
  2. our Brussels based diplomats will be even more competent in representing these positions
  3. furthermore we hope for more Hungarian lobbyists/activists in Brussels. 
As the Multiannual Financial Framework* negotiations are just starting (see live tweeting from @hajduspox on 29/06), this improvement comes at the best moment. 

*aka EU Budget, fate of lots of money, in the 7 years between 2013 and 2020

We are caught up now between worlds 

And how about us, Kovács & Kováts? Well, we are in a strange situation. In the Brussels institutional setup, most people spend their EU-career in one institution and they begin to identify with their institution. If we wanted to draw a caricature, we could say that Commisison officials tend believe that the Commission equals Europe and Council and Parliament are only there to disturb. Council sometimes lives in a diplomatic ivory tower thinking they are the only real power in town and everyone else is just a joke. Finally Parliament officials believe their institution is the only one with a democratic legitimacy. 

In our “normal existence” Kovács is a Commission official, while Kováts is a Parliament official, and both of us have been seconded to the Hungarian Presidency. Thus we are caught up now between two worlds – carrying the original identity of our proper institutions while having gone through a very intensive crash course in Council mentality. Whether this ”double-identity” will be appreciated upon our return to our sending institutions or whether we will be castigated, is to be seen. (Kováts has been asking for more blood in Brussels, now he might get it – in London.)

And before we go a few words of thank you to a few special people!

First to the whole Brussels press corps – thank you for taking us at face value, (mostly) without preconceptions and for a straightforward relationship. For those journalists with whom we had more regular contacts and have grown closer to our hearts (you know who you are), well we hope to stay in touch. 

For the Brussels bloggers, especially to the Bloggingportal editors: we are happy that you came to that meeting in the winter that started us on an intellectually motivating cooperation that finally led to the pilot project of opening up the Council to bloggers. 

We are grateful to colleagues in the Council’s press team who have run most of the press relations for us or instead of us. Sometimes we thought that we were only a nuisance disturbing the smooth operation of the system, but you never made us feel as outsiders. Also colleagues at the 26 permanent representations were extremely helpful and cooperative on a bilateral basis when we needed them. 

We must thank the spokespeople and press officers of all other institutions for their cooperation (some were more, others less cooperative, but we met no bad intentions and have no ill feelings) and for bearing with our sometimes rather undiplomatic blog posts without much complaint.

A great thank you to the interpreters, whom we have often criticized (and might have gone over the top –new blog post on this subject coming up), but without whom the Presidency could not have survived for one day. 

And finally, the Hungarian Presidency team, including the Brussels diplomats who endured our constant pestering, but still proved to be most helpful. And of course our closest collaborators (Emi, Eszter and Magda) for enduring the hardship of supporting our work.

We will miss you!

29 June 2011

The (many) mistakes we made

From the feedback we get from all over in Brussels, it seems the Hungarian Presidency is considered a great success. From Olli Rehn, arguing for a Schuman Prize, to Hannes Swoboda wanting to stop the clock on the 30th of June, all actors are impressed by the results. (We could have another post on whether this is unfair or not, as a Presidency cannot be evaluated on its own but in cooperation with its partners, but this is not the point here.)

The point is that Kovács & Kováts believe the way to success in life leads through small failures. We achieve results if first we make mistakes and learn from them. (This is why we look forward to reading the new book of Tim Harford this summer.) It is of course important to make mistakes at a small scale, so when you get to the important tasks, you have already cut your teeth . It’s common sense, and we are looking forward to experiencing it with our children, when we will actually see them, that is, after the Presidency is over… 

We of course like to think that we did contribute something to the Presidency’s success, so it is just fair if we try to take stock of the mistakes we made on the way - especially as it was the mother of all learning curves for us, newbies to the Council. So here is our ’best of mistakes’ collection. (Please feel absolutely free to point out other mistakes we made, even we know more but we are reluctant to share them) 

1. Limited engagement with electronic media

While we did well with the print media, our performance vis-a-vis electronic media was mixed. While we made some e effort with the Brussels based online media and also with Hungarian online media, we were not able to connect like we did with the print media. We also connected superbly with the Brussels blogosphere, so our lack of success with online papers leaves a bit of a bad taste.

We also connected relatively well with radios (although could have paid more attention to their specific needs), but we totally missed TVs. At the beginning of the presidency there was an increased interest, we gave several interviews (especially on the famous carpet), but as the results of the Presidency work started to show in February, the TVs have all but disappeared. We have been too busy reacting to the recurring crises so we simply had no energy to look for „sexy” subjects and proposals. The nitty-gritty of European Union legislation is hard to sell to TV audiences (and especially to editors), though not impossible. Lately we had some success, e.g. with the issue of Macedonia or the ’cross‑border exchange of information on road safety related traffic offences’. The latter sounds like a super boring subject, but it’s extremely timely before the summer vacation, so we could achieve prime airtime. We should have worked on this much more. 

2. Sticking to known journalists only

This is a variation of the electronic/online media problem. Not all journalists are equal in importance, and we did not have the same „chemistry” with all journalists. Therefore there was a tendency to only talk to the same circle of journalists whom we trusted and liked and/or who we thought were super-important. We invited them for backgrounds, we called them (back) first, we sent them press releases under embargo, etc. It took us quite some time to recognize this trap at all. At a later stage, so that we don’t miss everything, we tried to expand our circle. Invited new faces for a background to see what they are like, talked to them and checked out their reporting. But we could have done more and earlier.

3. Reaching out to national bloggers

We had no energy and no plan to connect with the national blogospheres. Our lack of engagement with Hungarian bloggers is a special shame. We have only thought about it at the end of the Presidency after some discussion with the Bloggingportal editors, but by then it was too late.

We know that the Holy Grail in Brussels is to connect the Brussels blogosphere to the national blogospheres. (Something that seems to be starting with the UK blogosphere thanks to committed people like Jon Worth and Joe Litobarski.) The presidency has offered us a golden opportunity to connect with Hungarian bloggers and we missed it. We can only hope that the Polish Presidency will not make the same mistake towards Polish bloggers.

4. Not reaching out properly to fellow spokespeople

Our record is decidedly mixed here. We worked perfectly well with the press officers and spokespeople of the Council (General Secretariat and some embassies).Cooperation was OK with the communication team of both the President of the European Council and of the High Representative. We also received support from the European Parliament’s press team, even though there were some spectacular clashes between the institutions. Where we feel we failed was in setting up a systematically good cooperation with the Commission – an especially sore point for Kovács (“once a Commission official, always a Commission official.”) After a promising start we only managed to have random contacts with the spokespeople, even in cases where cooperation, early warning, etc. could have been helpful. 

5. Being too cautious with on the record information

Especially in the beginning, we held back and offered only background information because we wanted to play it safe, or wait for the actual decision to take place. What then happened was that the media ran our stories without us being quoted. Happened more than once, and difficult to avoid even with a full speaking mandate that we thankfully have.

6. Not engaging our diplomats proactively enough 

Let’s face it, most administrations are not geared towards external communications, and the unsung heroes of a presidency, the diplomats below the ambassadors did not necessarily have the spokespeople on their mind in everything they did. We had mixed results in the beginning, and we were certainly not pushy enough in regularly going around and collecting information. We realised that sometimes a reminder is enough, but sometimes you have to fight for the info. 

Was that frustrating? No doubt. Could we have done better? Absolutely. Have the diplomats improved? Tremendously. (By the end we had more suggestions/requests coming in for „some press work” than we could handle, and there are "hidden gems" who draft better press releases than we do (almost))

7. Not considering the personal preferences of our clients (the ministers)

Being a spokesperson for half a dozen VIPs once a month (or less) is difficult and very different from being a personal spokesperson. So in the beginning we were struggling with offering a one-size fits all approach to all ministers. Predictably, all of them had issues to take with our approach. With repeat councils it became much better as time passed, but we could have done a better job in gathering information about personal preferences in advance (e.g. from the ministry press people.)

8. Focusing only on journalists 1., (not engaging other opinion leaders)

In the beginning, we missed a large part of the opinion leaders by focusing solely on journalists. Surely, what you want is to get your message across and that the media gives you favourable coverage, but indirect ways are often useful, too. It took us some time to realise that we should talk to think tanks, academics, lobbyists, etc., who are sources for news stories, and whose opinion matters more to a journalists than what a spokesperson says. Now we are doing it as much as we can (and find pleasure in the intellectual exchange) but it is somewhat late.

9. Focusing only on journalists 2., (not taking the direct route)

Again, in the beginning we did not realise that the Presidency can appear directly in newspapers, with opinion pieces and articles, as long as they are relevant, well written and provocative. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one that’s nevertheless worth a try in order to increase your audience and get your message through. We think we are doing well in the end, but again, we could and should have been doing this a long time ago. (It’s also extremely time consuming, and a pain to cut and cut again your carefully worded sentences…)

Now it's your turn - what could we have done better?

27 June 2011

Federal plans in Central Europe and its message for today’s Europe

(This article is based on an exhibition organized by the Hungarian Presidency in the Berlaymont building under the title “Central European Union”. The closing cocktail will take place at noon on 28/06)

We have stumbled upon some interesting Central European thinkers/activists, whose thoughts on European integration gain new meaning today, when we are looking for a recovery from the economic crisis.

In order to explain our point, we need to step back a bit in time. Talking about the origins of the European Union, even the Brussels bubble think of Western European politicians, like Schuman, Spaak, Adenauer, Churchill, etc. However the people who actually invented the theoretical foundations of an economic community and have started the political movement were mostly Central Europeans between the two world wars. The origin of their ideas lie in the political and economic situation in the 20’s and 30’s, when some brave politicians and experts in the newly formed small sovereign states in Central Europe started actively working for a federation of these small states in order to increase their economic, political and military clout vis-a-vis the bigger European powers (especially Germany). They argued that a fragmented Central Europe will fall prey to Germany and the Soviet Union – and how right they were!

Who were these people and what is their significance today?

The “inventor” of European integration as we know today was Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the son of an Austro-Hungarian diplomat and founder of the Pan-Europa movement.

The eminence grise of European integration was a Polish diplomat/activist, Józef Retinger. Without his energy and organisational talent, the EU might not exist today. Working closely with Duncan Sandys he helped found the European Movement and the Council of Europe. (By the way, he had an immensely interesting life, aged 56, in 1944, he was parachuted by the Allies back to Poland in Operation Salamander and in 1954 he founded the Bilderberg Group – the ultmate proof for conspiracy theorists about the EU’s real nature. His biography is a superb read, usually available at Amazon – see here)

The person drawing up the economic theory of a common market in the 30’s was the Hungarian Elemér Hantos: “It was Hantos who did the most to make known the necessity of a Danubian economic confederation to the world. Through the economic institutes he founded in Vienna, Budapest, Brno, and Geneva, Dr. Hantos focused strongly on winning over European opinion and putting Central Europe on the map economically.” (Jacques Droz, from hantosprize.org)

The highest ranking politician among them was Milan Hodža, PM of Czechoslovakia, who developed a federative project in exile, which he described in 1942 in his book ‘Federation in Central Europe’.

Another important activist-campaigner, was the Hungarian Pál Auer (Paul de Auer), who has been closely cooperating with Coudenhove-Kalergi and was later active in the European Movement. Finally, as political thinker, we must underline the role of the Hungarian István Bibó and his thoughts on nationalism and Central European identity.

(Our list is probably not exhaustive, but gives a good idea of the development of Euroepan integration thought.)

Why is it significant today? Because even larger European states feel their significance decreasing at the global stage today compared to the US, China and the other upcoming powers. This relative weakening is clear in geopolitical, military, political and economic terms, as well. What was true for small Central European states in the 1930’s, may become true for all European states. (Just think of Robert Gates’s latest Brussels speech on NATO’s state of affairs.)

Quoting Milan Hodža’s argument on the economic necessity of the federation: “When planning for Central Europe they are anxious to present themselves as a unit; not in order to be self-sufficient, but to be instead of small, helpless would-be sovereignties partners on an equal footing through the intermediary of their federated unit. If any of their big neighbours were able continuously to force on them bilateral commercial treaties, they would become the objects of international trade instead of its subjects. Treaties between bullying great powers and bullied small nations, though they are contemplated as bilateral, become in fact unilateral, because they establish obligations deliberately. A bilateral treaty of a Central European Federation, however strong its partner might be, should enable this important portion of the Continent to enter into fair trade relations with anyone according to the effective interests ofthem both.” (Federation in Central Europe, p 167.)

Apply this to the role of Europe in the world economy today and no need to explain any further why we need a Strong Europe as advocated by the Hungarian Presidency.

26 June 2011

Sunday reading list – a very subjective take on Hungarian books

On Sundays we’ve been trying to give a little cultural twist to this blog. This time, it is not music, but books. Kováts is a great fan of listing things, so here is a very subjective list of the five “best” Hungarian books:

1. The most talked-about Hungarian writer these days is Sándor Márai (a good Guardian piece on him here) and his most famous book is probably the ’Embers’. It’s a magical realist tale of love and loyalty written in 1942. Kováts had the chance to see the book turned into a play in the Duke of York Theatre with Jeremy Irons, which has started him down on a slippery (and expensive) slope of theatre going in London.

Warning: starting to read Márai is addictive. Don’t blame us if you end up as a serial reader of his books.

2. “Many Continentals think life is a game; the English think cricket is a game.” By poking such gentle fun at the English, How to be an Alien by George Mikes has become an instant bestseller in the UK after WWII. It’s most famous line is probably about sex and the English – we have heard it quoted several times and most people probably don’t know where it comes from. You can read the whole text here – although without the fabulous illustrations by Nicholas Bentley. 

3. My happy days in Hell – The first part of the autobiographical novel of György (George) Faludy, a poet and a connoisseur of life who was chased by every possible totalitarian regime. He takes the reader through the period between 1938-1956 with so much inteligence, humanism and fun that contrasts the terrible events described. (If you read this, you may understand why the Council conslusions on crimes committed by totalitarian regimes was an important achievement for us - and why we insisted on the inclusion of communist crimes.) 

4. Linked and Bursts by Albert-László Barabási: Eye-opening books if you want to understand how networks work and what that means for humans: "Barabasi is one of the few people in the world who understand the deep structure of empirical reality." -Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan.

5. And a translation for the end: Winnie ille pu – Who would think of translating Winnie the Pooh into Latin? And expecting this to be a bestseller? It must be a polyglot Hungarian Jew, a doctor hiding in Rome’s libraries during WWII and later emigrating to Brazil and using his last savings to publish the book. As one of Kováts’s favourite British writers, Robert Graves explains: “Through some inexplicable quirk of fortune, Winnie ille Pu was taken up by publishers in Sweden, England and the United States, and everywhere became a best seller. Since then, several other Latinists have exploited the trend with translations of Peter Rabbit, Peter and the Wolf and Alice in Wonderland; but all that I have read lack Winnie ille Pu’s audacious wit and stylistic felicities, doubtless because they are written in the wrong sort of Latin.” (A very funny take on the story is available from George Faludy here)

Alexander Lenard (or Lénárd Sándor or Alexander Lenardus) has a few original works available in English. ‘The valley of the Latin bear’ is a superb account of life in the “Interior” of Brazil and one of the best cookbooks we know is ‘The fine art of Roman cooking’.

Some of the books above were translated into English (like those of Márai, who rejected even in emigration to write in anything then Hungarian), while others like Mikes, were written originally in English. We find it fascinating how some writers are able to produce lasting works in a language other than their native language(s). In addition to George Mikes and Alexander Lenard, think of Arthur Koestler, who wrote in Hungarian, German and English or of the leading American poet Charles Simic. This would be worth another post, but for the moment we must go back to more mundane tasks and prepare for tomorrow’s IGC with Iceland, the summing-up press conference of the Hungarian Presidency and the extraordinary Competitiveness Council which is expected to give a critical push to the creation of the EU patent (details for the press regarding tomorrow's events here - press conference for the Competitiveness Council will be broadcast from Luxembourg at around 5PM.)

24 June 2011

A practical solution to the migration questions arrives just in time

File:Schengen Monument.jpg
Getting serious on a solution to migration?!

Today’s the last European Council during the Hungarian presidency, with migration and Schengen high on the agenda. (After meeting Jerzy Buzek, leaders will discuss economic issues over dinner. Tomorrow comes migration, Croatia, Southern Mediterranean + endorsing the Danube Strategy and the Roma Framework Strategy. If we have a few moments to spare during the night, we will try to blog on it)

Let’s pick one particular subject, which is of interest to everyone, the Schengen System. Lately, there has been lot’s of focus on one aspect of this complex question, i.e. “the exceptional reintroduction of internal border controls”. As Jon Worth (with a great nose for political dynamics) correctly noticed (see here), public discussion focused on the border reintroduction question as a last-resort measure (and still does, see here a strong piece by Justyna of Reuters). This approach disregarded the actual solutions to the problem (strengthening of Frontex, creating a European Asylum System, cooperation with third countries and strengthening the application of Schengen rules – well detailed in the Barroso letter to President Sarkozy and PM Berlusconi and in the 9 June Council conclusions). The problem with the limited approach is its total spin on the doomsday-scenario of putting back internal borders, without mentioning that this should be a very last resort. And there are several options beforehand. 

So let’s talk about a mostly forgotten aspect of the comprehensive solution to the migration issue: the March European Council tasked us to broker an agreement on the strengthening of Warsaw-based Frontex agency. As part of our super Wednesday yesterday (post coming up), we eceived approval from the member states on our trialogue deal with the European Parliament – see our press release of this morning here

This agreement creates European Border Guard Teams with legally binding commitments on Member States who pledge border guards to the Frontex agency. It allows Frontex to purchase or lease its own assets, thus boosting its capabilities. The agreement also empowers Frontex to process personal data obtained during missions and use it in the fight against criminality (while increasing the guarantees on the respect of human rights). This should make Frontex a capable force to help out those members states whose border is under extreme pressure. (Let’s not forget that border control is primarily a national responsibility.)

For more details see the Financial Times’s blog post here from yesterday (as usual, the FT is one of the best informed Brussels media, coming out with the article shortly after the agreement). 

What remains to be seen of course, is whether we put our money where our mouth is on Frontex and in its next budget the agency will receive the financial resources necessary to use these enhanced powers.

23 June 2011

Presidency goes like mad

Right now the best and brightest minds of Brussels are focused on Greece and the economy because of Thursday night’s European Council dinner. The Presidency will have to report on the delivery of two key elements of the comprehensive response to the economic crisis, namely the European Semester and the Economic Governance package. PM Orban will have nothing to be ashamed of there, quite the opposite – we have pushed through the first ever semester exercise without any delay, and we have narrowed down the differences between the co-legislators (European Parliament and the Council) from over 2000 to 1 (hands up if you don't know what rQMV is).

What goes largely unnoticed however is the work on the nuts and bolts of the single market, the nitty-gritty details underpinning the (relatively) free flow of goods and services among 27 member states with very different regulatory traditions. This rightly pisses out our friends in Coreper I, who aim to completely clear the table before the Polish Presidency, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in several second reading dossiers that would have otherwise gone into conciliation (and we know quite a lot about conciliation, dont we)

The pace of legislative action is really mind bogling. Yesterday, we managed to hammer out a deal on food labelling, providing a higher level of consumer protection in the future. Apart from the new rules on more transparent and readable information on ingredients, Kovács will benefit from the ability to spot allergens, such as lactose or gluten, on the packaging of food. Also, we can only cheer on the idea that a cheese will have to be called a cheese and a cheese-like substance not made of milk cannot be called a cheese.

Also yesterday we closed the dossier on the cross border information exchange for traffic offences. In short: the German police can catch you if you zip through the country on your way to Italy. Or anywhere else. We lined up the 27 Member States unanimously behind the final compromise and we hope the EP approves it at the next plenary. Once enacted and implemented, central authorities of Member States will be able to exchange information in the case of 4 „deadly” traffic offences: speeding, DUI, not using your safety belt, crossing on red. It also covers using your mobile phone while driving, driving in reserved lanes and not wearing a safety helmet on a motorbike. 

Then there was the Frontex deal, which forms part of the comprehensive response not to the economic crisis, but the comprehensive solution to the migration issue. (There’s an awful lot of similarity between the Euro and Schengen, isn’t there?) 

Finally, as a bonus, just today the EP plenary adopted the deal on the Consumer Rights Directive. If you are reading this blog, chances are you have already ordered something on-line, or at least planning to, and then this agreement is good news for you. (Also if you are like my mother and love to order stuff from the now-defunct Otto mail order store. It doesn’t apply to mail order brides though.) In a nutshell, online and distant sellers will have to be more transparent with their conditions and prices, they will have to take back their wares in a longer period and generally make your shopping safer.

The Presidency is not over yet, with quite a lot to be done in just one week, but our colleagues can already start to feel good about what they have done so far.