The European Union standing before a juncture Member State
The financial and economic crisis has challenged the functioning of the political institutions and, at the same time, the present efficiency of the functioning of democracy. In most of the Member States of the European Union the reinforcement of the contract between the providing State and the society is taking place now: governments are helping out citizens with measures aimed at stimulating the economy, reducing taxes and charges and encouraging consumption. In Hungary, however, the situation is different: the State is in deep trouble, together with its institutions and the society. It is experiencing the failure of transitional democracies: it has no functioning economy, political institutions, society and democracy; it lacks trust and credibility. Probably in the short run it will not be able to leave the track it has been compelled to follow so far.
Nevertheless, Europe is undergoing significant changes even in 2009:
How does the timetable look like that no one in the EU wants to miss in 2009?
Following the EP elections to be held from 4 to 7 June, the Heads of State and Government will make a proposal for the new President of the Commission at the June European Council meeting. During its first plenary session in July the new European Parliament will confirm the candidate for Commission President. It is likely, though, that the mandate of the (first) Barroso Commission will be extended until 31 October. The other procedural obligation will be to appoint the Commissioners and to submit them to parliamentary hearings before the whole Commission gets voted on by the Parliament. All this will probably last until October. At the end of October or the beginning of November a second referendum will be held in Ireland; if the result is 'yes' the further appointments will take place on the basis of the Lisbon Treaty, but until then the Nice Treaty will apply.
The number of seats in European Parliament cannot be considered final either. On the basis of Nice 736, whereas under Lisbon 754 mandates would need to be filled for the period of 2009-2014. The Heads of State and Government decided at the European Council meeting in December 2008 to make the necessary adjustments to the number of MEPs in the event the Lisbon Treaty enters into force.
The other big question concerns the composition of the Commission and the number of the Commissioners. The latter should be reduced under Nice. But how? Which Member State should be 'punished'? Of course, 'punishment' is not the most accurate term since, in principle, the Commission is supranational. The appointments and the parliamentary hearings will take place in the second half of 2009. Therefore, by the end of the Swedish EU Presidency it will become really pressing to make a decision about the number of Commissioners, as well as the person of the President and the rotation, on the basis of equality, among the Member States. By now - in the light of the results of the second Irish referendum - the European Council will know whether the EU should continue to operate on the basis of Nice or Lisbon. Of course, it may happen that the post of the Commissioner responsible for external relations will become the 27th position in the Commission which would mean that the Member State in question could not appoint another Commissioner. The candidate will be proposed by the June European Council.
When will the Lisbon Treaty enter into force? Under the relevant EU rules it will do so in the first month following the last ratification, that is on 1 December at the earliest. Four Member States are still 'competing' for the last position: Ireland, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany. In the Czech Republic the ratification process by the national parliament is still in progress. The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty has been made even more uncertain by the recent changes in the Czech domestic political situation: the government fell as a result of a parliamentary vote of non-confidence. The parliaments of Germany and Poland have already ratified the Lisbon Treaty, however, their Presidents have yet to sign the instrument of ratification.
President Horst K÷hler will not sign the instrument of ratification until the Federal Constitutional Court rules on the compatibility of the Lisbon Treaty with the German Constitution. And the President of Poland, Lech Kaczynski made it dependent on the results of the Irish referendum whether or not he will sign the ratification instrument.
2009 will be a year of waiting and one of compromises. The 'European' campaign is taking place everywhere. Its premonitory signs have appeared already in the second half of 2008. French President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to make an agreement by the end of 2008 on the two persons to be appointed for the two new Lisbon positions, but the Irish 'no' undermined his intentions. The political bargaining continues, keeping all the EU institutions in uncertainty (EP: number of MEPs; European Council: new President; Commission: composition).
Within the Union both the right and left sides of the political spectrum are interested in maintaining the delicate balance and thereby continuing the tradition established after World War 2. This way the main positions can remain in the hands of the Conservatives and the Socialists. The group of the European People's Party - European Democrats (EPP-ED) will, however, change as a result of the British Conservatives leaving the group right after the EP elections. With that it is very likely that a eurosceptic grouping will gain in strength, in which - beside the Tories - the Czech ODS and the Polish PiS will have a role to play. Because of the economic crisis the deal to be struck between the former two big groups could be fundamentally affected by the proportions of the Greens, the Liberals and the Eurosceptics. The political map of Europe might be significantly transformed as a result.
For the Hungarian public it is an open question to what extent Hungary's political forces will be able to take part in the European bargaining process. The answer to this question will depend on the degree in which the political forces at the two poles of the domestic arena allow, or in fact loose, room vis-├á-vis the alternative forces.
The Hungarian Socialists (MSZP) - on the basis of their present popularity - will not become a decisive factor in the European Socialists' group; their former influence might be minimized, provided that the general losses of the European Socialists are not considerable. The main opposition force (Fidesz) facing the government in Budapest may expect to get much stronger, in part due to the weak performance of the government, and so its influence may greatly increase within the EPP as well.
In the light of all this, the issue of deciding whom and with which portfolio Hungary would like to see in the governing body of the new Commission will inevitably move up the agenda in Budapest, after the EP elections at the latest. The question is: who and in which field would have a chance and legitimacy to appear in the European bargaining processes? There might arise an analogy with the situation following the 2004 EP elections when, as a reaction to the weakening performance of the government, the constituents rewarded the opposition party with their votes. In spite of that, however, the then incumbent government put forward its candidate for the post in Brussels without seeking national consensus. Both the political legitimacy and the professional qualifications of that candidate were seriously questioned even by the European institutions. According to the present standing of the political barometer in Hungary this situation might repeat itself, which would apparently lead to an even more controversial consequence.
Europe is undergoing significant changes in 2009. As a result of the unexpected effects of the global economic crisis the changes encoded in the functioning of the EU institutions will be intensified. The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty becomes a prisoner of this process as well, independent of its outcome.
The selection procedure of the members of the new European Commission - unlike that of the former members - will be more complex and unpredictable. The nomination of the candidates is further complicated by the many uncertainties surrounding the Lisbon Treaty, as well as the weakening of the popular support to the nominating governments. In this regard the process in Hungary and its consequences might turn out to be among the most spectacular.
Those who challenge and hold accountable the parties or party coalitions, providing a weak performance at the national level, may appear on the European stage as well. As a result of the new power relations after the European parliamentary elections - and remindful of the uncertainties and disputes around the appointment of the Commission in 2004 - it cannot be excluded that the confrontation between the new
European Parliament with a reinforced legitimacy and the candidates nominated by the weakened European governments will become even more spectacular.