The Hungarian Presidency was morally obliged to support Croatia’s accession, President of the Republic Pál Schmitt said to eu2011.hu. The head of state highlighted that progress has been made, not only in strategic matters, but also in matters determining the everyday lives of citizens.
In March of this year, in your speech given during the ceremonial meeting of the European Parliament (EP), you said that a successful, winning and strong Europe was needed. How has the Hungarian Presidency contributed to this?
As I have pointed out in several of my speeches, the motto of our Presidency “Strong Europe” is primarily not a political message. Similarly, Europe is more than just a political or a financial community. A strong Europe assumes strong Member States, strong governments, local governments, families, as well as a strong economy and enterprises.
It is safe to say now that the Hungarian Presidency is a successful period, which is now behind us. Our Presidency agenda included the most important European matters, so there was no lack of attention or consent, or joint efforts necessary for the implementation of the tasks. We have kept the schedule designated earlier and we have made progress, both in strategic matters determining the future of the European Union and matters having significance for the everyday lives of citizens.
Let me just mention the 23-24 June meeting of the European Council, which confirmed two new programmes, which were aimed at the economic and social strengthening of Europe, the Danube Region Strategy and the Roma Strategy. We also completed accession talks with Croatia. Furthermore, it is important to highlight the European Citizens’ Initiative, the strengthening of the cohesion policy, the launch of the common energy policy, and the results accomplished in the field of a more concerted monetary policy and the common budgetary discipline. A similar valuable accomplishment has also been reached with the commencing of accession negotiations with Iceland, and we have accomplished a breakthrough in the field of the unitary European patent.
The agenda and all the activities of the Hungarian Presidency were aimed to enable Europe to remain competitive, despite all the challenges we face today. I am personally glad that during the Hungarian Presidency’s term, we had been doing our job with responsibility for others as well; and I hope that Member States will consider this as a sign of solidarity. We can say with satisfaction that important decisions were adopted in this period, and decisions that contributed in making Europe stronger.
In the same speech, you highlighted the importance of responsibility for minorities, especially for the Roma. What progress has been made in this field?
Concerning the Roma issue, it is important to mention that the Hungarian EU Presidency made the economic and social integration of Roma a top priority. Now, almost everybody is aware of the Roma issue, the Roma problem, and they believe they are experts in this field. We would like those who deal with the Roma to hear not only the problem we discuss, but to also listen to the Roma themselves as well.We must stay active participants in this process.
Today, about 10-12 million ethnic Roma citizens live in the EU’s Member States, most of whom are inflicted by social exclusion, discrimination, segregation and deep poverty. Their advancement, the promotion of their social integration has an impact on the everyday life of our continent. If Europe once again focuses on work-based development, the employment and education of Roma will provide an important and exploitable set of resources for meeting these objectives.
The term of the Hungarian EU Presidency has brought about significant changes in the field of European action on Roma integration, and the approach, willingness to cooperate of European institutions has played a huge role in the success. On the initiative of MEP Lívia Járóka, the only Roma Member of the EP, the Parliament made a report on the EU’s Roma strategy, which was endorsed by the representatives, exactly in the week when I was giving a speech in the EP’s plenary meeting. Then, at the beginning of April, the European Commission finalised the framework programme of Roma strategies, which were to be developed by Member States. The Roma Strategy was confirmed by Member States as well, in the June meeting of the European Council. The created framework strategy is the cornerstone of the unitary European Roma policy, which also serves as a guideline for Member States to develop their own Roma integration strategies.
This is a very significant advancement, but as I stressed in my speech given in the European Parliament, social measures in themselves are not sufficient enough to eliminate poverty. It is essential that we firmly reject prejudice and develop a supporting cultural and educational environment for the Roma.
A key objective of the Hungarian Presidency has been accomplished: Croatia’s accession date has been set. Before you became the EP’s vice president, you had also been President of the EU–Croatia Joint Parliamentary Committee between 2004 and 2009. Now, as head of state, how do you evaluate the significance of this decision?
I had been a member of the delegation to the EU–Croatia Joint Parliamentary Committee for six years, and president of this Committee for five years, so I was monitoring the process of Croatia’s integration attentively. To this day, it still remains one of my personal priorities. I can disclose it to you that I learned about this historical decision in Ljubljana, in the presence of the heads of state of Slovenia and Croatia, where we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the independence of their respective countries. I believe that this decision is a great gift for the Croatian nation.
It has historical significance that based on the European Council’s decision made in June, after a long and bumpy period, the persistent efforts of the government of Croatia and the Hungarian Presidency, resulted in the conclusion of the accession talks with Croatia on 30 June. This enables the signing of the Accession Treaty before the end of the year, and as of 1 July 2013 Croatia will receive the membership it deserves.
I am convinced that the only way to eliminate the artificial division of Europe, which was imposed after World War II, is to ensure the accession of states of the Western Balkans to Euro-Atlantic institutions, and I believe that the Hungarian Presidency has fulfilled its moral obligation by supporting the cause of Croatia and the entire region.
This is an important message to the countries of Europe: the EU’s door is open to countries, which espouse principles and values to those adopted by the EU Member States, and are ready to comply with the accession requirements. This message has special significance to additional states of the Western Balkans too, since in these countries, the general support for EU accession is shrinking, partly due to the protracted negotiating processes.
As a former MEP, how do you think the Hungarian Presidency has managed to deliver on its promise of being “Parliament-friendly”?
If we only consider that Minister of State for EU Affairs Enikő Győri was a MEP herself too, we accomplished this objective right from the beginning of our Presidency. But on a serious note, without the constructive approach of the EP, and its President, Mr Jerzy Buzek, we certainly would have had a tougher job on carrying out the negotiations with the three different institutions, the Council, the Commission and the Parliament.
Personally, I also considered it very important during our EU Presidency, to address Members of the European Parliament – my former colleagues – in my new capacity, as the head of state of Hungary, thereby stressing the importance of their role, assuring them that they are important partners of the Hungarian Presidency.
It is a lucky coincidence that 2011 is The Year of Volunteering in the Union. This highlights the need to change the approach that neglects social, community and humanitarian aspects, and greatly ignores local interest, because often this is the source of the troubles. The express objective of this year is “recruitment”, since only 30 percent of EU citizens are engaged in some kind of voluntary work. This is a very low figure.
Since I have spent most of my civil life in sports, an activity often organised on a voluntary basis, first as a competitor and then as a sports leader, I am aware of the nature, significance and problems of voluntary organisations. Therefore it was only natural for me to open the season, together with Commissioner Viviane Reding, who came to Budapest for the ceremony to celebrating the Year of Volunteering.
The biggest secret of volunteering is that it presupposes a community, volunteering is only possible together with others, and for the benefit of others. In addition, it generates measurable economic profit and has the potential to renew the European thoughts. Volunteering is a community interest as it contributes to bringing citizens of our continent closer together, to encouraging them to work towards common aims. Ultimately, volunteering enhances the cause of integration. In summary, it is safe to say that volunteering contributes to a stronger Europe.
In addition to fulfilling its EU-related duties, the Hungarian Presidency also made efforts to present Hungary, Hungarian culture in several places of the world. According to your experiences, how successful were these efforts?
I understand the Hungarian Presidency has been called in Brussels the Presidency with the highest commitment to culture, since in the history of the EU, no Presidency has organised as many cultural events as Hungary has in the semi-annual cycle so far. For me, the highlight of the series of events held in the Union were the numerous concerts organised to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt. As the chief patron of the Liszt Memorial Year, I had a chance to attend some of these concerts in Madrid, London, Rome, Brussels and in the Vatican.
Perhaps the most memorable concert for me was held on 27 May in the Vatican, which I, as the head of state of Hungary, offered to the Holy Father. Assuming the Presidency of the Council of the EU and on the occasion of the Liszt Memorial Year, Hungary was given the opportunity to give a concert once again – since the last concert was back in 2000 – in the Paul VI Audience Hall with a capacity of 7000 persons.
Franz Liszt, through his Hungarian and European identities, through the character of his diverse talents and deep belief, provided an excellent opportunity for the Hungarian Presidency to send its message to Europe. In addition to the concerts in the Vatican, the great composer’s works were played in several other major European cities during the Presidency’s term. Hopefully, these concerts gave an unforgettable experience to many others as well.
As far as we know, you also actively promoted Hungarian musical culture by playing the piano in the Sándor Palace for the Permanent Representatives of EU Member States in Brussels. Did you surprise them?
I think I did, as it is not so common that a head of state sits down to play the piano. Considering the applause, I believe it was a good decision. This made the atmosphere much more relaxed and direct, and I hope it gave members of the delegation a pleasant impression.
In other events, I have also considered it important to give Hungarian musical experience to our guests. Therefore, during the visits in the last semester by heads of state and other guests, musical pieces of Liszt were often played in the Sándor Palace, in gala dinners or small concerts, although without my presence among the musicians.