Portfolio blogger

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What does the portfolio allocated to the Hungarian commissioner mean for the EU and Hungary?

The strained relationship of the Hungarian government with the EU makes this question very interesting. Are turf wars being fought? How will the new Hungarian commissioner fit into the team? How will he perform? Will this mean something to Hungary? The topic is also good to give rise to some remarks on the sidelines about the structure of the new commission and about other portfolio assignments.
1., Contrary to his demands Mr Navracsics did not receive the enlargement or neighbourhood portfolio. This went to Johannes Hahn from Austria, previously commissioner for regional policy. Given the Hungarian government's nationalist rhetoric and recent tentatives to appease with Russia and to slip out of sanctions, this is no surprise.
2., Thus, the message of the president, that it is not countries but people to whom the portfolios are allocated (in plain English, that the experience and assumed capabilities of people defined the allocation, not the performance of their country – even, as the example of Mr Moskovici shows, their performance in their country), may not quite be true for the Hungarian commissioner. I will go into more detail below, it is just to mention that the performance and lines taken by a politician in his/her own country cannot be entirely separated from his/her capabilities and expected performance. The "persons, not countries" approach is rather true for the French and the British Commissioners. Although Mr Moskovici is under the coordination of Mr Katainen, he got a weighty portfolio (see below). By the nomination of Mr Katainen, however, according to Open Europe, a British think-tank close to the Conservative Party (and thus not really an euro-enthusiast) " Germany has ensured that there is a voice in favour of austerity and structural reform to balance out the French preference for fiscal expansion." See: http://www.euractiv.com/sections/eu-priorities-2020/dutch-eu-nominee-wield-veto-right-over-excessive-bureaucracy-308344. Mr Hill of Britain got the financial services (but not the internal market) portfolio and a dedicated new directorate general will be set up. To draw conclusions from the reorganisation (i.e. which parts of the organisation move to this new DG), requires a separate analysis.
2., Previous gossip that he may get the trade portfolio (although this version was quickly questioned: http://blogs.ft.com/brusselsblog/2014/09/03/the-mysterious-new-commission-organigram/) or development (somewhat akin to the enlargement or neighbourhood portfolio he was eyeing) did quickly subside (International Cooperation & Development was allocated to Neven Mimica, delegated by Croatia and commissioner since Croatia's accession, dealing with consumer protection,-separated from the health and consumer protection portfolio for him), but the latest guess that he may get customs also has proven wrong (customs was not, as it would have been in this scenario, separated from taxation and both were assigned to Mr Moskovici, to create sort of a super-portfolio of economics). Finally, he received the "Education, Culture, Youth and Citizenship" portfolio.
3., The EU does not have too many rights in education and culture (in federal Germany, education is not even federal, but "Länder" competence). Mr Navracsics has no great credentials in this area, either. The areas related to the labour market, skills, continuing and professional education etc., have been taken over to the Belgian Commissioner, Marianne Thyssen, to be responsible for employment, social affairs, skills and labour mobility Some bits and pieces were added to Navracsics's portfolio: the EIT, situated in Hungary and led by a strongly reform-minded ex education minister of Hungary (oh, another potential controversy), who is liberal by the way while Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister declared that he wants to build an "illiberal" state (whatever this means), the Joint Research Centre (with the message that the JRC has to support his activity by scientific analysis) – but research and innovation is the portfolio of the Portuguese Carlos Moedas - and the Publications Office (with a Director General, who is a Luxembourger and is at the moment assigned the portfolio of Ms Reding – both Luxembourg and the former Fundamental Rights commissioner and vice president Reding had a controversial relationship to Hungary and vice versa). As a small irony, he will take over part of that portfolio (although small): to manage the communication of the Europe for Citizens Programme, and the responsibility for the Preparatory Action “New Narrative on Europe” 2015.
4., He is mentioned in the press release as a strong point in the Commission as an ex deputy prime minister and ex minister (which is true) and as having extensive foreign relations experience as an ex minister of foreign affairs – a post he occupied for some five months and this only as a preparation for his post as commissioner. His real area as minister was law and administration where his track record has not been dismal in technical terms but he was part of some very controversial actions of the government (forced retirement of judges, cutting the rights of the Constitutional Court, creation of a mameluks' university "called Public Service University) and he was also part of the effort to curb media freedom. Besides his personal track record, he is a fathful member of FIDESZ, whose leader, the Hungarian prime minister was the only besides Cameron who voted against the nomination of Juncker as Commission president in the decisive Council meeting. If Navracsics and Juncker want to demonstrate that in spite of all these controversies, they can work well together, and thus avoid future controversies, may be helping the spirit but lead to conflict-avoidance even in questions where conflict could be productive. But having actions guided by past offences is not productive either. There is a declared will to co-operate, at least.
5., Five years are a long time. Mr Navracsics may plan to return to domestic politics thereafter (or try to spend another cycle as there is a probability that his party, FIDESZ will win the 2018 elections) but to do any of these, he has to perform in his role. To return to domestic politics, however, he also has to be in line of the government's lukewarm attitude to the EU. This is a contradiction in itself. He faces and even more difficult choice, on the other hand, if we assume that the elections in 2018 bring a new government in Hungary. The EU has not too many prerogatives in education but reading the mission letter http://ec.europa.eu/about/juncker-commission/docs/navracsics_en.pdf we can see that there are tasks. But these are not the ones in which the Hungarian government excelled – although independently of the influence of the new commissioner.
He is to take part in several priority projects of president Juncker where he will have to work under the co-ordination of several vice presidents, among others with Andrus Ansip from Estonia (a selection where the country is also right: Estonia is spearheading e-administration), where Hungary just recently closed its representation. There are interesting times ahead.
Further details: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-14-523_en.htm