“We believe that Europe can only unite in diversity”

H.E. János Bóka, Hungarian Minister for European Union Affairs, spoke with SOCIETY about the main objectives for his term, his country’s programme for the Presidency of the Council of the EU, EU criticism related to the rule of law in Hungary and how he sees his country’s role within the EU.

Since August 2023, you are Hungary’s Minister for EU Affairs. Can you tell us a bit about your main goals and objectives for your term, to begin with?

The creation of an independent ministry responsible for EU affairs was justified by the need to improve EU policy coordination within the Hungarian Government, maintain a strong and effective representation of Hungarian interests in the EU institutions and properly prepare and manage our Presidency of the Council of the EU.

Hungary has a characteristic approach to European integration that has become a polarising factor in political debates. Unfortunately, many fail to realise that we offer a European alternative and not an alternative to Europe. The Union is based on the diversity of values, cultures, narratives and political views. The Union works well only if it recognises, understands, accepts and cherishes this diversity. We must curb the growing appetite to insist on a one-size-fits-all approach and expect total uniformity and alignment of the Member States.

In the spirit of being united in diversity, the Ministry’s task is to make the case for our European alternative in the EU: propose realistic solutions to our common European challenges and build political support among Member States and EU institutions.

As you just mentioned, Hungary holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union this year (between July and December 2024). What are the main pillars of your country’s programme for this period?

EU Council Presidencies work closely together in groups of three, called ‚trios‘. The current trio Presidency, of which Hungary is a member, runs from 1 July 2023 and includes Spain, Belgium and Hungary. The priorities of the Hungarian Presidency are based on the joint trio Presidency programme adopted by the Council last June. These priorities focus – among others – on the competitiveness of the European Union, demographic challenges, migration, in particular its external dimension and of course enlargement.

More specifically we will put special emphasis on the adoption of a New European Competitiveness Pact as mandated by the European Council conclusions of April 2024. Competitiveness must be one of the key themes of the next EU institutional cycle because the EU has been lagging behind its global competitors for decades and we are in the last hour before this trend becomes irreversible. In addition, Europe is surrounded by military conflicts and diverse security challenges, therefore Europe should take more responsibility for its own security and reinforce its capabilities by strengthening the European security and defence policy on the basis of a European defence industry. The Hungarian Presidency is committed to a credible and merit-based enlargement policy. The European Union cannot be complete without the accession of the Western Balkans, which would benefit the Union from economic, security and geopolitical perspectives. Our aim is to make progress with preferably all countries of the Western Balkans. The migratory pressures that have been affecting Europe for years are a challenge for the Union as a whole and place a huge burden on individual Member States. The Hungarian Presidency will put special focus on the external dimension of migration, such as comprehensive partnerships with cooperating third countries. One of the key objectives of the Hungarian Presidency will be to hold a high-level strategic debate on the future of cohesion policy. In our view cohesion policy is one of the most successful policies of the European Union that enhances its competitiveness as a whole. Hearing and understanding the message of recent protests all over the EU, the Hungarian Presidency will also make an effort to contribute to a competitive, crisis-resilient and farmer-friendly European agriculture through strategic discussions on the Common Agricultural Policy. And last, but not least demographic challenges will be addressed horizontally in nearly all Council formations.

You just mentioned that the EU integration of the Western Balkans is one of the top priorities for Hungary. Why is it so important for your country but also for the EU, in your opinion?

In my view the enlargement process should be objective, balanced and merit based, for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia and for the countries of the Western Balkan region alike.

The European Union faces serious challenges. The EU has clearly lost influence not only globally, but also in its immediate neighbourhood, including the Southern Mediterranean and the Western Balkans. This must change: the European Union must be able to autonomously determine its strategic interests and find ways and means to pursue these interests.

The Balkans have always been part of Europe. Thanks to its location and resources, the Western Balkans play a key role in the security, energy supply and economic growth of Hungary and Central Eastern Europe.

How do you respond to EU criticism related to the rule of law in Hungary?

EU procedures designed to enforce rule of law standards on Member States are political tools. They are used in a tactical sense to coerce political concessions or changes from non-compliant Member States. And they are used in a strategic sense to advance the federalist project by side-lining national constitutional institutions and claim the monopoly of interpreting and enforcing values that are supposed to be common in Member States. However, the EU is in dire need of a rule of law instrument, but this instrument should be turned upside down. It should guarantee that the principle of rule of law developed and applied in Member States is similarly implemented in the activities of EU institutions. Most importantly it should include mechanisms that properly limit the EU’s activities to the conferred competences. But this is not possible by adjusting or improving existing instruments: a completely new approach is needed.

Coming back to the topic of diversity of values, cultures, narratives and political views within the EU – what is Hungary’s understanding of its role within the EU?

In 2004, our EU membership was seen – and should be seen today – as a historic success based on national consensus: a decision to which there was, and is, no alternative. Our country was under foreign oppression many times in its history, but we have always fought unwaveringly for our independence and Hungarian identity, which makes us Europeans. After the Soviet occupation and the fall of communism, our country had a clear objective, and there was full consensus among all the democratic parties on joining the European Union.

We believe that Europe can only unite in diversity. What our EU membership imposes on us is not a duty to become uniform, but to cooperate. We believe that the road to a successful Europe does not lead through censorship, but through open and honest debate. In this context, we see for ourselves a role in offering a European alternative.

As incoming Presidency, our role is to ensure a smooth institutional transition and to work with Member States and institutions in the spirit of sincere cooperation as an honest broker. We expect to be under very close scrutiny in this regard, maybe a bit closer scrutiny than other Presidencies recently. But we don’t regret this attention and will comply with the highest standards.