The tale of two prime ministers

Article published on May 19, 2009
Article published on May 19, 2009
One of the most commonly raised excuses for not voting in the European Parliament elections in “small” countries (i.e. not major powers) – such as Hungary – is a sort of inferiority complex. That is, our votes, and our small number of MEP delegates will not be able to achieve much, and the most important issues do not even pass through the EP anyway.
However, news of the last few months may prove these two points wrong (partly, at least): small countries can have an impact on the European agenda, and so does the EP.

Photo: Flickr/ClareSnow

The story is about the rise and fall of two former prime ministers from Central Europe, and European energy security. At first sight, the two men had little in common, at least considering their political career: one seemed to be certainly ascendant, the other barely trying to hold on to his power and fighting for legitimacy. On the first of January, Czech PM Mirek Topolanek took up the Presidency of the European Council, while Hungarian PM Ferenc Gyurcsany was trying to save his country from going bankrupt. The global financial and economic crisis was well underway, but then something unexpected happened (and even more unexpectedly, lasted for several weeks): the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis. This was the opportunity that both PMs tried to use to their advantage to further their own energy policy agenda on a European scale.

PM Gyurcsany went along with his already planned Budapest Nabucco summit in January, albeit with few tangible results. Later on, although Hungary signed up for the Russia-led South Stream gas pipeline project, at the press conference after signing the intergovernmental agreement Gyurcsany much surprised his counterpart PM Vladimir Putin with comments that Hungary is not at all committed to just one gas pipeline, but supports all non-Russian sourced projects as well, including liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments from North Africa and Middle East.

Our other hero, PM Topolanek committed himself to solve the Russo-Ukrainian gas crisis, or at least actively mediate for a solution. Later on, he successfully furthered another item on the energy security agenda, improving relations with a prospective key gas supplier, Turkmenistan. Aided by a resolute Commission, the EP has finally been convinced to ratify a trade agreement with Turkmenistan that it had been putting off since 2006, with a promise that human rights reforms would be pushed through eventually. Thus, both Gyurcsany and Topolanek tried to work for a more diversified energy supply for the whole of Europe.

However, as most stories that come out of Central Europe, this one does not have a happy ending either. Both PMs had to quit their office this spring, predominantly for domestic political reasons. Unfortunately, their energy agenda suffered huge blows as well. The outgoing Gyurcsany government was blamed for not preventing a Russian oil company from acquiring significant shareholding in Hungary’s national oil company in April. A month later, a Prague summit for prospective energy suppliers from the Caspian and Middle East failed to reach any concrete agreement partly because Topolanek was chairing the meeting as a “lame duck”, due to step down as PM and EU Council President the following day.

Certainly, both politicians had their fair shares of mistakes as well, but apart from those pitfalls, the point to voters in small countries should be made clear: in Europe not size, but political will and support matters. Thus, support for national politicians – whatever their political colour may be – can and will have an effect on European politics. The tale of the two prime ministers sketched above should serve as a bittersweet reminder.