Hungary’s face of the EU presidency

By Jan Mainka

Interview with Piroska Bakos, spokeswoman, hostess of the EU presidency in Hungary.

From press conferences to gala dinners, Piroska Bakos is always there. Since the beginning of the year she has been representing the EU presidency in Hungary as spokeswoman and hostess.

Organisationally Bakos is working for the state secretariat for EU affairs, led by Enikõ Györi, of the foreign ministry. While formally she reports to the government, Bakos solely represents the Hungarian presidency and does not deal with government affairs. “Right from the start a clear divide between the government and the presidency was important to us,” the EU spokeswoman says. “I only speak in the name of the 27 members and I have kept to that.”
Hungarian, but in EU role

While that division of labour was quickly understood by foreign EU journalists, who have already had experience of several presidencies, it took a while for Hungarian journalists to adjust to the fact that somebody from the national foreign ministry was not speaking in the name of Hungary.

“That was an entirely new phenomenon for them,” she says. “I think, however, that we have managed to make my role clear.” If journalists do ask questions about topics that do not fall under her remit, including Hungarian domestic politics, she refers them to the relevant people, such as government spokeswoman Anna Nagy or prime ministerial spokesman Péter Szijjártó.

It was also one of the conditions for Bakos, a journalist and presenter at Hungarian state television (MTV) for many years, in taking on this new challenge. “As a former journalist it was very important to me to retain my independence so that I can return to my original profession without any problems after the end of my period working for the foreign ministry.

“One of my merits is my good reputation as an objective and independent journalist. I attach the greatest importance to retaining that and am very careful with regard to my future as a journalist.”

Her reputation was important not only to her but also to her new employers. “The government had no intention of choosing a ‘party hack’ for this position. The choice was made purely on the basis of professional criteria. It was a question of appointing somebody who is recognised beyond party lines,” Bakos says.

It did not count against her that she had worked as a foreign-affairs editor for MTV, of which the current governing parties have a rather low opinion, under Socialist governments for many years. “I regard it as a great recognition of my professional work that my person is accepted by two diametrically opposed governments.”
Talking to the home crowd

Her current “audience” consists of two main groups: first, EU guests and journalists visiting during the EU presidency, and second, Hungarian citizens, who hear from her what is happening under the Hungarian aegis. “The average Hungarian person doesn’t know a lot about the EU and things connected to the Hungarian presidency. The aim is to change that, which is why the decision was made to be more active in communicating what is going on during the presidency in Hungary itself.”

The decision-makers in the foreign ministry and the government wanted to find somebody who would not only be capable of conveying information clearly, but whose face and personality would also lend a personal, human note to the whole presidency. “Many Hungarians still think of the EU as a bureaucratic phenomenon that is far removed from their lives. We want to dispel that myth. One of our goals is to bring the EU closer to the people. I would also like to play a part in that,” the spokeswoman says.
Assessing the presidency

How did she feel about the presidency’s rather troubled start as a result of the furore over the media law? Bakos admits that there was uncertainty on both sides at the beginning but says it soon dissipated, thanks not least to the work of the Hungarian negotiators. Moreover the meetings were about pure questions of policy that had nothing to do with domestic politics, she says.

Overall the regard in which Hungary is held on the EU level has increased perceptibly, Bakos says. “The Hungarian diplomats work hard and consistently. They perform good work and go to a lot of trouble. That is increasingly recognised by our international negotiating partners and rewarded with greater respect. It is seen as a particular success that Hungary has managed to persuade all the EU member states to commit to a reform package, the so-called six-pack, which increases the powers of the EU to supervise the debt levels of the member states. That topic could be completely wrapped up before the end of June, i.e. during our presidency.”
Introducing diplomats

Beyond acting as spokeswoman on policy issues, Bakos has the task of bringing Hungary closer to EU diplomats on a human level. That was why it was decided that she would act as a hostess as well as spokeswoman.

In the former capacity she is always present when EU delegations are in the country, during both the official part of their work and at the subsequent gala dinners.

Bakos answers their questions, eases communication and creates a relaxed atmosphere for discussion – in short everything that a good hostess does to make her guests feel at home. Here too her role is one of conveying information but mainly on topics that interest foreigners about Hungary, rather than on the political level.

“The EU diplomats are always interested in how the EU is viewed in Hungary,” she says. Because the diplomats want to switch off after a long day of talks, often the conversation turns to general topics. Questions are asked about the Hungarian quality of life, Bakos says.

Inspired by the Hungarian premium wines that are served at dinners, viniculture is a popular topic. “Many foreign guests are really surprised to learn that we have an array of domestic premium wines. Many people obviously find that hard to believe of a former East bloc country,” Bakos says with a grin.
Patriotism on her sleeve

When it comes to presenting Hungary, she also has a private agenda of sorts. At public functions she always dresses in the latest creations of Hungarian designers. So far they have included the designers and labels Miklós Pazicski, Emília Anda, ANNAEVA, Dóra Konsánszky and Use Unused. “That’s my initiative. I would like to help Hungarian designers get greater recognition abroad,” she explains. Is that not a rather overly optimistic aim on the predominantly male EU diplomatic scene? “Not at all. Men also have an eye for tasteful, interestingly designed women’s clothes. Occasionally they even cautiously ask about where my outfits are from.”

It is not just the small circle of immediate guests, but also the wider European public that can gain an impression of the newest creations of the nation’s fashion designers through the media thanks to her initiative, she says: “In any case, what will remain in people’s minds at the end? In a few years’ time the EU diplomats might have forgotten in which member state they discussed which topics, but there is a chance that they will still remember such Hungarian dashes of colour.”

Looking back on the past few months, Bakos says that her experiences as both spokeswoman and hostess have been overwhelmingly positive: “As far as I’m aware this is the first time that there has been such a combination.”

During previous presidencies it has often been the case that the government spokesperson of the given country essentially performs the role of EU spokesperson as well for six months. “That was precisely what the Hungarian government wanted to avoid,” Bakos says.

The “Hungarian model” in any case seems to have found favour. Some of the EU countries that will hold future presidencies have shown interest in adopting it when their turn comes. “Combining the role of a spokeswoman, who is independent of domestic day-to-day politics, with that of a hostess is sure to catch on,” Bakos says confidently.
The Budapest Times