Excerpt from Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis’ new book, Madam Ambassador

Excerpt from Madam Ambassador: Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties, and Democracy in Budapest. Full details can be found at http://thenewpress.com/books/madam-ambassador.

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On January 1, 2011, Hungary celebrated a historic milestone: it assumed the presidency of the European Union. Hungary was one of ten countries that had joined the union in 2004, in the EU’s largest single expansion, along with a number of other former Soviet satellites, including the Czech Republic and Poland. With its twenty-seven members, the EU included a broad swath of Europe by 2011. The presidency of the EU rotates among member countries, with each one holding the position for six months. Although the EU’s capital is in Brussels, the organization’s many committee meetings take place in the country that holds the presidency, and that country gets an extra say in setting the agenda, so it can highlight issues that it considers particularly critical. As Hungary wouldn’t have another shot at the presidency for at least thirteen-and-a-half years, this was an important opportunity.

I may have had my reservations about Viktor Orbán, but many highly capable and internationally respected people served in his government. This was particularly true of the men and women at the Foreign Ministry charged with managing the EU presidency. Many of them had worked through the complex process of Hungary’s EU accession. They knew the players in Brussels, and they understood the way the union operated. In the fall of 2010, embassy staff and I went repeatedly to the Foreign Ministry to ask and explore two basic questions: what would Hungary’s priorities be during its EU presidency, and how would Hungarians advance those priorities?

In many instances, their priorities were very much aligned with U.S. interests. First, they said, they would work to solve the most important issues facing the EU. The top issue at that time, of course, was Europe’s economic crisis, particularly the dire situation in Greece and the country’s possible exit from the Eurozone. But the Hungarians also planned to propose that every EU member develop a strategy for dealing with Roma integration. Since the end of communism, the former Eastern bloc countries had been struggling with the issue of how to handle their large, impoverished, and often persecuted Roma, or Gypsy, populations. If the Hungarians could get this done, it would be one of the most substantial policy advances for the European Union on this issue ever.

The U.S. State Department was excited that Hungary would be taking the reins of the EU presidency. It was a reminder that the fall of the Iron Curtain had led to a new direction for Central Europe. Coincidentally, 2011 would be an important marker in the U.S.-Hungarian relationship for another reason: it was the centennial of the birth of Ronald Reagan. The Hungarians credited Reagan, along with Pope John Paul II, with helping them to secure their independence from the Soviet Union, and they planned to raise a statue of the late American president to honor the occasion.

At the end of 2010, it looked as though 2011 would be a great year for celebrating Hungary’s full-fledged membership among Western nations. We realized that the new prime minister and his supermajority in Parliament added a certain level of unpredictability. Still, we believed Orbán would be careful because of the historic importance of Hungary’s first EU presidency, and Hungarians were ready to show the rest of Europe that they were sophisticated, smart, and ready to lead. Towns were spruced up, hotels were booked solid, and seats on flights in and out of Budapest for the next six months were scarce.

On January 1, Hungary took over the presidency of the European with all the pomp and grandeur of its imperial past. And on January 2, all hell broke loose.

 

Copyright © 2015 by Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis. This excerpt originally appeared in Madam Ambassador: Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties, and Democracy in Budapest, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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