How the Orbán administration’s political approach to the EU affects the upcoming rotating presidency



Last year, at the height of the Hungarian Government's “anti-Brussels” rhetoric, European media regularly discussed why and how Hungary should and could be sidelined from the 2024 EU rotating presidency. Although the idea has close to zero political reality, it is well worth analysing the expectations around Hungary’s half-year in the driver’s seat of the European Union.

EU and Hungarian flags in Budapest

The political impact of the Hungarian presidency will probably be harmful to the EU’s image regardless of how the Hungarian presidency team performs. Hungary has been widely criticised in the EU and beyond for its backsliding democracy and poor rule of law record. Additionally, it should be mentioned that over the past 10 years, the Hungarian Government has been actively waging a communications war against the EU including narratives against European integration and the values of openness, equality and tolerance. Domestically, this “information war” has targeted the free press, pluralism and civil society. Its billboards and advertising campaigns have also been accompanied by stigmatizing rhetoric against all kinds of socially vulnerable groups including women, low-income households, Roma people, people living with addictions, homeless people, and the list goes on. At the same time, the communication of the Hungarian leadership in Brussels tends to be somewhat more restrained, but this does not mean EU institutions are not painfully aware of the domestic anti-EU propaganda distributed in Hungary.

The European Parliament (EP), the institution most critical of the country’s behaviour, has held multiple debates and published materials on the situation in Hungary as the EU’s most vocal body criticising Hungary’s democratic erosion. These EP reports started with the Tavares report in 2013, followed by the Sargentini report, which became highly contested and infamous in Hungarian domestic politics. In recent years, Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield , a French Green MEP, has submitted reports and other investigations on Hungarian elections and democratic freedoms which have also been accepted by the EP. Additionally, these EP reports are being accompanied by a discussion of the Commission’s Rule of Law Report, which also tends toward damning conclusions on Hungary.

Daniel Freund (MEP, Greens/EFA) has been a committed critic of the Hungarian leadership and has followed developments there closely in recent years. According to Freund, the problem transcends the bureaucratic reality of a potential Hungarian presidency.

“Hungary is not a democracy anymore. I think that giving a government this much responsibility that is subject to both an Article-7 procedure and a rule of law conditionality procedure is a very bad idea. The EU is a club of democracies and should not be chaired by an autocrat,” he told speaking the authors of this article.

The “troublemaking kid-on-the-block” in Brussels for more than a decade

Beyond the question of democratic norms and values, diplomats are rightfully questioning Hungary’s dedication to common EU policies after its years of disruptive approaches towards the European Council. Hungary has demonstrated that reason takes second place behind its populist stances and baseless finger-pointing towards the European Union and other international bodies.

Even more concerningly, in situations where it wields institutional power, such as during unanimity voting (even on EU policies unrelated to the rule of law sanctions against Hungary), the country frequently uses its leverage to exert influence. These sorts of “blackmail situations” slow down EU decision-making to a concerning extent, regardless of whether they are successful. Hungary’s resistance to the Recovery and Resilience Facility funding (both its funds and its loans) ended in the country accepting all of the related conditions and just trying to save face in the domestic media. On the other hand, the European Commission did free up approximately 10 billion euros from the funds which had been frozen under the rule of law conditionality sanctions one day before the EU Council voted on 1 February to start Ukraine’s EU accession negotiations. That was a step Orbán had threatened to veto, but on the day of the vote, he did not oppose it. Therefore, the threat of the Hungarian Government using its EU presidency power to attain more financial and policy concessions from the EU is more than realistic. Freund reminds us that, in addition to being able to exercise pressure, Hungary would also have to chair several meetings on policies it tends to block.

“It stands without a question that Orbán sees this Presidency as a chance to improve his reputation. But especially the European Parliament won't be blinded by some shiny events in Brussels. We will keep on holding the EU Commission accountable for its sloppy stance towards the Orbán government. Regarding the rule of law debate during the Hungarian Presidency, we’re entering dangerous territory when it comes to Article-7 hearings. This would create the absurd situation that Hungary would chair the meetings where the rule of law situation in Hungary would be discussed. This must be avoided,” says Freund.

Additionally, the Hungarian Government has acquired the reputation of being outstandingly inconsistent when it comes to international affairs. Hungary has taken a confusing approach toward international issues like the global corporate minimum tax (first voting for it, only to reject it later) or Sweden’s NATO accession. All these and many more matters have resulted in Hungary seriously discrediting itself in common decision-making processes – leading rightfully to serious doubts among its EU allies concerning its commitment to the Union.

European elections will take place in all 27 Member States just before the Hungarian presidency starts this year. As a result, during the Hungarian EU presidency, formidable events will take place, including the formation of the new European Parliament (2024-2029), the election of the new European Commission president, the election of the next permanent president of the European Council (current president Charles Michel has signalled that he expects to move to the EP). Likewise, under the watch of the Hungarian presidency, all of the EC commissioner hearings will take place – an exercise that has historically resulted in conflicts between the EU institutions ahead of the final vote on the full set of commissioners.

While the presidency has little impact in actually modifying the results of negotiations for key positions, a functional presidency can make the transition period smoother. Parliamentarians are concerned about the extent to which the Hungarian leadership would be able and willing to effectively navigate such a situation. According to Freund:

“The Hungarian presidency would come right after the EU elections. This is a time when the political agenda of the European Union for the next years is being decided - and the top jobs are being distributed. It is a dangerous time for an authoritarian government to be at the helm of Europe.”

What have the EU bodies actually done to halt Hungary’s EU presidency?

Back in June 2023, MEPs passed a motion for resolution on the breaches of the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary and froze EU funds – 442 voted in favour, 144 against. The 11th point of the EP resolution “underlines the important role of the presidency of the Council in driving forward the Council’s work on EU legislation, ensuring the continuity of the EU agenda and representing the Council in relations with the other EU institutions; questions how Hungary will be able to credibly fulfil this task in 2024, given its non-compliance with EU law and the values enshrined in Article 2 TEU, as well as the principle of sincere cooperation; asks the Council to find a proper solution as soon as possible; recalls that Parliament could take appropriate measures if such a solution is not found”. More recently, in mid-January 2024, MEPs reiterated the same concerns in yet another resolution.

Despite the explicit wording of the EP resolution passed in June 2023, the Council has shown no willingness to discuss whether or not the Orbán Government is fit for the presidency. Nor have they demonstrated willingness to move forward the EU’s key legislative process against Hungary, the Article 7 procedure. Remember, either the EC itself or at least nine Member States have to request a vote on Article 7 that, if passed, would result in the suspension of Hungary's voting rights and consequently could prevent the Orbán Government from sitting in the driver’s seat of the EU for the second half of this year.

Legally viable avenue

Technically, Freund sees this as a simple solution to avoiding a Hungarian EU presidency at least temporarily, but it would require political commitment from the Member States.

“Member States must take action now to avoid the dangers of a Hungarian presidency. They could agree on pre-conditions for member states taking over the Council Presidency: no country that is subject to both an Article-7 procedure and a rule of law conditionality procedure should be able to take over. The order of the rotating Council Presidencies can be changed by a simple majority vote in the Council. It’s time to put Orban into a holding pattern until the rule of law in Hungary is working again,” he said.

“Business-as-usual” preparations

In a related analysis published last year, the European Policy Centre (EPC) concluded that even though technically postponing a presidency is a possible legal option, the lack of political will is likely to prevent such a postponement.

However, the EPC analysis suggested that “making all efforts to remove the ‘fangs’ of the Hungarian Presidency by reducing its platform and visibility during its tenure – rather than postponing or cancelling its turn – seems more prudent. For instance, not allowing them to preside over any meetings related to the rule of law and EU values on the grounds of related ongoing legal and regulatory action against the country would be a justifiable, simple, and effective measure.”

The extent to which EU institutions are willing to modify their existing practices regarding the role of the rotating presidency remains unclear. While some, especially in the EP, are keen to address the implications of Hungary’s rule of law deficit in connection to its upcoming presidency, most EU bodies do not seem to show a considerable willingness to do so. The EU is preparing for Hungary’s presidency with a “business-as-usual” attitude, even though at this point, everyone is aware the presidency will be unusual at best.



The authors are journalists of the platform