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MEPs say Hungary may be unfit for EU presidency

Ella Joyner in Brussels
June 1, 2023

Hungary is scheduled to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union in 2024. However, members of the European Parliament are expressing skepticism about its worthiness for the post.

Viktor Orban holds a blue folder with various flags in the background and a red carpet
Hungarian Prime Minister Orban could take on a leading role at EU summits in 2024Image: Nicolas Landemard/Le Pictorium/IMAGO

The handover of the rotating EU presidency from one member state to the next is supposed to be a mere formality. But, when it comes to Hungary, things often get complicated in Brussels.

Hungary is not slated to take up its six-month stint chairing EU meetings and driving forward legislation until the second half of 2024, but the European Parliament is already readying for a showdown. By a vote of 442 to 144, with 33 members of the European Parliament abstaining, EU lawmakers expressed doubt that Hungary's government was up to the task, given ongoing concerns about the state of the rule of law in the country.

According to the text of the resolution, the EU legislature "questions how Hungary will be able to credibly fulfil this task in 2024, in view of its non-compliance with EU law." The nonbinding statement calls on member states to "find a proper solution as soon as possible" and warns that "Parliament could take appropriate measures if such a solution is not found." What exactly that might look like remains unclear.

EU commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders speaks during a press conference
In 2022, European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders spoke a recommendation to freeze EU funds for HungaryImage: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

Hungary: 'Complete nonsense'

Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga dismissed the prospect that the country could see its turn at the presidency delayed or passed over. "Complete nonsense," she told the press in Brussels on Tuesday. "It is just the political pressuring of the European Parliament," she said. Varga said the European Parliament did not have the right to get involved in the management of the EU presidency.

The only snag for Varga is that it wasn't just the European Parliament voicing concern. In unusually candid comments from a representative of one EU country about another, German Minister of State for Europe and Climate Anna Lührmann said she had "doubts about the extent to which Hungary can lead a successful council presidency.”

"Hungary is isolated in the EU at the moment because of really very serious problems with the rule of law and also because Hungary frequently leaves room for doubt about whether it really stands behind Ukraine in Russia's war," Lührmann, a Green, said on the way into a meeting of ministers in Brussels on Tuesday.

Brokering EU consensus

The holder of the EU presidency helps broker consensus among the member states, no mean feat in a club of 27 that is often fiercely divided. The European Council website uses the analogy of "someone hosting a dinner, making sure their guests all gather in harmony — able to express differences during the meal but leaving on good terms and with a common purpose."

Given that the the bloc's executive branch, the European Commission, is currently withholding a significant chunk of EU funds from Budapest pending domestic rule-of-law reform, the feeling shared by many in Brussels is that Hungary should not play host on topics for which it is under reproach.

The European Commission has long-standing concerns about the erosion of basic democratic institutions in Hungary — covering everything from the independence of the judiciary and press to the government's failure to tackle systemic graft — under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Budapest has accused EU officials of carrying out a "witch hunt" because of its euroskepticism and fierce stance opposing migration


Parliament's limited options

In reality, the European Parliament is aware that it has limited clout to curb Hungary's presidency. "Even experts that I consulted are not very clear on what can be done," Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a Green member of the European Parliament from France, said at a press conference on Wednesday. "So we need to invent."

There are a few options, according to the Meijers Committee, an Amsterdam-based network of legal experts. In a recent paper, the group argued that chairmanship of meetings touching on rule-of-law issues could be transferred to other member states (though Hungary would need to cooperate with that). Another option would be for member states for move to change the rotation to push Hungary's turn back. New rules governing the presidency could also be introduced, the paper's authors wrote.

Poland, which is also facing EU disciplinary proceedings for violating rule-of-law provisions and is scheduled to take up the rotating presidency right after Hungary, slammed the parliamentary resolution on Thursday.

"It is a clear violation of European rules in their most important form, that is treaty rules," Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said at a conference in Moldova, the news agency Reuters reported on Thursday. "Destroying the entire way of managing the EU in this way is not only a road to nowhere, but it is a road to the abyss."

Lucia Schulten contributed reporting.