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Euroskeptic Hungary takes over EU's rotating presidency

Bernd Riegert in Brussels
June 30, 2024

On July 1, Hungary, led by EU skeptic Viktor Orban, will take over the bloc's rotating presidency of the EU Council until the end of the year. How much damage could Orban really do?

Prime Minister Viktor Orban talks at a mic, the Hungarian flag behind him
Hungary's Viktor Orban, often dismissive of the EU, will help run it for the next six monthsImage: Attila Volgyi/Xinhua/IMAGO

Hungary's right-wing nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, is the first head of the rotating EU Council presidency to have publicly attacked and demeaned the EU's own institutions.

In his speeches and interviews at home, he has repeatedly claimed that the EU threatens Hungarian sovereignty, is destroying its middle class and attacking the country's agricultural sector. That's why he said he had to go to Brussels and "shake up the power structures there."

Over the past year, Hungary has used its veto to block the decisions of other member states at the EU level. Still, despite the fundamental skepticism his country has exhibited toward the EU, Hungarian Minister for European Affairs Janos Boka has said Budapest will be an "honest broker" when it takes over the rotating EU Council presidency for the next six months.

From July 1 to December 31, Hungary will lead meetings of the council, determine the agenda and, as second legislative chamber, head negotiations with the European Parliament.

Hungary often at odds with Brussels

Never in the history of the EU has a council presidency had as many conflicts of interests as Hungary — against which procedures under Article 7 of the EU treaties are currently ongoing due to the fundamental threat the Orban government poses to rule of law in the country.

The European Commission, for instance, has initiated numerous procedures for treaty noncompliance over violations of legal norms. The European Court of Justice recently leveled heavy fines against Budapest for failing to correctly apply EU asylum and migration laws.

Orban called the decision "outrageous," and said he would refuse to accept it. Heads of state and government who don't agree, he said, must be "sent packing."

Now, the defendant will change seats and take over the council presidency for the next six months with the obligation to be an impartial mediator. But many observers in Brussels are doubtful this can ever be the case.

Funds to Hungary frozen over corruption concerns

An especially touchy matter is the tug-of-war between Orban and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over financial aid for Hungary.

Although Budapest rejects the EU and its current rule of law norms, it has nevertheless demanded payments from the bloc's COVID-19 recovery fund and the Cohesion Fund.

In all, the EU has frozen €30 billion ($32.1 billion) in funding for Hungary due to a very real threat of corruption in Budapest, as well as the fact that Brussels says courts in Hungary are no longer independent.

EU Parliament wants to sue EU Commission over Hungary funds

Even though part of that money was recently released in order to purchase Orban's support for further political and military assistance for war-torn Ukraine, this is still the first time a country heading the rotating presidency has ever faced penalties under "rule of law mechanisms."

Delayed military aid for Ukraine

Hungary's European Affairs Minister Boka has given Ukraine absolutely no reason to hope for progress in accession negotiations that Kyiv and Brussels kicked off on June 25. None of the 35 scheduled negotiations will begin during Hungary's turn in the driver's seat, and Budapest is already blocking financial aid to Kyiv whenever it can.

Currently, Hungary is refusing to release around €6.5 billion in EU funds for military aid, and the Orban government has not said whether it will make use of its veto power during its six months in charge. That, too, would be a first for an "honest broker" tasked with finding political compromise.

Orban, who has maintained good economic ties with Russia despite EU sanctions, pitched himself as the only person fighting for peace in the run-up to EU parliamentary elections in early June.

"We won't allow ourselves to be dragged into any wars, won't allow illegal immigrants to be forced upon us, and won't even consider allowing our children to be indoctrinated," he said during a speech in March.

Expect progress in the Western Balkans

Western Balkan states hoping to join the EU, on the other hand, can hope new life will being breathed into their own accession negotiations.

"The presidency has set itself the goal of ensuring that some of that enthusiasm spills over to the Western Balkans so that they can all come a step closer to membership," said Boka in Brussels.

Hungary criticizes Ukraine's EU prospects

It can be assumed that a new chapter of negotiations will be opened with Serbia, for instance. Hungary and Serbia share reservations about the EU's Ukraine policy and tend to be more receptive to Russia's demands.

In the eyes of the European Commission, Serbia has distanced itself from accession rather than coming closer due to its increasingly authoritarian arc.

Budapest also hopes to complete as many rounds of negotiations as possible with Montenegro before 2025. North Macedonia and Albania, too, will see progress if things go according to plan.

Both countries could be looking at further formal governmental meetings in order to move accession talks forward. Boka has said such meetings will not take place with Ukraine over the next six months.

Don't overestimate Hungary's influence

Still, as Thu Nguyen from the Jacques Delors Center think tank wrote in an analysis published in the magazine International Politics, one shouldn't overestimate the power the EU Council presidency has over EU business.

Nguyen pointed out that the political program of the presidency is something that is planned out long-term. At most, Hungary will be able to set a few accents. Traditionally, very little also happens in terms of legislation in the wake of European parliamentiary elections.

The council presidency, will, "come at a time when EU institutions will be busy distributing posts and, above all, appointing the new European Commission. As a result, little legislative work will be carried out during this period, for which a Council presidency is particularly important," wrote the EU expert in March.

The role of moderator in trilateral legislative negotiations between the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament will be almost nonexistent.

Orban sees EU Commission head as 'weak'

Orban has a long list grievances when it comes to European Commission President von der Leyen, whom he has also described as "weak."

"The past five years were probably the worst five years in the history of the EU," Orban grumbled recently — and he will be expected to work closely with the European Commission over the next six months.

(left to right) Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Cyprus President Nikos Christodoulides speaking in Brussels
Orban and Ursula von der Leyen have been equally critical of one another in BrusselsImage: Olivier Matthys/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Von der Leyen has been equally dismissive of the Hungarian leader and his right-wing nationalist friends in the EU. "They want to trample on our values and they want to destroy our Europe," she warned before the EU parliamentary elections in early June.

The European Parliament raised doubts about Hungary's fitness to take over the council presidency as early as last year. And harsh criticism of Hungary can often be heard issuing from the body, above all over Hungary's democratic backsliding. One can only imagine what kind of verbal exchanges Orban and von der Leyen will engage in when speaking before lawmakers.

"We will survive Hungary," said one anonymous EU diplomat. Work can then begin in earnest in the first half of 2025, when Poland takes over the rotating presidency and the new European Commission is in place.

Luckily, said the diplomat, Warsaw once again has an EU-friendly government at the helm and not Orban's kindred spirits from the right-wing nationalist PiS.

This article was originally written in German.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union