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Will Orban's Government Cause Turmoil in the EU?

  • Hungary's six-month EU presidency starts on July 1st, despite Orban's strained relationship with Brussels.
  • The diminishing role of the presidency and the busy political calendar may prevent Hungary from implementing its agenda.
  • Hungary's presidency may focus on advancing the membership prospects of Albania and Serbia, as well as possibly Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia.

The European Union is bracing for Hungary to take over the EU's rotating presidency, which starts on July 1. It could be an awkward six months for the EU leadership given that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been on a collision course with Brussels, watering down EU sanctions on Russia, preventing military and financial aid for Ukraine, and questioning Kyiv's EU aspirations.

Hungary, a self-styled "illiberal democracy," has been penalized for what officials in Brussels see as backsliding on democracy, with the EU freezing 6 billion euros ($6.4 billion) of funds meant for the Central European country.

Yet despite the thorny relationship Hungary's six months' stint as president in the second half of 2024 may not be as dramatic and problematic as some may fear.

The rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, one of the main decision-making bodies of the bloc that comprises government ministers from the member states, is alternately held for a period of six months by each of the member states. Under this arrangement, each member state has the opportunity to shape the council's agenda.

According to several sources in Brussels with knowledge of the issue, the Hungarian presidency isn't causing too many sleepless nights. This is largely due to two factors: the actual role of the presidency and the quirks of the political calendar.

Diminished Role

Let's start with the first. The presidencies of the EU Council are not what they used to be. There was a time when the country at the helm really did control the agenda, holding proper summits in their capitals, and their diplomats ran the show behind the scenes.

This changed in 2004, when it was decided that all important summits should be held in the Belgian capital. The changes went deeper in 2009 with the advent of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, designed to improve the efficiency and democratic legitimacy of the EU, which created a number of new functions and essentially concentrated power in Brussels.

The Lisbon Treaty created a permanent president of the European Council, which mainly consists of the heads of state or government of the member states. The post is currently held by Belgian politician Charles Michel, who serves a five-year term and chairs all summits.

The council also has a much-expanded and powerful secretariat staffed by EU officials with expertise across all the policy fields. The Lisbon Treaty also created an EU foreign policy chief, currently held by Spanish politician Josep Borrell, and a diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service, to give the foreign policy position some heft. The main task of this person is to prepare and chair the monthly EU foreign affairs council where the bloc's foreign ministers meet to make decisions.

How does this affect the Hungarian presidency? Well, it lessens the influence of the two most Brussels-bashing members of Hungary's national-conservative government, Orban and his foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto.

Budapest can, of course, still influence the conversation, as seen with the unveiling of their Donald Trump-inspired Make Europe Great Again (MEGA) slogan for the presidency last week. Hungary's bold move was dismissed as "trolling" by many in Brussels, with the feeling there would be more of that type of thing to come.

While the two men will still preside over informal ministerial meetings and even a summit in Budapest in November, their role will be fairly superficial. Notably, they will also have to face questions at press conferences and from foreign media, which they normally tend to shun.

What is concretely left for Hungary to do? Their other ministers, such as those responsible for agriculture or justice, will still chair council meetings in their fields, and Hungarian diplomats will do the same in preparatory working groups. The whole idea of the rotating presidency is that the incumbents are expected to be honest brokers, seeking consensus among member states.

Rather than causing trouble, Hungary might also decide to play nice. Speaking to officials from various member states, some have pointed out that while Hungary most certainly has an agenda -- and one that is often at odds with the consensus -- Hungarian officials have behaved professionally in the run-up to the presidency, underlining that everything will be done by the book.

Political Calendar

The second factor that could curtail Hungarian ambitions to impose its agenda is the political calendar. The reality is that in the next six months, little will happen in Brussels in terms of new legislation.

That's because the EU capital will be busy with appointing a new European Commission, the bloc's executive and proposer of new laws, a process that includes time-consuming hearings in the European Parliament to approve new commissioners (one from each member state). That process is expected to take up almost the entire fall, and Hungary has no role to play in the decision-making.

There has also been a frantic and largely successful attempt by the current Belgian presidency to clear the decks before Hungary assumed the role. That has meant signing off on a raft of new initiatives and policies. Another round of sanctions on Russia was passed on June 24; restrictive measures targeting Belarus are also expected to be agreed on June 26.

A green light was also given to Ukraine and Moldova to start accession talks on June 25. The process of screening the two EU candidates' various policy accession chapters is expected to take well over six months, and it's likely Budapest won't have to deal with Kyiv's EU accession at all and that it will be the next president of the EU Council, Poland, that will deal with this in 2025.

While Hungary has spoken out against Ukraine's readiness to join the EU, one of Budapest's priorities for the presidency is to advance the membership prospects of Albania and Serbia and possibly even those of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia. (There probably won't be enough support from the member states to green light the latter two.)

Ahead of Hungary's presidency, the EU even managed to send 1.4 billion euros ($1.5 billion) worth of military aid to support Ukraine in defending itself against Russia. This money comes from the profits from Russian assets frozen in the EU, and Brussels got around the Budapest veto on this measure by noting that Hungary abstained from the original decision to set aside this money, so legally it didn't have a say in how that money would be used.

This is a good illustration of how the Hungarian presidency might well play out. During the discussions in Brussels on this issue last week, the Hungarian representative stayed silent the whole time, essentially waving through the measure, whereas Szijjarto posted an angry rant on Facebook about the legality of the move to freeze Hungary out. This could be Hungary's game plan: being constructive and compliant in Brussels while screaming bloody murder to its audience at home.

Then there is the question of money and those frozen EU funds earmarked for Hungary. While the 1.4 billion euros for Ukraine was passed, a Hungarian veto is still hanging over seven other tranches of military aid, worth nearly 7 billion euros, for the war-torn country.

Hungary is used to bargaining with Brussels and could attempt to link its support for further military aid to Ukraine to the 6 billion euros of EU funds it wants Brussels to release. If Budapest doesn't comply with the EU's rule of law requirements by the end of the year, Hungary will permanently lose 1 billion euros. That's one deal that the Hungarians will be keen on making


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