Sunday, July 21, 2024

Hungary for Change: Orban’s Controversial Turn at the EU Helm

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On a scale of one to ten, you will probably find the start of an EU presidency at the lower end of the scale when it comes to striking a chord with both the public and the media. In fact, any of the U.S. presidential debates probably got more airtime and print space than the last EU presidencies rolled into one.

Even in what is called the “Brussels Bubble,” the occasion can often come and go with relatively little interest. But the “changing of the guard” – the start of the latest EU presidency – on July 1 is quite different.

The reason for that comes in one word: Hungary.

The presidency, which rotates every six months, is a chance for an EU member state to get the chance to steer the EU agenda. It is easy to dismiss it as one of those “quirks” of the EU that, in the “real world,” have little meaning. But, with the war raging in Ukraine on the EU’s doorstep, key general elections in countries like the UK and France as well as the U.S., and largely new faces occupying the EU’s top jobs following the recent elections to the European Parliament, this presidency has a bit more clout than most.

Add to the mix that Hungary is now the “EU bad boy” to take charge, and you have a potentially potent combination.

There was quite some commotion long before Hungary took over, with it becoming clear that Hungary’s presidency will not be business as usual. In fact, in the eyes of many in the West, the prospect of the second Hungarian presidency of the EU Council is met with barely disguised horror. In 2023, some members of the European Parliament even tried to find a way to somehow skip Hungary’s turn with the presidency. That effort came to nothing.

Earlier this year, there was even the real possibility of Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, becoming head of the European Council, even if only provisionally when it looked like outgoing president Charles Michel would step down to contest June’s EU elections. In the event, Michel stayed in his post, but after this week’s agreement on the share-out of top EU jobs, he will be replaced by Portugal’s António Costa in December.

In discussions about who gets what job, Orbán voted against Ursula von der Leyen continuing as president of the European Commission but abstained in the votes that gave Costa and Kaja Kallas – the new EU High Representative – their jobs. Orbán, of course, has “form” when it comes to refusing to fall in line with the rest of the EU and its political leaders – another reason why many view the upcoming Hungarian presidency of the EU with some trepidation.

Recent examples of such friction between Hungary and Brussels abound, including the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ordering the Hungarian government to pay a lump sum of €200 million and a penalty payment of €1 million per day for failure to comply with an earlier court judgment.

But there’s more. Following recent negotiations with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Budapest (due to be replaced by Dutch PM Mark Rutte), the Orbán government stated that it would not be part of a plan by the defense alliance to help Ukraine. Elsewhere, Hungary’s national economy minister, Márton Nagy, recently said the country did not agree with a European Commission proposal to impose what he called “brutal” tariffs on Chinese electric vehicle makers.

Orbán caused yet more consternation when, ahead of the EU elections, he addressed a gathering organized by Spain’s far-right Vox party, stating that it was time “for patriots to occupy Brussels.” Aside from Mr. Orbán, Budapest’s opposition mayor, Gergely Karácsony, recently called for a repeat election after alleged irregularities, another illustration of what many in Brussels might call rule of law issues with Hungary.

The Council of the EU’s rotating presidency is often described as ‘responsibility without power.’ Whichever member state is at the helm (currently, it is Belgium) drives the EU’s legislative agenda and represents the Council in negotiations with the EU’s other law-making institutions. The presidency lacks hard powers, though, and given the complicated and consensual nature of EU decision-making, its priorities often get watered down or subsumed by crises and unexpected developments.

László Andor, Hungary’s EU commissioner from 2010-14 and now Secretary General at FEPS, the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, jokes that, today, the most popular Hungarian internationally is a 78-year-old meme star called András Arató, more widely known as ‘Hide the Pain Harold.’ His only real competitor is probably the 80-year-old inventor of the famous Rubik’s Cube, Ernő Rubik.

Andor says that Hungary’s relationship with the community of the other 26 EU member states is dominated by a “completely different” representative of the “homo ludens”: Viktor Orbán. “This is the man,” he recalls, “who was once casually called ‘dictator’ by former president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.” Andor says that in contemporary EU discourse, Orbán is “somewhere between a black sheep and the antichrist,” adding, “Thanks to him, the country is perceived as a nuisance by some, and as a threat by others.”

While Orbán is now the longest-serving prime minister within the European Union, Andor says he never includes himself in the EU elites “but pretends to represent the people, who are culturally conservative by definition.” On migration, Andor says Orbán has been “notorious since 2015 for exploiting the large influx of refugees in Europe for his own domestic politics.” “The problem with Orbán’s approach is that he always teams up with those who fail to take the requirements of the rule of law seriously.”

In “normal” conditions, an EU Council presidency would be a great opportunity to address common challenges of the Union and to promote the country’s image at the same time. “However, now,” Andor goes on, “people find relief in the knowledge that the presidency’s powers are limited and that their government will not be able to do much more than change the elevator music in the Justus Lipsius building.”

Usually, less is expected from EU Council presidencies that fall in the second half of the year as there is less time due to the summer and Christmas holiday periods. The expectations are even lower as Brussels is now in a transition period in the EU institutions. Zselyke Csaky, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, believes the Hungarian presidency will have limited impact on EU policies – but the hit to the Union’s reputation could be significant. “The incoming Hungarian presidency is worrying,” he says. Viktor Orbán’s “years-long, consistent policy of undermining EU unity on Ukraine and other issues prompted many to question whether Hungary should take on the role,” says Csaky.

The Hungarians hold the presidency immediately after the EU elections and with key positions in the Commission and other institutions having just been agreed. This, and the largely technical nature of the presidency’s responsibilities, including planning and chairing meetings, “will limit major policy-level damage,” he believes. But he also cautions, “The main risks will be to day-to-day functioning and the EU’s reputation.”

Belgium bids farewell to the rotating helm of the EU presidency this weekend and is credited with making significant strides in pushing forward the final sprint of the Green Deal, a key policy plank of the EU. Hungary steps in to replace Belgium at the steering wheel in a politically shifting landscape following the EU elections. While the Hungarian presidency might not be at the helm during a key legislative moment, as Brussels focuses on installing its new political leadership, it will still carry political weight.

Of course, it may be that, despite Hungary’s regular fallings out with the EU, current widespread pessimism about it steering the Good Ship EU is well wide of the mark, and the Hungarian presidency will surprise the naysayers. But rarely has such an incoming EU presidency been met with such skepticism. So, as the old saying goes, watch this space.

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