Tuesday, July 16, 2024

‘Make Europe Great Again’: Hungary set for EU presidency – DW – 06/20/2024

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It wasn’t exactly a surprise when Hungary revealed an official slogan with Trumpian overtones this week for its six-month stint holding the EU presidency, but “Make Europe Great Again” still raised a few eyebrows in Brussels.

Hungary’s ultranationalist, populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, a close ally of former US President Donald Trump, is the most outspoken euroskeptic leader in the European Union.

In the past decade, his government has clashed with EU officials and other member states over domestic democratic backsliding, migration and, most recently, the bloc’s military support for Ukraine.

Budapest has frequently deployed its veto in key votes, stalling policies when all others were ready to proceed. It has had billions of euros of EU funds initially withheld due to democracy and rule of law violations, though some of this has since been released following reforms. And only last week Hungary was fined €200 million ($216 million) for flouting EU asylum law.

Questions about fitness for task

The presidency of the Council of the EU is a six-month rotating position that gets passed between the 27 members states. Given that the presidency’s role is to act as an “honest broker” among the members and rise above national intererest, and that the country holding the presidency is responsible for pushing ahead the bloc’s legislative agenda, the European Parliament had questioned Budapest’s fitness for the task.

Last June, a majority of EU lawmakers passed a resolution asking “how Hungary will be able to credibly fulfill this task in 2024, in view of its non-compliance with EU law.”

But this nonbinding objection never went anywhere.

EU explained: What is its stance on democracy?

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On July 1, Hungary will begin chairing ministerial meetings and summits, taking over the baton from current presidency holder Belgium. Until the end of the year, it will also represent other member states in negotiations with the European Parliament and the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch.

‘Honest broker’ with a Trumpian twist

On Tuesday at a press conference in Budapest, Hungarian Minister for EU Affairs Janos Boka vowed his country would work productively. “As a presidency, we will be honest brokers working loyally with all member states and institutions,” Boka said.

Boka said Hungary would strive during its term to boost EU economic competitiveness, beef up defense policy, strive for a “consistent and merit-based enlargement policy,” and stem illegal migration with tighter borders and more efficient deportations in cooperation with non-EU countries.

In addition, Budapest would aim to reshape the Cohesion Fund, which seeks to close the gaps between richer and poorer regions, push for a “farmer-oriented EU agricultural policy,” while bearing in mind protests against EU climate measures, and address demographic challenges, he continued.

Hungarian Minister for European Foreign Affaris Janos Boka stands in front of a blue backdrop
Boka kept a straight face when unveiling Hungary’s presidency sloganImage: Peter Lakatos EPA

And then came the official tagline: “Make Europe Great Again,” Boka said — a clear reference to Trump’s famous “Make America Great Again” slogan, brandished on red baseball caps all over the US.

EU-US relations nosedived under Trump’s presidency, which lasted from 2017 to 2021. Despite a recent criminal conviction, Trump is standing for the presidency again in the November election.

“It actually shows … the expectation that together, we should be stronger than individually, but that we should be allowed to remain who we are when we come together,” Boka said in reference to Hungary’s tagline.

A ‘rebellious’ member takes the reins

Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU law at HEC Paris university, has also advocated for Hungary to be denied the presidency.

“My major concern about the Hungarian presidency is [that it will] further normalize the idea that a rebellious member state may flout the rules of game while still benefiting from the game,” he told DW in a written statement.

Budapest is taking over at a moment of transition in Brussels. European Parliament elections took place in June, and the new European Commission will only see its composition finalized towards the end of the year. That likely means very few new legislative initiatives.

Slow movement accesion for Kyiv

One area where there could be potential ramifications is  Ukraine’s early stage candidacy to join the EU. Kyiv hopes to move along quickly by opening concrete talks on necessary reforms, known in EU jargon as “negotiating chapters.”

On Tuesday, Boka suggested no major movement would take place before 2025. “According to my expectations during the Hungarian presidency, the issue of opening chapters will not be raised at all,” he told reporters.

‘Green Deal’ under pressure from right

Alemmano also believes the Hugarian presidency could influence the EU’s landmark climate policies, and particularly the setting of 2030 targets that should get the EU on track for its overall goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

A person on a bicycle and a person on foot move between two large green tractors that fill an urban street in Brussels
Many right-wing politicians are lashing out at EU climate measures after months of farmers’ protestsImage: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

“Hungary’s Fidesz government has frequently lambasted the EU’s ‘Green Deal’ and climate agenda,” he said. “Within a political landscape that is expected to shift to the right [following recent EU elections], the presence of a climate-skeptic country at the helm of the Council during the second half of 2024 could impact the EU’s positioning,” Alemanno argued.

Expect ‘trolling’ but no major disruption, diplomat warns

Nonetheless, the influence of the EU presidency role should not be overstated. The vast majority of legislative proposals come from the European Commission and are signed off by the member states and the European Parliament.

One western European diplomat told DW on condition of anonymity that they expected a fairly normal six months. “Orban and his people are very well aware that other member states will step in and take over if they make a mess of the EU agenda,” the diplomat told DW.

“At most they will use the platform to do some trolling, like with their slogan. It’s up to all of us to be disciplined enough not to take the bait,” the source said.

Edited by: Cristina Burack

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