Sunday, July 21, 2024

‘Make Europe Great Again’: Hungary sets scene for its EU presidency

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For months, it was rumoured that Hungary planned to use a reworked version of Donald Trump’s slogan for its upcoming EU presidency: Make Europe Great Again. That idea “sounded so lame and ridiculous that we refrained from reporting it”, Szabolcs Panyi, one of Hungary’s leading investigative journalists, wrote on X this month. “We were wrong.”

On 1 July, under that Trumpian banner, Hungary will take on the six-month rotating presidency of the EU council of ministers. As well as a spell in the diplomatic limelight, Viktor Orbán’s government will be setting the EU agenda for the rest of the year.

EU diplomats are downbeat, but resigned to Hungary’s six months in charge. Since Orbán returned to power in 2010, going on to win four consecutive terms, democratic values, the rule of law and press freedom in Hungary have withered, according to numerous independent bodies.

The Hungarian government, a long-term spoiler of EU decisions, has become an even more difficult partner since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, blocking or dragging out decisions to aid the war effort for as long as possible. “I think [the Hungarian presidency] is a fiasco for the European Union,” said the French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, who is standing down from the European parliament after five years as its lead on Hungary and the rule of law.

“You can be completely [negatively] influencing the rule of law now in the EU, and have your presidency,” she said, describing this as a “concerning” development for European democracy.

EU insiders have fumed as Hungary blocked €6.6bn (£5.6bn) of military aid for Ukraine via the European Peace Facility fund. The EPF partially reimburses EU member states for buying or sending weapons for Ukraine, so in effect Budapest is denying other EU capitals money to replenish their own defence stocks. Orbán has also held up – although he later relented – on advancing Ukraine’s EU accession talks, and secured opt-outs and weakened versions of EU sanctions against Russia.

Privately diplomats have spoken of attempted blackmail, as the Orbán government seeks to unlock EU money denied to Budapest. On the eve of the presidency, €19bn in various EU funds for Hungary remain frozen by the European Commission over alleged breaches of EU law on equal rights (the anti-LGBTQ+ law), the right to asylum, academic freedom, as well as concerns about corruption and judicial independence.

Hungary’s European affairs minister, János Bóka, presenting the programme and official priorities of Budapest’s EU presidency. Photograph: Peter Lakatos/EPA

At a meeting of foreign affairs ministers last month, frustrations boiled over when ministers confronted their Kremlin-decorated counterpart, Péter Szijjártó, over Hungary’s obstruction. “Almost all our decisions and needed discussions are being blocked by one country,” said Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, who accused Budapest of a “systematic approach towards any efforts by the EU to have any meaningful role in foreign affairs”.

A senior EU diplomat said: “I take pills to calm myself when I talk about this issue because it’s getting really ridiculous … At every turn of the road you see the Hungarians hampering Ukraine’s ability to fight an aggressor.”

But shortly before the presidency, diplomatic niceties prevailed. The senior EU diplomat thinks national pride will ensure a conventional EU presidency that ensures “the smooth running of the trains”. Hungary had a clear interest in a presidency that was not “creating havoc”, the person said. “The Hungarians also know that if they were to embark on that course, member states, especially the bigger member states, are not going to sit by idly to let it happen.”

To prevent a diplomatic derailment, EU officials have explored how to insulate the EU from Hungarian vetoes. One paper floats greater use of “bridge” clauses in the EU treaty to transform policies requiring unanimity into those needing a simple weighted majority.

A second senior EU diplomat said the presidency was “perhaps a good way of reining them in”, adding that it would have been a mistake to deny Hungary its six months in charge “because then it gives them the impression that everybody is against them and they need to fight”.

They added: “They block for a certain time, but in the end they give in. They haven’t really destroyed anything yet.”

Another source of reassurance for diplomats is that EU law means neither Orbán nor Szijjártó will chair routine EU meetings. Hungarian officials have promised their colleagues a “Brussels-based presidency”, suggesting a low-key technocratic affair to chair the hundreds of technical and diplomatic meetings that keep the EU ticking over.

Asked this week by German media about Hungary’s blocking of EU and Nato decisions, Orbán did not directly respond but blamed “narrow-mindedness” “especially on the left” for Europe’s problems.

A smooth-running six months is hinted by the Hungarian presidency logo – a Rubik’s Cube, intended to symbolise Hungarian ingenuity and European unity. Using the Hungarian design professor Ernő Rubik’s invention was “cute”, said Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor in law and politics at Princeton University. But together with Trump’s slogan it reveals the dual nature of Hungary’s EU presidency, she said. “Here’s the Hungarian contribution to unity and here’s how we’re going to get in your face.”

“Orbán’s strategy is not to object to absolutely everything,” she added, predicting there would be “fireworks” over foreign affairs, rather than agriculture, fisheries or the single market.

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On the eve of Hungary’s presidency, Orbán announced he had joined forces with Austria’s far-right party and the populist Czech ANO party, launching a new European alliance.

The aim was to create the strongest rightwing bloc in the European parliament, Orbán said, though the trio needs to attract politicians from at least four more EU countries to successfully form a group.

“What Europeans want is three things: peace, order and development,” Orbán said on Sunday. “And what they are getting from the elite in Brussels today is war, migration and stagnation.”

Diplomats suggest Orbán can do little damage because his presidency coincides with an interregnum in EU affairs: the next European Commission – the initiator and enforcer of EU law – will not take office until 1 November. Scheppele is not convinced.

Protesters march in a Pride parade in Budapest. Hungary is accused of breaching EU law on equal rights. Photograph: János Kummer/Getty Images

“Orbán has previously used two pauses in EU vigilance to consolidate autocracy. He used his rotating presidency in 2011 to bring into effect his new autocratic constitution and many accompanying laws specifying the details about the new constitutional system,” she said.

During another six-month pause in EU business around the 2019 EU elections, Orbán pushed through controversial changes that chipped away at the rule of law and workers’ rights. These included legislation allowing companies to demand staff work an extra day of overtime a week; the “salad law” – so-called because it blends a mishmash of different ingredients – to bring the judiciary under government control; and introduced state control over the research network of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Speaking from the European parliament, Delbos-Corfield said she was worried that the next six months would bring a deepening of the hostile climate towards LGBTQ+ people and the rollback of judicial reforms agreed with the EU last year to partially unblock frozen European funds.

She also warned about Hungary’s “sovereignty protection” office, which the European Commission has said violates democratic principles and the right to a fair trial. Ostensibly intended to protect Hungary from foreign influence, the office can launch sweeping investigations into people active in public life.

This week, the Hungarian branch of Transparency International and the independent media outlet Átlátszó announced they were being targeted by the law. The sovereignty protection office was a “very Putin-inspired structure”, said Delbos-Corfield, drawing a comparison with Vladimir Putin’s 2012 foreign agents law used to repress civil society in Russia.

Reflecting on the latest decision to go after two organisations dedicated to holding the Orbán government to account, Scheppele said: “That’s why I dread the current period when Orbán’s term in the rotating presidency coincides with the interregnum. My guess is that we see all kinds of new repressions carried out in Hungary during this period.”

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