Wednesday, July 24, 2024

What’s in Store for the Hungarian Presidency of the EU Council?

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On July 1, Hungary will take over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union. In recent years, the relationship between the EU and the Hungarian government has been anything but easy. For several years, the country has been under scrutiny for concerns over a deteriorating rule of law situation and has often used its veto powers to block progress on key legislation, such as military aid for Ukraine. Hungary’s credibility at the helm of the EU has therefore been a point of contention. In June last year, the European Parliament (EP) even passed a non-legislative resolution questioning its credibility to fulfill the role of an honest broker and calling upon the European Council to take appropriate measures. However, the role of the EU Council Presidency has become highly standardized. While Hungarian Prime Minister Orban could stir the pot with his rhetoric, the disruptive potential of the Hungarian presidency should be taken with a grain of salt.

The country’s second presidency since joining the EU in 2004 comes at a time of political changes in the EU. After the EU elections in June both the EP and the European Commission are in the process of reconstituting themselves. The new EP will meet for the first time in mid-July. During that time members will vote on the new President of the Parliament—most probably Roberta Metsola (EPP)—and the second term for Ursula von der Leyen as Commission President, after she received enough support for her nomination in the European Council. Her confirmation will get the ball rolling to form the new European Commission, which is expected to be confirmed and start working only later this fall. Ensuring a smooth institutional transition will therefore take center stage for the majority of the Hungarian Presidency.

Despite this interregnum period, Hungary has put forth seven priorities to tackle—what it deems—the most pressing challenges for the EU. Under its slogan “Make Europe Great Again”, which raised several eyebrows among EU officials, the Presidency will seek to, among other things, increase EU competitiveness and defense production capabilities. It will also address the issues of demography and migration to the EU, initiate consultations with member states on reforming cohesion and common agricultural policies, and further the enlargement process, but only to the Western Balkans.

Just before the official start of the Hungarian Presidency, on June 25, EU member states agreed to formally launch membership negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova. This was considered a tactical move by the outgoing Belgian Presidency to ensure another much needed political signal for the future of Ukraine and Moldova in the EU. In the past, Hungary has obstructed Ukraine’s accession progress, referring to issues of corruption and protection of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine. Hungarian Minister for European Affairs Janos Boka has stated that the Presidency does not plan to open or close any negotiation clusters for the respective two countries. However, this official launch is still significant, as both sides can begin with the screening process—assessing the level of the candidate countries’ alignment with EU legislation and what is needed to move forward in the membership process.

While enlargement is a priority for Hungary, it is only in the context of the Western Balkans. According to Minister Boka the intention is to shift the “enthusiasm” and “attention” back to this region, by opening a new cluster for Serbia, closing several chapters for Montenegro, and organizing another intergovernmental conference for Albania and North Macedonia. No goals have been mentioned regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina, the latest EU candidate country in the region. While these would all be positive steps, the EU’s approach to the region has so far failed to address the issue of stabilitocracy to bring positive developments in democratic governance and fight against corruption across the region. Could Prime Minister Orban’s close relationship with Serbian President Vučić and President of Republika Srbska Milorad Dodik achieve meaningful progress in bringing the Western Balkans closer to the EU or will it only reinforce the two leaders’ disruptive agenda for the region? 

Two other issues that will remain on top of the EU’s agenda over the next six months are the ongoing support for Ukraine and defense. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the wavering support of the US for Ukraine has prompted the EU to boost its defense industry. While Hungary continues to block $7 million in military assistance for Ukraine from the European Peace Facility, it has supported the European Defense Industry Strategy (EDIS) and the European Defense Industry Program (EDIP). As Hungary is oftentimes the stumbling block to reaching agreements on key legislation, its support for EDIS and EDIP, and its aim to serve as an honest broker should be utilized to adopt a ‘general approach’ in the EU Council during its presidency. This will ensure further work on finalizing both EDIP and EDIS can start immediately after the new EU institutional set-up is confirmed.

Less progress is expected on the issue of support to Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, the program of the Hungarian Presidency lacks concrete proposals and clear ambition to facilitate progress. The Hungarian government has maintained ties with Russia after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with Prime Minister Orban, in 2023, even meeting President Putin on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. To this end the EU Council adopted the 14th sanctions package and agreed on using $1.5 billion of the proceeds from frozen Russian assets for military support of Ukraine, on June 24, before Hungary took over the presidency. The latter decision was decried by Hungary, who has so far blocked payments from the Ukraine Assistance Fund. However, the first test of Hungary’s role as an honest broker will be at the end of July when sanctions against Russia are up for another renewal. 

The next six months will be marked more with broader political discussions around new EU institutional leadership and priorities for the next five years, rather than progress on concrete legislative files. Hungary’s agenda-setting role will therefore not significantly increase its ability to stall progress–not more than it has already done by using its veto power. However, attention should be paid to the political discourse and whether Hungary will use this spotlight to undermine the unity of the EU–especially on foreign policy issues–and empower the far-right and nationalist voices that won ground in the European Parliament elections in June. Nevertheless, achieving progress on its priorities such as defense and enlargement could be Hungary’s chance to ameliorate the strained relationship with Brussels. Will Hungary take the opportunity of its presidency and, in the words of its Minister for European Affairs, be “an honest broker working loyally with all member states and institutions?”

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