Want to discuss the opinion expressed in the article? Write an email to email@example.com.
By Daniela Belinschi
Edited by Gigi Kordula & Federico Durante
The summer of 2024 heralds a new phase for the European Union - the rotating presidency of the Council switches to Hungary. Given the continuous allegations of Viktor Orbán’s government infringements of EU values, Hungary’s take over of the European Council presidency under Orbán leadership could exert a discernible influence on the European agenda in the forthcoming months.
© Reuters / Emerging Europe
EU's Passing of the Baton
In July, the Presidency of the Council, currently held by Belgium, is poised to shift to Hungary. This transition, in the aftermath of the European Elections in June 2024, initiated a nuanced exploration into the dynamics of European leadership. As Hungary takes the helm, inquiries into the distinctive positioning of Viktor Orbán within the EU landscape come to the forefront.
Why is Orbán the odd one out in the EU?
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has led the Fidesz-KDNP coalition government for over four electoral periods, maintaining a strong two-thirds majority. Since he assumed office in 2010, Hungary faced multiple infringement procedures initiated by the Commission. These procedures address various violations of the EU treaties related to rules on asylum and return procedures, freedom of establishment, freedom of expression, and LGBTIQ rights.
Media Control and Constitutional Changes
What is commonly referred to as the "illiberal democracy” speech, delivered by Viktor Orbán in Romania in July 2014, appears to vividly reflect the present sociopolitical climate and Orbán's overarching vision for Hungary. One of the key aspects highlighted by the Prime Minister a decade ago referred to the media.
In 2014, citing foreign involvement as a rationale, Orbán proposed the establishment of a dedicated state entity, tasked with “constant monitoring, recording, and disclosure of attempts by foreign actors to gain influence” of the national media.
As of now, the President of the Media Authority, holding a range of important powers, including the appointment of the main decision-makers in the Media Authority, and the appointment of the executive director of the national public service broadcasting organisation, is appointed by the Prime Minister. This move sparked controversies regarding the media falling under the influence of Orbán's administration.
Compounding the issue, Hungary's oversight of media content has become a recurring matter at the European Court of Human Rights, underscoring the complex intersection of media regulation and human rights implications.
More recently, the enactment of the "Sovereignty Protection Act" attracted significant attention. This legislation calls for the creation of a new government body - Office for the Defence of Sovereignty - capable of gathering information on groups or individuals receiving foreign funding and influencing public discourse.
This new law is compared to Russia's “foreign agent” law and is criticised for its hostility towards human rights and liberties, in conjunction with the apparent oppression of the opposition within its ambit.
Furthermore, the Constitution adopted in 2012 has been perceived as containing provisions that erode the role of the judiciary, especially the Constitutional Court, and its system of checks on the legislative branch.
Hungary also garnered international attention because of having one of the highest corruption rates in Europe, spanning from state institutions to non-governmental organisations. These aspects have prompted scrutiny regarding the country's adherence to the rule of law.
Orbán's Veto and Subsequent Twist
Currently, the spotlight is on the 50 euro million aid package to Ukraine, as Orbán blocks it through Hungary's veto power. The veto, coupled with Hungary's diplomatic dance with Putin and its resistance to sanctions, particularly on gas sales, sets the stage for a Council Presidency that seems unwelcome within the European Union.
These actions not only accentuate Hungary’s discord with the EU but also foreshadow challenges in addressing crucial matters during its presidency. How Orbán navigates this situation will likely shape the tone and direction of the European agenda under Hungary’s watch.
The Orbán Effect: What Lies Ahead for the EU?
Charles Michel's recent announcement of his candidacy for the European Parliament elections means that the leader of the country holding the Council's chair will assume the position of the President of the European Council, too. The President of the European Council plays an important role in coordinating and representing the EU at the highest level.
At the same time, the EU’s non-elected body - The Council of the European Union - holds a central position in the EU, particularly in the legislative process. Thus, Orbán's anti-EU rhetoric and his dissenting position on financial aid to Ukraine, entwined with the EU's discussions on enlargement, currently dance in the limelight of European attention.
While lacking executive authority, the EU member state holding the Council's presidency can exert substantial influence by shaping the agenda, facilitating meetings, directing negotiations, and coordinating votes within the institution. In this context, the Hungarian Council Presidency, considering the possibility of delays in addressing crucial matters, is met with scepticism by MEPs.
Hungary and Article 7 TEU: A Closer Look
Beyond enlargement and financial aid to Ukraine, Hungary's situation could set a precedent for applying EU sanctions under Article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union.
Article 7 of the TEU sets forth a mechanism to safeguard European values as outlined in Article 2, some of which are jeopardised in Hungary. The procedure enables the Council, with a four-fifths majority at the initiative of either the Commission or the European Council and with Parliament’s approval, to temporarily suspend certain provisions of the EU treaties. If implemented, Hungary's voting rights would be suspended, allowing the EU to make swift decisions on urgent matters.
Despite Hungary's persistent breach of Article 2 for over a decade —
a prerequisite for initiating accusations—the practical application of Article 7 has yet to materialise.
Directive for Hungary: Justice and Unity
Hungary's upcoming six-month leadership in the Council should be approached with due consideration. While extreme solutions against Orbán’s government are less favoured, adherence to the rule of law should remain a foundational principle in the EU and its member states. The approach to be embraced is yet to unfold. Striking a balance between reluctance and conciliation, the weight should be on justice, peace, and cooperation.
Sources: Council of Europe, DW, European Commission, EUR-lex, European Parliament, Human Rights Watch, Politico
Written by Daniela Belinschi
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of MJPE or its Board. The designations employed in this publication and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the MJPE concerning the legal status of any country, area or territory or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers.