Orbán is using Hungary’s EU Council presidency to bulldoze EU norms

Less than two weeks into Hungary’s EU Council presidency, Viktor Orbán has clearly shown he will not play by the rules. The EU must come up with a response.

Expert comment Updated 11 July 2024 Published 10 July 2024 4 minute READ

On 1 July, Hungary took over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. The Council is where national ministers meet to negotiate and adopt EU laws and adopt the EU budget, among other things.

The role of the member state holding the presidency is to drive the legislative agenda by chairing Council meetings, ensure good cooperation with the other EU institutions, and ensure continuation of the EU policy agenda.

In theory, its powers are primarily focused on the day-to-day functioning of the EU. But barely two weeks in, it is already clear Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is looking to shake things up.

Orbán’s travels tell a story of disruption

On day two of the presidency, Orbán travelled to Ukraine – his first trip in 12 years – to meet President Zelenskyy, followed on day five by a trip to Moscow to meet President Putin. This week, Orbán made an unannounced trip to China to meet with Xi Jinping, and is travelling to DC for the NATO Summit, the only pre-planned trip. What does this jet-setting tell us about Orbán’s plans?

Travelling to Russia to meet the head of a government under EU sanctions, which has disregarded the territorial integrity of another state, is unprecedented.

While these trips are technically all bilateral trips, Orbán has tried to create confusion by displaying EU flags in Kyiv and using the Hungarian presidency logo on promotional material for his trip to China. Chinese and Russian media have falsely reported that Orban travelled as an EU representative – causing outrage from EU leaders and heads of government.

Hungary has presented the trips as a ‘peace mission’ to help negotiate a ceasefire for the war in Ukraine. Orbán may consider himself as one of the few who can speak to both sides – but in reality he has no mandate to do so.

Travelling to Russia to meet the head of a government under EU sanctions, which has disregarded the territorial integrity of another state, is unprecedented. Doing so in the week Hungary has taken over the rotating Council presidency is bulldozing the norms of the presidency as set out by the EU treaties. Perhaps more importantly, enabling confusion over whether he represents Hungary or also the EU on his trips is potentially breaching EU law.

And yet, this is typical Orbán behaviour. When Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó came to speak at Chatham House earlier this year, he stated clearly that Hungary’s aim is to disrupt.

Concerningly, this approach resonates with others. Orbán is cultivating allies including Robert Fico in Slovakia (though they do not always see eye to eye on foreign policy) and, under Poland’s previous government, Mateusz Morawiecki. Orbán’s new political faction in the European parliament has also been joined by Czech, French, Spanish and Dutch nationalists and far-right parties. 

American ultra-conservatists also seek to emulate Orbán’s example, and have invited him to speak at multiple editions of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in the past. He is no longer as isolated within Europe and beyond as he once was, which makes the challenge all the greater.

The EU has not developed a satisfactory response that has co-opted or coerced Hungary to fall back into line. Carrot and stick approaches to address democratic backsliding, such as withholding EU funds, have only been deployed in an ad hoc manner. To date, these have failed to prevent Orbán from acting obstructively or stop Hungary’s democratic backsliding.

Responding to the Orbán challenge

The Hungary challenge today is threefold: Orbán’s abuse of the rotating presidency; the country’s democratic backsliding; and Orbán’s obstructiveness more broadly (as Hungary is also a NATO member). These issues should be seen as one systemic challenge, rather than piecemeal difficulties. The EU needs a systematic and long-term approach to address them.

In theory, EU treaties provide the necessary tools to address these challenges. Yet they have been only partially deployed with limited to no impact. In the short term, to address the first challenge, Orbán’s abuse of the rotating EU presidency, some have argued Hungary should be deprived of the presidency altogether and that Poland’s presidency (due to next take over) should be extended. But EU member states are – perhaps wrongly – unlikely to want to use their political capital on this.

Withholding funds remains perhaps the most effective lever the European Commission has for dealing with a transactional realist like Orbán.

Instead, it is more likely that Hungary’s presidency will rumble on with plenty more surprises in store which could seriously undermine the EU. Its institutions should go into damage control mode – but this requires clear leadership which is made more difficult as nominations and hearings for the top jobs take place over the next few months.

To address the challenge of Hungary’s democratic backsliding, withholding funds remains perhaps the most effective lever the European Commission has for dealing with a transactional realist like Orbán – even though it has had limited impact in the past.

Previous attempts to use Article 7 have highlighted its weakness. 

But instead of withholding funds on an ad hoc basis, the European Commission should make a concerted, long-term and planned effort. This should be tied to the annual EU budget, and the next round of the multi-annual financial framework for which initial high-level negotiations will start this year. It should focus in particular on media freedom, civil liberties, and strengthening an independent judiciary, with cohesion or agricultural funds used as leverage.

Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union – whereby a member state’s voting rights in the EU Council could be taken away – exists to address the third challenge of Orbán’s obstructive behaviour and actions. Yet previous attempts to use Article 7 have highlighted its weakness. 

Belgium, the previous holder of the rotating presidency, tried to instigate Article 7 against Hungary – for a second time – for the duration of the latter’s presidency. The European Commission previously launched Article 7 procedures against Poland under the previous government. Neither of these attempts were successful.  

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This is partly due to the politics involved. Article 7 requires a unanimous vote by the other member states. It is also difficult for an increasingly politicized European Commission to use the mechanism to its full effect, even though it has an obligation to launch infringement procedures against member states that do not respect the provisions of EU treaties. 

The lack of political will by the Commission as well as member states has resulted in a poor application of available tools and mechanisms, resulting in their limited impact.

While Article 7 procedures remain unlikely, perhaps the European Commission should consider tying the receipt of any EU funds to adherence to EU principles and democratic institutions. Hungary is the EU’s  third largest net benefactor and public support in Hungary for EU membership remains high. 

The Commission can better use the financial leverage it has over Hungary, by setting clear benchmarks and thresholds over what a constructive EU member state looks like, and what behaviours will not be tolerated.

Orbán is a realist who only responds to hard power. Expressions of anger on social media by other heads of government or leaders of the EU institutions do not bother him in the slightest – especially now that he is gaining allies and is no longer as isolated in Europe or on the world stage as he once was. 

The EU needs a long-term approach for deterring and correcting behaviours by member states that undermine the European project.