A voice in favour of the Hungarian EU Council presidency

The European Parliament has been attempting to block Hungary's presidency of the EU, which starts on 1 July. This, argues Kaja Kaźmierska, is not necessary. Any 'real damage' that the Hungarian presidency can do is limited. Indeed, Viktor Orbán's presidency could have a positive impact on the Hungarian people, bringing the EU closer to them

On 1 July 2024, Hungary will begin its second EU presidency, a six-month period when it is co-responsible for leading the EU. But Hungary has continuously breached the rule of law, and observers have questioned whether the presidency should be postponed or cancelled. Last year, the European Parliament even expressed doubts as to whether a Hungarian presidency was reasonable.

Limited scope for action for the Hungarian presidency

In accordance with the Treaty of Lisbon, an EU presidency still rotates among its member states, but no longer means automatic presidency of the European Council. This is now the competence of the newly created office of President of the European Council. Likewise, the state, which takes over the Council presidency, no longer chairs the Foreign Affairs Council. Foreign Affairs now lies with the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Despite all these changes, the Council presidency still plays a role in managing and coordinating day-to-day European policy. The state holding the presidency chairs the General Affairs Council, which is responsible for ensuring all Council formations work coherently. In addition, the state holding the presidency is responsible for convening, preparing, and chairing all meetings under Article 16 VI TEU, with the exception of the Foreign Affairs Council.

The forthcoming Hungarian presidency would have less scope for action than a regular presidency

Even in these areas, however, the forthcoming Hungarian presidency would have less scope for action than a regular presidency. For a start, it begins less than a month after the European elections. History shows that these are usually the quietest presidencies. Selecting the new Commissioners and shaping the EU institutions takes up all politicians' resources and attention.

An opportunity in the informal powers of the EU presidency

The importance of the presidency in the EU, especially after the Treaty of Lisbon, is linked predominantly to informal responsibilities rarely mentioned in either the Treaty on the European Union or the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. They include, for example, the ability to educate the population about the EU, to convince sceptical member states that ​​the EU is a force for good, and to explain the purpose of the EU, in particular to administrative officials. The presidency must remain neutral and not focus on national interests, but rather on the EU's common good.

The presidency must remain neutral and not focus on national interests, but rather on the common good of the EU

However, every presidency manages to focus the EU's attention on issues important to the state holding it. This may be down to geographical location or a country's political past. Presidencies promote their own country in the EU, and can set the agenda, as long as they do not violate the presidency’s neutrality requirement too drastically. This function of the presidency has not changed much since the Treaty of Lisbon. Indeed, it depends mainly on the ideas and determination of the individual states.

Bringing the EU closer

The country holding the presidency organises events to bring the EU closer. The focus of media debates in those countries often shifts from internal aspects to international, European ones. This happened during recent presidencies, such as those of Spain and Belgium, when media debates helped the people of those countries to learn about the EU.

By the time of the EU's 'big-bang' enlargement in 2004, the power of a presidency was already deemed important, because it could guard against the rapid rise of Euroscepticism. Holding the presidency can make the EU better known to the average citizen, legitimising it in their eyes. The country holding the presidency is also presented in the media to the wider public more frequently than usual in other EU member states.

Holding the EU presidency every 13–14 years is a great opportunity to increase awareness of your country among other EU member states. The presidency can also help to break down stereotypes. With Eastern and Central European member states in particular, EU presidency can showcase how much has changed over the last few decades.

The first Hungarian presidency

Hungary held its first presidency in 2011, as the first of the new member states after the Treaty of Lisbon. Orbán had come to power the year before. Even at this early stage, he had begun his controversial reforms. But the extent of these reforms was not yet known, and nobody was calling for a postponement of his presidency. It was not clear yet whether Orbán viewed the EU as a friend or foe.

The assessment of Hungary's first presidency was not particularly positive. Hungary did get approval on some plans, such as those within the Framework of the Danube Region Strategy, aimed at the sustainable development of the Danube macro-region. However, overall, observers considered Hungary's presidency a missed chance. Orbán's Eurosceptic approach was already conspicuous. Rather than holding presidential events in Hungary's capital, Budapest, Orbán chose a town 30km away, explaining his decision as the need 'to avoid traffic jams'.

The forthcoming EU presidency

Thirteen years later, the situation in Hungary has changed. Nobody remains under any illusions about the anti-democratic character of Orbán's leadership. Many organisations, including Freedom House, no longer consider Hungary a democracy.

Orbán’s new plan for the presidency may seem ambitious, as was his first plan. However, we mustn't forget the limitations discussed above, nor the fact that it isn't just Hungary which determines the Hungarian presidency. Indeed, Hungary is a part of a trio, together with the Spanish and Belgian presidencies.

Hungary may be the EU's strongest threat to the rule of law, but it still is a full member. It has a Commissioner in the Commission, a judge in the CJEU, MEPs in the Parliament, and voting right in the Council. Stripping Hungary of its presidency would set a dangerous precedent. It would also take away the chance to bring the EU closer to Hungary, and to give a positive account of the European project to ordinary Hungarians. This is where the presidency should shine.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Kaja Kaźmierska
Kaja Kaźmierska
PhD Candidate and Research Fellow, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin

Kaja works on the research project Judicial Autonomy under Authoritarian Attack.

Her PhD thesis looks at The Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights, analysing threats to the independence of these courts and tools they have at their disposal to combat them.

She is also an associated researcher at DynamInt, the graduate college at the law department of Humboldt University.

Before joining HU, Kaja worked for over four years as a legal analyst in the area of EU law in a consulting company, Spark Legal Network, in London.

She also underwent internships in the European Commission, the Council of Europe and various Polish embassies.

Kaja studied English, German and European law at King’s College London and Humboldt University.

She has a MA in EU International Relations from the College of Europe, Bruges.

She speaks Polish, English and German fluently and has an advanced knowledge of French and Italian.

Her research interests include the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, European courts (ECtHR and CJEU), the European Union, European integration, human rights law, the relationship between the EU and the Council of Europe, and women’s rights (in particular, abortion rights).

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