Hungary to preside over the Council of the European Union

Starting today July 1, Hungary will preside over the Council of the European Union for the second time since its accession to the EU, with the usual six months rotating term taking place until 31December 2024. The Hungarian Presidency will conclude the work of the latest “trio”, a system whereby Member States holding the presidency work together closely in groups of three. The trio sets long-term goals and prepares a common agenda determining the topics and major issues that will be addressed by the Council over an 18-month period. Accordingly, the current trio is made up of the presidencies of Spain, Belgium and Hungary.

Hungary is assuming the rotating Presidency in a delicate moment for the institutions as not only external challenges persist, such as the Ukrainian and Middle East crisis, but it marks the beginning of the 2024-2029 institutional cycle, combined with the post-election discussions over the top EU jobs and future directions.

Given the end of the Belgian term, Hungary has recently published its agenda which sets out the priorities and main directions of its Presidency of the Council. “Make Europe Great Again” will be the motto of the Hungarian EU Presidency, reminiscent of former American President Donald Trump’s motto for the US.

The pillars of the Hungarian agenda

Besides finalising work on the files leftover from the Belgian Presidency, the programme of the Hungarian Presidency includes seven pillars that largely reflect the Strategic Agenda prepared by the European Council.

1.New European Competitiveness Deal: the Hungarian Presidency will emphasise enhancing European competitiveness by basing this goal in all policies, with a comprehensive approach. The key priorities on the issue include removing barriers to the internal market, reducing bureaucracy and adopting a New European Competitiveness Deal.

2.The reinforcement of the European defence policy: the Hungarian Presidency aims to prioritise the strengthening the European Defence Technological and Industrial Base, including defence innovation and the enhancement of defence procurement cooperation between Member States.

3.A consistent and merit-based enlargement policy: Hungary aims to further broaden and deepen the cooperation between the EU and the Western Balkans, and focus on the enlargement towards this region, rather than towards Ukraine and Georgia.

4.Stemming illegal migration: advancing further legislation tackling this issue.

5.Shaping the future of the cohesion policy: reducing regional disparities, as well as securing economic, social and territorial cohesion.

6.A farmer-oriented EU agricultural policy: The Hungarian Presidency will urge the Agriculture and Fisheries Council to leverage the institutional transition period to help the new Commission develop regulations for the Union’s post-2027 agricultural policy, focusing on creating a competitive, resilient and farmer-friendly agriculture sector.

7.Addressing demographic challenges: troubling Member States and affecting the EU’s competitiveness and sustainability of public finance.

The difficult relationship between Hungary and the EU

The main challenge arising from this upcoming Presidency is the confrontational attitude that has marked the relations between Hungary and the EU in the last years.

There is no precedent for a Member State with such a strained relationship with EU institutions to assume the Council Presidency, whether due to rule of law issues, infringement proceedings, or Budapest’s reluctance to support the Ukrainian war effort.

The fact that a country with serious rule of law deficits will preside over one of the EU’s most important institutions for six months raises obvious concerns, especially given the mediating role expected from Council Presidencies. In particular, the main apprehensions regard the possibility of Orban’s government to use the Council Presidency to prioritise issues that serve its own interests, such as those concerning migration, rule of law, and the Ukrainian war.

Furthermore, Hungary’s Fidesz government has often criticised the EU’s Green Deal and climate initiatives. With the aftermath of the European elections seeing the political climate shifting to the right, having a climate-sceptic country leading the Council in the later half of 2024 could influence the EU’s stance on climate action.

In a resolution in June 2023, the European Parliament questioned the extent to which Hungary could “credibly perform this task” and called on the European Council to “find an appropriate solution”, presumably implying the possibility to revoke Hungary’s Presidency. As this did not occur, and with Hungary’s real intentions remaining unclear, the only thing that the EU can do is to watch events unfold, hoping for Hungary to maintain a rather discreet stance. In truth, regarding controversial issues, the presidency is institutionally limited in its capacity to set the agenda, as success requires the backing of other Member States or EU institutions. Thus, this practically means that Hungary cannot unilaterally use the presidency to advance its own agenda. While it can suggest topics, these must be approved by the Council or the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER), the Council’s preparatory body. Similarly, the presidency may be able to stall certain items, but it cannot block initiatives outright.

This means that the Hungarian Presidency has all the elements to be diplomatically challenging, but without the full potential to hinder the overall policy making of the Union.