Tuesday

27th Feb 2024

Opinion

How the European Parliament can stop Orbán's EU presidency

  • Viktor Orban with Vladimir Putin in Beijing in October. Although the legal means for the European Parliament to influence the procedures of the European Council are limited, here is a strategy to stop him (Photo: kremlin.ru)
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The European Parliament has been given a unique chance to demonstrate that it matters.

In reaction to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán's treacherous meeting with Vladimir Putin in Beijing earlier this year, it can pre-empt the scheduled Hungarian presidency of the Council of the EU.

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Although the legal means for the European Parliament to influence the internal procedures of the European Council are limited, outlined below is a strategy for achieving this goal. On the eve of the elections for the European Parliament in June 2024, the parliament should show that it can bite.

One of the first lessons in the handbook of politics is that politicians should not overplay their hand.

Strategies of obstruction can be effective as long as their implementers respect the rules of the game. They may annoy their colleagues or infuriate them but they cannot be kicked out. Once they cross the line, however, they can be stigmatised as spoilers of the game.

At this juncture, it should be recalled that Hungary voluntarily joined the EU on 1 May 2004.

In 2007, it volunteered to sign the Treaty of Lisbon which transformed the Union into a value-driven organisation of states and citizens. Since Lisbon, the member states have to meet similar criteria of democracy and the rule of law as their Union has to respect.

Obviously, this construction only relates to the fields in which the member states have agreed to transfer sovereignty to the Union and not to the field of foreign affairs.

Although the EU aims to speak with one voice in its external relations, the member states have retained their sovereignty in this domain. The Lisbon Treaty continues to respect their right of veto.

Reproaching Orbán's Beijing meeting with Putin at the EU summit in October, French president Emmanuel Macron neatly summarised the present situation by telling his Hungarian colleague that, while his country enjoys sovereignty in the field of foreign affairs, he should not jeopardise EU policies for the pursuit of national interests.

The internal construction of the Union is entirely different.

In the core domain of the EU, the member states pool sovereignty to attain common goals. They want their Union to offer its citizens an area of freedom, security and justice. This essential aim can only be realised if and on condition that both the member states and the Union work as constitutional democracies.

For its citizens, the EU forms a democratic Union of democratic States. In this domain, the European Parliament represents the citizens of the Union. It has legislative powers and is entitled to control the sovereignty, which the commission exercises on behalf of the member states.

According to the case law of the European Court of Justice, the Commission is entitled to defend the construction and the values of the Union against infringements by its member states.

A decade of Hungary's 'illiberal democracy'

Since his infamous 'illiberal democracy' speech of 2014, Orbán has been seeking confrontation with the EU over the nature of the Union.

As the construction of the EU as a democratic Union of democratic States is incompatible with his concept of illiberal democracy, Orbán argues that the EU is merely an association of states.

He wants to be able to spend EU money in the way he deems fit without control from 'Brussels'. However, his opposition to the introduction of the rule of law mechanism has been dismissed by the ECJ in the most unambiguous terms.

As Orbán continues his crusade against 'Brussels' unabatedly, the European Parliament adopted a resolution back in June with the view to prevent the Hungarian government from taking over the Council presidency.

Although article 236 TFEU hardly leaves room for a role of the European Parliament in this respect, MEPs can take the moral high ground by arguing that a democratic Union of democratic states cannot be guided by an illiberal autocrat.

By crossing the line between disloyalty and treason, Orbán may well have helped the European parliament to attain its goal of preventing the scheduled Hungarian EU presidency.

He has antagonised not only the Baltic states and Luxembourg but also the main players France and Germany as well as — probably — the other two members of the troika Spain and Belgium.

As article 236 TFEU entitles the European Council to change the configuration of the council presidency with a qualified majority, the primary strategic goal of the parliament should be to convince the member states to suspend the Hungarian Presidency.

In realising this goal, MEPs should notably exert their influence on national governments and parliaments.

Should this strategy not yield the desired result, parliament can resort to its 'nuclear option' of refusing to cooperate with the council.

Although a resolution to this effect would be unprecedented, it can be justified with consideration that one bad apple cannot be allowed to spoil the entire barrel. A democratic Union of almost 30 democratic member states should not be subjected to the whims of one illiberal autocrat.

Author bio

Jaap Hoeksma is a philosopher of law, author of The European Union: a democratic union of democratic states and the recently-published The Democratisation of the European Union.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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