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2nd Oct 2023

MEPs pile on pressure for EU to delay Hungary's presidency

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MEPs have adopted a non-binding resolution that "questions" if Hungary is fit to hold the EU's presidency in the second half of 2024, given persistent concerns over the country's democratic backsliding.

The resolution, passed on Thursday (1 June), had support from parties from the centre-right to the far left, and sailed through with 442 votes against 144, with 33 abstentions.

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MEPs questioned Hungary's EU presidency "in view of non-compliance with" EU rules and values, according to the resolution's planned text, as Hungary has been under EU scrutiny since 2018 and had its EU funds suspended over rule-of-law and corruption concerns.

The European Parliament also called on EU governments to find a "proper solution as soon as possible", warning that the assembly could take "take appropriate measures" if the council did not act.

The push by parliament to prevent or postpone Hungary's EU presidency is the latest effort by a majority in the house to keep political pressure on the European Commission and EU Council (representing EU capitals) with regard to Hungary.

The parliament recently adopted another resolution stating that Hungary was no longer a fully-fledged democracy, but a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy.

"It would be a disaster if this country would take hold of the presidency, and [Hungarian prime minister Viktor] Orbán would push his agenda," centre-left Dutch politician Thijs Reuten told reporters on Wednesday.

"We need to understand that we are not talking about a normal, democratic member state. We will take the necessary measures if the council is not in a position to do anything," German liberal MEP Moritz Körner also said during a debate on Wednesday.

An MEP from Orbán's Fidesz party, Balázs Hidvéghi, said that MEPs are violating EU law by trying to postpone Hungary's presidency, claiming that his country was under attack because of the government's positions on migration, the war in Ukraine, and family policy.

In fact, there is little the parliament can do to prevent Orbán to take over the bloc's helm.

"The treaties and official texts are not very talkative [on this point]," French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, who is in charge of the file on Hungary's democratic backsliding, said.

"The experts that I have consulted are not very clear, and member states don't really know [what to do], so we have to invent," he added.

However, Liberal Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld argued that parliament isn't powerless.

"We should strip this presidency of all the glitz and glamour. Rather than give an exclusive podium to Mr Orbán and his sidekicks, we should give a podium to those who are silenced in Hungary," she said, adding that NGOs, independent media, and academics should be invited to Brussels in parallel.

In 't Veld sad that trilogues — back-room compromise-making on most normal legislation between MEPs, the EU presidency, and the commission — were not mandatory, for instance.

So if MEPs wanted to play rough, parliament should skip them in the future and "just vote" on new laws if the council ignored its voice, she said.

"The parliament should become a bit more of a political animal, it's about time we start to play hardball," she added.

Hungary's six-month EU presidency is due right after the European elections in 2024, when there are few meetings on legislation, and the focus is on choosing the new Commission.

Who can act?

The order of the presidencies is decided by the member states, not parliament, with the latest schedule adopted in 2016 (after the UK's Brexit vote) until 2030.

Politically and legally it would be very difficult for EU governments to delay the Hungarian presidency, an idea which was dismissed by Hungarian justice minister Judit Varga earlier this week as "complete nonsense".

While the decision on the order can be amended, according to legal experts, there needs to be significant political will by a majority of member states to do so, which has been lacking in the council.

But for all that, the Meijers Committee, a group of Dutch legal experts said in a report the council had different ways to deal with Hungary's EU chairmanship.

One way is for other countries to take over meetings where the topics are seen as being in a conflict of interest with Hungary's rule-of-law probes. However, that would require an agreement with Hungary, which, experts admit, would be hard to secure.

Another option could be for the council to decide that countries that are under the so-called Article 7 sanctions procedure for possibly breaching EU values cannot hold EU presidencies, thus delaying Hungary's turn.

However, that is politically difficult to do in the council, which has not moved on either Hungary or Poland's (which follows Hungary in the presidency roster) sanctions procedures, both of which are now stuck.

Reuten, the Dutch MEP, said the council should "understand the seriousness of what is happening here".

"Hungary is no longer a democracy, there is a country sitting at the table which is not a democracy," the Dutch politician said on Wednesday, laying bare his frustration with governments.

"I am sick and tired of hearing from the council that they had a good discussion [on Hungary]," he told the press.

Member states' governments have been reluctant to interfere in each other's style of rule, even if frustration has been growing with Orbán's increasingly bellicose behaviour in the EU.

The EU's functioning is based on compromise, and seeking the consent of all for any decision, which has been exploited by the Hungarian premier.

"The only reason that Mr Orbán has this power is because of the European Council, it's the only body that gives his this power," Dutch MEP In 'T Veld told reporters, referring to the ultimate political authority of the bloc, where leaders gather.

"It's the veto, it's the fact that they all want to remain friends because they need his [Orbán'] support for something else, it's a perverse system. They're keeping him powerful," she added.

MEPs to urge block on Hungary taking EU presidency in 2024

"This will be the first time a member state that is under the Article 7 procedure will take over the rotating presidency of the council," French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, the key lawmaker on Hungary, warned.

MEPs urge Orbán to act to unblock EU money

MEPs tasked with controlling spending of EU funds said they continued to have "great concerns" on how Hungary is handling EU money and called on prime minister Viktor Orbán's government to implement the necessary reforms to unblock suspended EU funds.

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