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28th Feb 2024

Orbán's EU presidency: 'We'll just have to pinch our noses'

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Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán is facing a new push by MEPs to derail his upcoming EU presidency, but diplomats say there's no appetite in the EU Council for such a move.

Finnish centre-right MEP Petri Sarvamaa got the ball rolling on Monday (8 January) with a proposal to strip Orbán of his voting rights in the Council due to his "serious and persistent breach of EU values".

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"Hungary has been repeatedly criticised for its erosion of the rule of law, and especially after Hungary's actions to disrupt the decision-making of the member states in the December EUCO [EU summit], we believe that the time has come for the European Parliament to take action," Sarvamaa's petition to fellow MEPs said.

The "disruption" refers to Orbán's veto on EU funding for Ukraine in order to strong-arm the EU into releasing all of the EU funds for Hungary that were previously held back due to rule-of-law concerns.

The EU Parliament and European Commission already launched a similar procedure to exclude Orbán from the EU Council in 2018 under Article 7(1) of the EU treaty.

This continues to rumble on inside the Council, with occasional debates, but it has never gone forward because it lacks the consensus it needs to go ahead.

But for Sarvamaa, who is in charge of EU budgetary affairs for the centre-right EPP group, the new process has more chances of success because it would invoke the less onerous Article 7(2) of the treaty instead.

"Article 7(2) is a procedure to state the existence of a serious and persistent breach of values," he told EUobserver.

"After stating the existence of this serious and persistent breach of values (voted unanimously in the Council), it is possible for the member states to go for the suspension of certain membership rights (voted by qualified majority in the Council)," he added.

MEPs also voted in a non-binding resolution last June to suspend Orbán's upcoming EU Council presidency, which is due to start in July.

And even though this fell on deaf ears in the Council, Sarvamaa said the new campaign could yield the same desired result.

"If Hungary were to be deprived of its right to vote in the Council, it would be quite clear that Hungary would not be able to hold the next presidency of the EU," he said.

"If the petition is supported across party lines and there is clear support among the MEPs, I see no reason why the European Parliament should not act quickly," he added.

Sarvamaa's appeal comes after EU Council chairman Charles Michel said he would step down early to run as an MEP.

And this could turbocharge Orbán's EU-presidency role by seeing him take over Michel's duties in speaking on behalf of the EU on the world stage until a long-term EU Council chairman replacement is appointed.

"That would only underline the importance of the petition," Sarvamaa said.

'Grave danger'

None of the Hungarian MEPs from Orbán's party replied to EUobserver's questions.

Márton Gyöngyösi, an MEP who leads the right-wing Jobbik opposition party in Hungary, said: "A majority of MEPs would also say that … the idea of him [Orbán] leading the Council, taking over the EU presidency, or representing the EU in any form is a grave danger."

But looking at the EU's track record on Orbán, Gyöngyösi added: "There is great confusion as to what the strategy should be to counter him".

"How is it possible to contemplate any sanctions against him when the EU just released €10bn to fund Mr Orbán's illiberal project? The EU is not only losing credibility but making itself look ridiculous in the process," he added.

Petras Austrevicius, a Lithuanian MEP from the liberal Renew Europe group, also said: "I don't think there's any legal means to achieve this great goal [Orbán sanctions]".

"It won't be easy to achieve a common position in the Council, since it's a very sensitive issue and some [member states] might smell a potential risk to become the next 'victim' of such a procedure themselves," he said.

And diplomats from two countries which are normally quite hawkish on rule-of-law issues agreed.

'Lame-duck presidency'

"I don't see any support for this in the Council," one of the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Then you are on [a] slippery slope when it comes to the whole structure of the rotating EU presidency," they added.

The second EU diplomat said: "It's not going to go anywhere ... we'll just have to pinch our noses for a few months".

"Let's not overestimate the presidency's impact on EU policy. They [Hungary] can't do as they please and will be pushed aside by larger member states if they were to misbehave badly," he said.

"More importantly, Hungary comes to the presidency at a time [after the EU elections in June] when there is very little policy to guide through Council. The new EU Commission will only come into power by 1 December, so this will be a lame-duck presidency anyway", he added.

Orbán could lift Ukraine-aid veto, if his EU funds unfrozen

Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban told the EU summit he would consider lifting his veto on providing further funds to Ukraine — if the remaining frozen EU funds linked to concerns on Hungary's rule of law are unblocked.

EU agrees Ukraine accession talks as Orbán leaves room

The EU managed to open accession talks with Ukraine despite Hungary's opposition — a decision celebrated by Kyiv and deemed a "historic moment" — after Viktor Orbán did not participate in discussion.

Analysis

Why concessions to Orbán will come back to bite EU

As the EU hopes to agree on further financial aid for Ukraine, fears are emerging over offering concessions to Hungary, which risk setting a dangerous precedent and the threats of legal challenges.

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