Can the European Parliament take away the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union from the Hungarian government?

by | Jun 6, 2023

The issue indicated in the title has begun to attract a great deal of interest. This analysis aims to overview and summarize sides and arguments related to that.

First, it is important to clarify what exactly this institution is, as there is again an amazing lack of knowledge not only among media workers, but often also among all kinds of “experts” who publicly speak about the issue.

Various “councils”

It is important not to confuse the Council of the European Union with the Council of Europe (a pan-European international organization that has existed alongside the EU since 1949, the framework of which includes the famous Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights) or with the European Council, which means the meetings of the heads of state and government of the EU member states. This body has its own president since the reforms of the Lisbon Treaty, 2009, who is a person, currently Charles Michel. The meetings of the European Council are also called “European summits”, indicating the political weight of those which usually are convened to make high level political decisions about the direction of the EU.

On the other hand, the “Council of the European Union”, or “Council” for short, refers to the meetings of member states’ ministers responsible for a policy field, currently in ten different formations, which mainly participate in the legislative proceedings of the EU, alongside the European Parliament, in a so-called in a “co-legislative” role.

The “rotating presidency” and its relevance – and why being taken away?

This latter institute has the “rotating presidency”, currently held by Sweden, which means that, based on a predetermined order (decided by the European Council earlier), one member state performs the complex task of coordinating the preparation of the submissions to and of the work of the Council every six months. This is a complex task, because by the time a proposal comes before the level of the ministers, the governments of the member states “chew” it thoroughly, which means consultations taking place at the political level in the form of professional discussions in various working groups, and then in the coordination of permanent representations.

This coordination is the task of the presidency, and it is also what provides the individual member states with significant political influence, that can later be transformed to political advantages via exchange of interests (additionally some opportunities to elevate country image, and other less important, but still useful perks). If anyone is wondering, why EU member states still maintain this, at first glance confusing system, here is the simple explanation: because it is worth it to them. They can profit from the opportunity of taking this role by casually acting in the interest of other member states, which in turn, do not forget it to them. In exchange they can return the favour, even outside of the scope of activities of the EU. Like it or not, that is politics. The institution of the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union exists because it offers all existing political actors the opportunity to bargain, to give and receive political favours.

What is the problem with a Hungarian presidency?

The main aim of the present idea from the European Parliament is clearly to take an aim on this possibility, to take this opportunity away from the Hungarian government, to weaken its general political position.

Additionally, there is very exact issue on the table as well, namely the Article 7 proceeding against Hungary, which has a clean connection to the actual Swedish presidency. Sweden continuously has refused to put the vote on the agenda of the Council, which the Hungarian government have insisted on for a long time. It would practically mean the end of the Article 7 proceeding against Hungary, as allegedly the fourth fifth majority needed for a decision condemning Hungary (and taking the case to the second level, where consensus is needed) is still not reached among the member states. A vote now in the Council could this way lead to a major political triumph to Viktor Orbán’s government, but the Swedish presidency had refused to put the issue to a vote in the Council. (This sheds light to the resistance of the Hungarian government to Sweden’s NATO membership as well at the same time…) If the presidency falls to the Hungarian government at the summer of 2024, and this question is still not resolved, this would probably be among the first actions of the Hungarian presidency – and nobody wants that.

We also need to address the elephant in the room: one of the goals of this proposal by the European Parliament is to also create a political mood. The European Parliament has grown to become one of the most critical political opponents of the Hungarian government, as the disputed legal-political actions (corruption, rule of law issues, Russian alignment etc.) of the latter have become more and more well-known to the general political audience in Europe, and at the same time, more and more a subject of political debates. With the European Parliament elections in May of 2024 approaching, members of the European Parliament seeking re-election have found this subject very attractive for their own campaigns. By now, the political situation has become so grave that Viktor Orbán and his government are like a scarecrow in European politics. He is like a drag queen in the domestic political communication of his government, whom no one has ever met, but when someone sees her, recognizes her and is afraid of her – this works at the level of political communication on the European level as well.

Is it possible to be taken away?

The rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union has been a practice in the European Union for a very long time, it is usually determined well in advance and implemented according to a schedule adopted by the European Council, the actual leaders of the member states. This takes the form of a decision, that needs to be adopted with a qualified majority, so it is not impossible to amend the already existing order by re-structuring the timetable or even completely erasing the Hungarian presidency (though the latter option could lead to arguments that it may be contrary to the text of the founding treaties), the problem with this is more political than legal in nature: a decision like that would mean a politically motivated serious intrusion into a fundamental element of the political operation of the European Union, which neither member states nor the European Commission is usually comfortable with. This step would have a political price and requires more than simple political statements of Viktor Orbán being corrupted.

The success of the European Parliament would also set a very dangerous precedent in intra-institutional relations, unfavourable in the eyes of most member states as the Council is “their” EU body. It is usually a bad idea for one EU institution to try to interfere in the operation of another EU institution in any way. Try to imagine, what would happen if Viktor Orbán stood up in the Council and said that from now on members of the European Parliament should be delegated directly by the parliaments of the member states instead of being directly elected. Well, this has happened, what’s more, this is exactly one of the elements of the planned agenda of the future Hungarian presidency… Maybe this is also a concern to some of the members of the European Parliament, anyway, this may lead to a long institutional crisis, that not many of the member states would be happy to risk.

There is one additional aspect in the mind of member states willing to narrow the possibilities of the Hungarian government, while this is a highly debatable one: our argument is that the second half of 2024, the planned period of the Hungarian presidency is going to be fairly weightless over the Council of the European Union. After the elections of May 2024, we probably will not have a fully operating European Commission from the beginning of the autumn, meaning that there are not going to be numerous and/or important EU legislative proposals on the table, which make the presidency of the Council somewhat irrelevant. Appointment and election of a new president of the Commission is up to the European Council and the European Parliament, the presidency of the Council has no real implications on these processes. If a member state is willing to take relevancy away from the Hungarian government, probably it may come to the conclusion that it is not wise to re-schedule its presidency to another time period, where it can put that state into more relevant position.

Conclusion

The legal side of the matter can easily be summarized shortly: if the European Parliament can convince the European Council (it decides with a qualified majority on the organization of the presidency of the Council of the European Union, as mentioned above), then it can take the presidency away from the Hungarian government. On the other hand, politically speaking, it is not a favourable option to the majority of the member states, and currently there are no signs indicating otherwise. Our prognosis is that the majority of the member states does not like this idea from the European Parliament, as they still do have a strong political interest in upholding the system of the rotating presidency.

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