Can Hungary hold the rotating Presidency of the Council of the Union?

Alberto Alemanno

5 mins - 5 de Junio de 2023, 07:00

For a long time, the possibility of suspending the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU of one of its Member State remained confined to academic speculation. Yet today it appears as real as never before, with the European Parliament asking EU leaders to cancel or at least postpone the Hungarian Presidency.

How an academic idea made it to the ‘real’ world in less than one week should be a matter of close interest not only to impact-driven scholars but also of European society at large.

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Despite not being expressly foreseen, the mere threat of blocking the Presidency of the Council of one rebellious Member States may reveal as one of the most effective instruments for Brussels to make the likes of Hungary and Poland abide by their rule of law obligations.

Here’s how it may happen and why it matters.

The rotating presidency of the Council of the Union is a legacy of the past, from the time that institution representing all EU governments had no permanent President. This in turn explains why the presidency has lost power over time, to the benefit of the newly appointed permanent President, today’s Charles Michel. Yet not having been scrapped, the presidency remains a fixture of the Union’s daily machinery. It gives its holder the power to set the agenda, by chairing virtually all meetings taking place among EU-27 ministers, and representing the Council in relations with the other institutions.     

Hence the legitimate yet uncomfortable question:

How can an EU member state - like Hungary or Poland - that has been found multiple times in breach of EU fundamental values and whose funds have been suspended may credibly chair one the main EU institutions? Isn’t there an irreconcilable conflict between holding the rotating Presidency of the Council and being in persistent breach of EU law?

As any government holding the presidency is expected to act as “honest broker”, one may wonder how a government that is subject to the Article 7 procedure (for systemic breach of EU fundamental values) and whose EU funds have been suspended may chair the Council meetings set to address these very same issues.

Despite not being legally foreseen, several options exist to alter the incoming rotating Presidency by a member state.

One option being for all EU member state to alter – by qualified majority vote - the ordering of the countries holding the Presidency. This may push Hungary and/or Poland’s entitlement to hold the presidency to an undetermined date.

An alternative option may be for the two governments holding the next two Presidencies before Hungary - that is Belgium (July-December 23) and Spain (January-June 24) - to amend their internal arrangements (troika) to alter the Hungarian’s presidency.  As a result, all Council’s meetings having to do with the respect of the rule of law (Art. 7, suspension of EU funds, compliance with milestones, etc) could be assured by other governments (Spain and Portugal). This would go down into history as the first depleted presidency of the Council.

Yet another option could entail a full suspension of the Hungarian presidency with Belgium and Spain splitting the Hungarian’s 6 months into two. As a result their respective presidencies would last 9 months each.

Considering that the Hungarian Presidency is set to kick in right after the next EU Parliament elections (July-December 2024) at the time of the top EU appointments – from the Commission President to that of the Council –, the case for postponement or suspension of the presidency appears set to acquire some political momentum.

This appears even more so when the following Presidency will be hold by Poland, another rebellious Member State.

Now the ball passes from the Parliament to the Council, where the EU leaders will have to respond to the Parliament’s call “to find a proper solution as soon as possible”. Unless it will do so, the Parliament threatens to take ‘appropriate measures’, such as boycotting the operation of the forthcoming Hungarian presidency by reducing cooperation to a bare minimum.

In the meantime, the German, Dutch and Swedish government have unexpectedly expressed some public support for the idea, with Germany's state minister for Europe Anna Lührmann saying that "I have doubts about the extent to which Hungary can succeed in holding a successful presidency”. The Spanish government hasn’t taken a public stance yet, being currently under scrutiny for its own ability to hold the forthcoming presidency during its impending national elections.

Regardless of whether the Hungarian (and then Polish) presidency of the Council will eventually be suspended, the mere fact of contemplating such a possibility expands the tool-box available to Brussels to nudge rebellious countries to comply with their obligations under EU law.

This unprecedented threat to the Hungarian (and Polish) government(s) may prompt a badly needed political and legal debate over the conditions under which the EU may accept rebellious member states within the Union. Doing this ahead of the forthcoming European Parliament elections may have a clarifying effect vis-à-vis the European electorate, who is still awaiting for a political response to the "Qatargate scandal".

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