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Tuesday 2 July 2024

Hungary, under national-conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban, now holds the rotating EU Presidency. (file photo)
Hungary, under national-conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban, now holds the rotating EU Presidency. (file photo)

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two issues: Hungary's turn to hold the EU Presidency and the latest on the top jobs in the EU and NATO.

Briefing #1: Bracing For The Hungarian EU Presidency

What You Need To Know: The European Union is bracing after Hungary took over the EU's rotating presidency on July 1. It could be an awkward six months for the EU leadership, given that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been on a collision course with Brussels, watering down EU sanctions on Russia, preventing military and financial aid for Ukraine, and questioning Kyiv's EU aspirations.

Hungary, a self-styled "illiberal democracy," has been penalized for what officials in Brussels see as backsliding on democracy, with the EU freezing 6 billion euros ($6.4 billion) of funds meant for the Central European country.

Yet despite the thorny relationship, Hungary's stint as president in the second half of 2024 may not be as dramatic and problematic as some may fear.

The rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, one of the main decision-making bodies of the bloc, which comprises government ministers from the member states, is alternately held for a period of six months by each of the member states. Under this arrangement, each member state has the opportunity to shape the council's agenda.

Deep Background: According to several sources in Brussels with knowledge of the issue, the Hungarian presidency isn't causing too many sleepless nights. This is largely due to two factors: the actual role of the presidency and the quirks of the political calendar.

Let's start with the first. The presidencies of the Council of the European Union are not what they used to be. There was a time when the country whose turn it was really did control the agenda, holding proper summits in their capitals and with their diplomats running the show behind the scenes.

This changed in 2004, when it was decided that all important summits should be held in the Belgian capital. The changes went deeper in 2009 with the advent of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, designed to improve the efficiency and democratic legitimacy of the EU, which created a number of new functions and essentially concentrated power in Brussels.

The Lisbon Treaty created a permanent president of the European Council, which mainly consists of the heads of state or government of the member states. The post is currently held by Belgian politician Charles Michel, who serves a five-year term and chairs all summits.

The council also has a much-expanded and powerful secretariat staffed by EU officials with expertise across all the policy fields. The Lisbon Treaty also created an EU foreign policy chief, currently held by Spanish politician Josep Borrell, and a diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service, to give the foreign policy position some heft. The main task of this person is to prepare and chair the monthly EU foreign affairs council where the bloc's foreign ministers meet to make decisions.

Drilling Down

  • How does this affect the Hungarian presidency? Well, it lessens the influence of the two most Brussels-bashing members of Hungary's national-conservative government, Orban and his foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto.
  • Budapest can, of course, still influence the conversation, as seen with the unveiling of their Donald Trump-inspired Make Europe Great Again (MEGA) slogan for the presidency last week. Hungary's bold move was dismissed as "trolling" by many in Brussels, with the feeling there would be more of that type of thing to come.
  • While the two men will still preside over informal ministerial meetings and even a summit in Budapest in November, their role will be fairly superficial. Notably, they will also have to face questions at press conferences and from foreign media, which they normally tend to shun.
  • What is concretely left for Hungary to do? Their other ministers, such as those responsible for agriculture or justice, will still chair council meetings in their fields, and Hungarian diplomats will do the same in preparatory working groups. The whole idea of the rotating presidency is that the incumbents are expected to be honest brokers, seeking consensus among member states.
  • Rather than causing trouble, Hungary might also decide to play nice. Speaking to officials from various member states, some have pointed out that while Hungary most certainly has an agenda -- and one that is often at odds with the consensus -- Hungarian officials have behaved professionally in the run-up to the presidency, underlining that everything will be done by the book.
  • The second factor that could curtail Hungarian ambitions to impose its agenda is the political calendar. The reality is that in the next six months, little will happen in Brussels in terms of new legislation. That's because the EU capital will be busy with appointing a new European Commission, the bloc's executive and proposer of new laws, a process that includes time-consuming hearings in the European Parliament to approve new commissioners (one from each member state). That process is expected to take up almost the entire fall, and Hungary has no role to play in the decision-making.
  • There has also been a frantic and largely successful attempt by the current Belgian presidency to clear the decks before Hungary assumed the role. That has meant signing off on a raft of new initiatives and policies. Another round of sanctions on Russia was passed on June 24; restrictive measures targeting Belarus are also expected to be agreed on June 26.
  • A green light was also given to Ukraine and Moldova to start accession talks on June 25. The process of screening the two EU candidates' various policy accession chapters is expected to take well over six months, and it's likely Budapest won't have to deal with Kyiv's EU accession at all and that it will be the next president of the EU Council, Poland, that will deal with this in 2025.
  • While Hungary has spoken out against Ukraine's readiness to join the EU, one of Budapest's priorities for the presidency is to advance the membership prospects of Albania and Serbia and possibly even those of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia. (There probably won't be enough support from the member states to green-light the latter two.)
  • Ahead of Hungary's presidency, the EU even managed to send 1.4 billion euros ($1.5 billion) worth of military aid to support Ukraine in defending itself against Russia. This money comes from the profits from Russian assets frozen in the EU, and Brussels got around the Budapest veto on this measure by noting that Hungary abstained from the original decision to set aside this money, so legally it didn't have a say in how that money would be used.
  • This is a good illustration of how the Hungarian presidency might well play out. During the discussions in Brussels on this issue last week, the Hungarian representative stayed silent the whole time, essentially waving through the measure, whereas Szijjarto posted an angry rant on Facebook about the legality of the move to freeze Hungary out. This could be Hungary's game plan: being constructive and compliant in Brussels while screaming bloody murder to its audience at home.
  • Then there is the question of money and those frozen EU funds earmarked for Hungary. While the 1.4 billion euros for Ukraine was passed, a Hungarian veto is still hanging over seven other tranches of military aid, worth nearly 7 billion euros, for the war-torn country.
  • Hungary is used to bargaining with Brussels and could attempt to link its support for further military aid to Ukraine to the 6 billion euros of EU funds it wants Brussels to release. If Budapest doesn't comply with the EU's rule-of-law requirements by the end of the year, Hungary will permanently lose 1 billion euros. That's one deal that the Hungarians will be keen on making.

Briefing #2: The New Top Jobs In The EU And NATO

What You Need To Know: Both NATO and the European Union last week finalized who will lead them in the coming years. First, the ambassadors of the transatlantic military alliance on June 26 confirmed what has already been known for a few weeks -- that outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will replace Jens Stoltenberg on October 1.

A day later, in another part of the Belgian capital, EU leaders gave Ursula von der Leyen another five-year-mandate as European Commission president. They also chose former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa to replace Charles Michel as the president of the European Council and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas to replace Josep Borrell as the bloc's foreign policy chief. It's not all in the bag yet for von der Leyen and Kallas, as they also need to be confirmed in European Parliament votes. For the former, the vote would take place in mid-July, whereas Kallas will face grueling hearings later in the fall.

So, if approved, what could we expect from these new leaders? First, a disclaimer: While personalities have an impact and their positions certainly carry weight, they are not deciding policy on their own. In the EU, as well as NATO, all important decisions are still made by member states via unanimity on issues such as sanctions and expanding membership.

In many ways Rutte, Costa, and Kallas will be chairing and cajoling an unruly set of leaders (foreign ministers, in the case of Kallas). While they will be the outward face for their respective institutions, their main task will essentially be to forge consensus on important decisions.

Deep Background: Of all of them, von der Leyen is politically the most powerful. The European Commission is the bloc's executive and proposer of new legislation. It can take its member states to court, negotiate trade deals, and police the EU's common market (as U.S. tech firms and Chinese companies have experienced after receiving large fines). The commission oversees a budget worth 2 trillion euros ($2.15 trillion) with considerable freedom of how to disperse and withhold that cash.

There is every reason to believe that von der Leyen will continue to be an influential leader, especially given Europe is facing something of a power vacuum. French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to get a battering in the parliamentary elections in July and likely to be something of a lame duck until his term expires in 2027, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will likely be booted out of office by voters next year. The unenviable task of being the bulwark against growing populist forces both inside and outside the bloc may well fall to von der Leyen.

The political leadership in Ukraine will be happy that she is staying on. She has consistently championed Kyiv, helping to secure long-term funding even when "Ukraine fatigue" crept into other parts of the bloc. She was also instrumental in securing EU candidate status for the country, as well as Georgia and Moldova. This year, she also championed a 6 billion-euro plan for EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans.

Drilling Down

  • An issue for von der Leyen has been her supposedly fractious relationship with outgoing European Council President Michel, which was the source of endless Brussels gossip.
  • The institutional dysfunction could be a thing of the past, as von der Leyen apparently gets on famously with the incoming Costa, and the Portuguese prime minister appears liked by most EU heads of state and government. Articulate in both English and French, a number of EU officials, speaking on background as they aren't authorized to speak on the record, have told me that the 62-year-old is unlikely to be as fiercely ambitious as his younger predecessor and might even regard this job as his final contribution to high-level politics.
  • He also enjoys widespread respect in the Global South, and, with his father being half-Goan, half-Mozambican, Costa will be the first ever leader of an EU institution who is non-white.
  • There are, however, some qualms, notably surrounding his resignation as prime minister last year in the wake of revelations that some of his aides were involved in questionable investment deals for green hydrogen projects. While no longer under investigation, it's seen as a blemish on his record.
  • And that leads us to Kallas, a Russia hawk who has made it onto Moscow's wanted list. Her dislike of the Kremlin made her, at least in some Western capitals, unsuitable for the job of NATO secretary-general, a position she was also in the running for. Russia aside, she has been vocal about Georgia's democratic backsliding and, while she is an ardent enlargement supporter, it's thought she will be much tougher on Serbia than previous EU top diplomats. Many in Brussels wonder how her outspokenness to date will chime with the staffers of the EU's diplomatic corps. As a precautionary measure, Kallas has moderated her tone in recent months.
  • And what about NATO? In many ways, Rutte will be an extension of Stoltenberg, the longest serving secretary-general in the military organization's history. Like Stoltenberg, he is experienced (Dutch prime minister for 14 years) and well-liked by leaders from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He is also known for being able to strike political compromises after heading numerous unwieldy multiparty governments in The Hague. Like Stoltenberg, Rutte is also thought to get on well with Ukraine's leadership and is reported to have the respect of former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Looking Ahead

All eyes will be fixed on the second round of the French parliamentary elections on July 7. Most indicators point to a trouncing of Macron's centrist bloc and big gains for both an alliance of left-wing groups and Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally (RN). A hung parliament, rather than an absolute majority for RN, appears to be the most likely outcome.

That's all for this week! Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (left) is greeted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a meeting at the EU summit in Brussels on June 17.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (left) is greeted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a meeting at the EU summit in Brussels on June 17.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two issues: the battle over the EU's top jobs and what the bloc plans to do about Georgia

(In case you missed my note last week, the newsletter will now be coming out every Tuesday morning.)

Briefing #1: Jockeying Well Under Way For The Top EU Positions

What You Need To Know: Leaders of the 27 EU member states are meeting in Brussels on June 27-28, where they are expected to decide who will take the top jobs across the bloc's various institutions. The key roles are the three presidents -- of the European Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament -- and the bloc's foreign policy chief.

In all likelihood, the German center-right candidate from the European People's Party (EPP) group, Ursula von der Leyen, will get another five years as president of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, as will her fellow EPP member and Maltese politician Roberta Metsola, who is expected to retain the presidency of the European Parliament for another two and a half years. Metsola would then hand over the role to a candidate from the second-biggest group in the chamber, the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialist and Democrats (S&D) in a classic European Parliament power-sharing deal.

The general consensus is that former Portuguese left-wing Prime Minister Antonio Costa will replace Charles Michel as the president of the European Council, and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas from the liberal Renew group will succeed Spaniard Josep Borrell as the EU foreign policy chief.

Deep Background: There were high hopes that this process could have already been wound up last week, on June 17, at an informal EU leaders' meeting in Brussels. But according to several sources I have spoken to who are familiar with the discussion, two things prevented a deal.

Firstly, the EPP, which emerged as the winner of the recent European Parliament elections, is asking for more. According to my sources, in addition to the presidencies of the European Commission and European Parliament, the EPP also wants to get half of the European Council president's job.

But how would this work? While the European Council president serves a term lasting five years, after two and a half years, the 27 EU heads of state and government evaluate the job done by the office holder and -- at least so far -- renew the term for another two and a half years. The vote has to be carried by qualified majority voting, which means 55 percent of the EU member states, representing 65 percent of the bloc's total population.

Normally, the largest political group in parliament gets to put forward its candidate for the European Commission president's post, whereas the second and third groups get dibs on the European Council president and the foreign policy chief jobs.

The EPP suggested Costa, the main candidate for the post, just serve half a term and then be replaced by Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, an EPP stalwart. Needless to say the EPP's suggestion didn't go down very well.

Why is the EPP feeling so confident? It certainly had a good result in the European Parliament elections as the only major group to gain ground, finishing first by some distance with 190 seats.

It's more, however, to do with the composition of the European Council, which comprises the heads of state or government of the 27 EU member states. Thirteen leaders on the council belong to the EPP, although they are mainly smaller countries, with the biggest being Poland. The EPP is banking on more, calculating that within two years there will be future EPP-affiliated leaders coming from heavyweights such as Germany and Spain. If that bears out, the EPP would have more than a qualified majority in the room.

The second factor that prevented a deal last week was the process itself. Apparently, the chief negotiators from the three main parliamentary groups -- Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for the EPP, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez for the S&D, and Renew's French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte -- hammered it out for over three hours, leaving the other leaders waiting around.

Right-wing Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, was, according to my sources with knowledge of the meeting, furious about being excluded from the talks. Her Brothers Of Italy party is the strongest component of the ECR, which finished in a respectable fourth place in the European elections. And since the June 17 summit, the ECR has managed to mop up a few unattached members of parliament, leapfrogging Renew into becoming the third biggest group in the chamber.

Drilling Down

  • It's not exactly clear what Meloni wants to get out of taking this stance. It's not thought she's interested in securing one of the four top EU positions but is instead keen on pushing for an Italian portfolio in the European Commission. (That could mean, for instance, a vice president with a mandate on the economy or migration.) A reminder once again that, more important than the four names, it's the jockeying behind the scenes that really matters.
  • If the EU leaders eventually agree on the top jobs, the real test will come from the European Parliament. EU leaders don't actually have a vote when it comes to the parliament's president. That's the sole responsibility for the parliament itself, which is set to elect Metsola with a simply majority in Strasbourg on July 16. On the other hand, the parliament doesn't have a say when it comes to the president of the European Council. That position just needs a qualified majority of member states' leaders to sign off.
  • For the European Commission president and the foreign policy chief, the situation is more complex. Those positions need a qualified majority of leaders, but then, on top of that, they also need to pass the European Parliament with a simple majority. In short, all the positions are up for negotiation.
  • In 2019, the commission's current president, Von der Leyen, scraped through parliament with just nine votes. A July vote might even be tighter this time around, as there are fewer MEPs from the four major groups (EPP, S&D, Renew, and the Greens) than last time, and Von der Leyen probably can't count on votes from anywhere else. If the European Parliament flexes its muscles and rejects her, the leaders will have to go back to the drawing board and find an alternative candidate that could muster the 361 votes needed in parliament.

Briefing #2: How The EU Is Expected To Respond To A Backsliding Georgia

What You Need To Know: The European Union is starting to prepare a response to Georgia in light of Tbilisi passing last month a controversial "foreign agent" law that requires NGOs and media groups receiving at least 20 percent of their funding from outside the country to register as organizations "pursuing the interests of a foreign power." The legislation has been compared to a law in Russia, first passed in 2012 and expanded since, which has been used to stifle opposition and clamp down on free media.

A recent options paper seen by RFE/RL and authored by the EU's diplomatic arm, the European External Action Service, considers how Brussels could reorient its policy toward Georgia and notes that the government in Tbilisi has also "taken other worrying steps in recent months." That's a reference to other controversial laws passed recently, for example those on so-called LGBT propaganda, amendments to the electoral code, and also "steps affecting the independence of the Georgian National Bank."

Deep Background: What does the paper actually propose? Essentially it spells out three levels of potential measures. Firstly there are the "short-term measures" that can be adopted immediately and, according to the document, be "lifted once the ['foreign agent'] law is repealed, and provided that EU concerns on democratic backsliding are sufficiently addressed and...accompanied by clear public messages."

According to the options paper, these short-term measures would consist of scaling down engagement with the Georgian authorities and halting the disbursement of EU funds to the country. That could mean high-level bilateral visits are suspended and ongoing negotiations on, for example, lowering roaming tariffs between the bloc and Georgia are paused.

Regarding the EU funds, it could simply be a matter of reallocating financial assistance to civil society and independent media organizations, instead of the Georgian government.

The paper also mentions the possibility of freezing the impending adoption of a 30 million euros ($32 million) package of nonlethal military aid.

All these measures could be taken swiftly by the European Commission, without member states having to give their approval. Yet it is customary in Brussels that the commission seeks "guidance" from the member states in order to proceed.

This is what happened at the EU's Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg on June 24 when the bloc's foreign ministers had an initial discussion on the options paper. While some countries already wanted to move ahead, notably Estonia and Lithuania, other member states such as Hungary and Slovakia preferred to proceed more slowly.

The issue will certainly come up again, most likely at the EU summit in Brussels on June 27-28. Draft summit conclusions, seen by RFE/RL, do not include any potential punitive measures, with the leaders instead expressing their concern about recent developments in Georgia and calling on the government "to clarify their intentions by reversing the course of action, which puts into question Georgia's progress on its EU path."

Drilling Down

  • What about the other two levels of measures? The second level spells out the potential action to take "in case of further deterioration," such as the use of violence against peaceful protesters and intimidation or major irregularities in the electoral process. Under such circumstances, the recommendation would be for member states to introduce a temporary Schengen visa requirement for all holders of Georgian diplomatic passports. The paper notes that "this measure could have a symbolic value to restrict the privileges of the government officials/diplomats, while not affecting the general population."
  • Another possibility for the second level of measures could be visa bans and asset freezes on people and entities under the EU's Global Human Rights Regime. For example, under this sanctions instrument, the EU has targeted those it deems responsible for the imprisonment and death of the Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny.
  • The problem with these more severe measures is that they require unanimity among the EU's 27 member states, and consensus is often hard to find. And finding concrete evidence linking serious human rights violations to the actions of officials is not always easy. Such measures likely wouldn't target high-ranking Georgian officials but rather lower-level judges and police chiefs -- which was the case with the Navalny sanctions listings.
  • The final, most severe tier of measures would be applied in the case of a "significant deterioration of the situation." In this case, according to the options paper, there would be "steps related to the enlargement path." Georgia officially become an EU candidate country in December 2023 and the European Commission is due to present its annual EU enlargement report in October. Unless anything changes dramatically, the summit conclusions will be far from complimentary toward Georgia.
  • In terms of the country's EU application, it's most likely Georgia won't move forward for now. That means it won't follow Ukraine and Moldova with the opening of formal EU accession talks, which is expected to happen on June 25. It could, of course, also lose its candidate status, but this has never happened before and would require all member states to be on board.
  • The nuclear option would be suspending visa liberalization to the EU that Georgian citizens have enjoyed since 2017. If this did happen, it would take place in the fall when the European Commission presents its annual report on visas. For a initial suspension of nine months, it is enough if a qualified majority of EU member states are in favor.
  • A suspension of this kind is unlikely, however, and is thought to be a rather blunt instrument only used once in EU history: against the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. The options paper acknowledges as much by stating that "while this measure could be powerful leverage for Georgia to reconsider the law at stake, its immediate negative impact would be on the Georgian population" and adds that the focus should be on "entry bans against individuals" and member states committing to not granting "visa exemptions to service or diplomatic passport holders."

Looking Ahead

The Intergovernmental Conferences with Moldova and Ukraine on June 25 in Luxembourg will mark the official opening of EU accession talks with the two countries. The talks will likely last for many years, but it is a symbolic and historic moment for Chisinau and Kyiv.

A day later, on June 26, Aleksandar Vucic and Albin Kurti, the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo, respectively, will meet in Brussels for an EU-mediated dialogue for the first time since September 2023. A few days after that unsuccessful meeting last year, an armed group of Serbs attacked Kosovar police in the northern town of Banjska killing one officer. Three Serbs were also killed in the clashes.

That's all for this week! Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on X @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition subscribe here.

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About The Newsletter

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Tuesday morning on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

To subscribe, click here.

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