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Wider Europe Briefing: Should Brussels Be Afraid Of Hungary's EU Presidency?

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

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday 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.

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