Unfit for the EU Presidency?
The EU and Hungary have developed an increasingly strained relationship over the past years. In a recent resolution, the EP has cast doubt on Hungary's suitability for the rotating presidency of the Council in 2024. The resolution was adopted on 1 June 2023 with 442 votes in favour, 144 against and 33 abstentions. It argues that Hungary cannot credibly fulfil the tasks of a Council Presidency, as one of them is essentially about representing common values. This is the first time in the history of the EU that the EP passed a resolution like this, directed against a Member State.
Hungary Shows Autocratic Tendencies
The rule of law and freedom of expression have not been in good shape in Hungary for years. The country is in a process of “democratic backsliding”, in which democracies slowly but steadily develop into autocracies. The beginning of this process can be dated back to the election of Viktor Orbán for a prime minister in 2010.
Since then, the government has introduced a series of laws and constitutional amendments that represent a threat to the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. In 2010, the Fidesz government passed a law allowing state authorities to control media outlets. Moreover, the financial situation of the opposition media has deteriorated, as both state-owned and private companies have stopped putting advertisements there.
At the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, in March 2020, the Hungarian governments declared state of emergency, as in many other countries. However, the government has never lifted it. Currently, the state of emergency is valid at least until 25 November 2023, the war in Ukraine now serving as a justification. The state of emergency allows Orbán to govern by decree; he can pass laws without involvement of the parliament.
Another point of criticism by the EU against Hungary are the restrictive measures against minorities, especially the LGBTQ+ community. One example is a restriction on the sale of children's books that depict content deviating from the heterosexual norm. The discussion of such content is also forbidden in schools. Teachers are not only threatened with dismissal, even prison sentences are possible if the law is broken. This so-called "Child Protection Act" links homosexuality with paedophilia and thus clearly contradicts scientific facts. Additionally problematic is also the harsh attitude towards the reception of refugees, which makes a pan-European, cooperative approach to the distribution of refugees difficult. The above-mentioned June resolution also particularly criticises the "systemic corruption" in the country, as this has also become evident in the handling of EU funds.
The European Commission and the EP have been criticizing the rule of law violations for years. In 2018, the EP initiated proceedings against Hungary under Article 7 of the EU Treaty. This procedure can lead to sanctions, including the suspension of Hungary's voting rights in the European Council. The Council adopted it due to concerns about threats to democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Hungary. However, so far there has been no final decision on the procedure. Under a new provision, the Rule of law mechanism, the EU can cut funds from member states if they violate the rule of law principles. This instrument has been used several times now; Hungary has had the financial tap turned off. It involves over 45 billion euros from the Corona Recovery and Resilience Facility and the Cohesion Fund, intended for economically less well-off EU countries. Moreover, the EU Commission also monitors this and summarise the monitoring results in reports. These serve as a basis for dialogue between Hungary and other EU member states.
Can Hungary Represent Values of the EU?
After a debate in Parliament, the EP adopted the resolution "On the Breaches of the Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights in Hungary and Frozen EU Funds". The Greens/EFA and the Renew Europe Group, among others, expressed positive views on the resolution. Some were not afraid to push diplomacy aside. For example, Moritz Körner MEP, compares Orbán to a schoolyard bully who would suddenly become a school headmaster. "The rotating Council Presidency means speaking on behalf of the 27 Member States, and he is not up to this task at the moment," says the FDP politician.
Poland, on the other hand, which is also under special EU scrutiny itself, criticised Parliament's action and sides with Hungary. Poland argues that it is a violation of the European treaties, thus endangering European rules in their most important form.
What Does a Non-Binding Resolution Achieve?
First of all, a non-binding resolution is just that: non-binding, so it does not have to be implemented.
The diplomatic circles actually expressed doubts that the initiative has any prospect of implementation. Parliament's decision is not binding, it is merely a symbol (although a very important one). There is not even a legal basis in the EU treaties for a refusal of the Council Presidency. It would be conceivable to change the order so that Hungary's presidency moves further into the future. However, the Council would also have to decide about this step and this is rather unlikely. Another possibility is to make the topics of the Presidency as neutral as possible, so that the EU would not deal with "sensitive" dossiers during this period.
Should the Council take no action, the EP itself at least has possibilities to boycott the exercise of the Hungarian Presidency to a certain extent.
It remains questionable whether it would be at all fair to deny the Council Presidency to one of the EU countries. One can argue that the EU would thus turn against its own democratic principles on which it is based. However, the resolution certainly sends a strong signal, not only to Hungary, but also to Poland and all other member states threatened by democratic backsliding. It is a strong signal that the EU is above all a union of values that will always promote freedom of speech, minority rights and mutual tolerance. That means that the claim "once you are in, you can stop being democratic" does not apply in the EU. Without certain values, the EU would lose its very core.
Sina Behrend is an intern at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in the office for Central European and Baltic States in Prague.