Welcome to EU Politics Decoded where Benjamin Fox and Eleonora Vasques will bring you a round-up of the latest political news in Europe and beyond every Thursday. In this edition, we set the scene ahead of next week’s showdown between EU leaders and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán over Ukraine’s EU accession status.
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Editor’s Take: Orbán tests his veto power
Next week’s European Council summit is shaping up to be a microcosm of power politics and a test of just how far Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is prepared to test his country’s veto power.
The pre-Christmas gathering was billed as the ‘enlargement’ summit months ago after the European Commission gave its approval for Ukraine to begin talks to join the EU. Also on the table for EU leaders will be a proposed €50bn aid package for Ukraine, and changes to the bloc’s seven-year budget.
The battle lines have been clearly drawn.
On Wednesday (6 December), Orbán’s Fidesz party submitted a resolution to parliament in Budapest, demanding that the government oppose the start of talks on Ukraine’s EU accession. Since Fidesz is the ruling party, it is safe to assume that the government will share the same view.
“The European Union’s expansion policy should remain an objective process based on rules and performance,” the Fidesz resolution stated.
At various stages in the process of imposing sanctions against Russia because of its war against Ukraine, Orbán has often been the lone voice in opposition. But it has always appeared to be a case of political leverage.
Fidesz may be more sympathetic than most to Vladimir Putin’s regime but the subtext to Orbán’s stance has been the long-running dispute between his government and Brussels over the rule of law in Hungary, particularly judicial independence, civil society and media freedom, and the conditional disbursement of EU funds to the country.
Hungarian officials have indicated that they will oppose new EU aid for Ukraine unless the Commission releases the recovery funds, launching a public consultation asking Hungarians whether they support that position.
MEPs accuse Orbán of blackmail and abusing veto power. That may be true but other leaders have used similar tactics on other issues in the past and since EU membership is the biggest and juiciest carrot Brussels can offer to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government in Kyiv, the Hungarian premier is not wrong in believing that his vote is at its most valuable.
After a meeting of EU justice ministers in Brussels on Monday, Hungary’s Bence Tuzson held a press conference stating that Hungary has fulfilled all the European Commission’s requests related to the reform of the Hungarian judiciary.
The most painless solution would be for the Commission to slowly open the taps on the recovery funds – and there are signs that this is coming up. Last week, the European Commission signalled that it could be close to unfreezing up to €10bn, citing progress made on judicial reforms.
During November’s Strasbourg plenary session, EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders welcomed a Hungarian law tabled in June, which aims to address the EU’s concerns about judicial independence as “an important step in the right direction”.
“Hungary also needs to complete the accompanying implementation steps,” he added.
That won’t appease MEPs: Earlier this week the Budgetary Control Committee stated that suspended funds should only be released to Hungary if there is evidence that Budapest’s judicial reforms are effective.
EU lawmakers insist that Hungary continues to flout EU standards on the rule of law but releasing some of the funds should ensure that Ukraine’s future is not derailed by a row over money.
Euractiv Advocacy Debate: European Political Party Views towards the 2024-2029. EU Agenda Representatives from various political factions are actively involved in deliberations regarding the future trajectory of Europe.
Italy tells China it is quitting Belt and Road Initiative. Italy has officially informed China that it is quitting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), dismissing fears the move might sour relations and damage the Italian economy, government sources said on Wednesday (6 December).
Italian parliament rejects minimum wage bill. A proposal presented by left-wing parties to establish a minimum wage of at least €9 gross per hour was rejected by the Chamber of Deputies on Wednesday, a decision that has opened Giorgia Meloni’s conservative government to public criticism.
Romania declares measles epidemic. The Romanian Health Ministry has officially declared a national measles epidemic following an alarming rise in measles cases and a high number of hospitalisations among infected children, in an announcement on Wednesday.
US military to gain access to Swedish bases amid continued NATO bid delay. Sweden and the United States have signed an agreement giving the US military access to 17 Swedish bases, which has been viewed as a response to Budapest and Ankara delaying Stockholm’s NATO bid.
Inside the institutions
EU’s first list of critical medicines and other key measures to tackle shortages. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) will publish its first critical medicines list next week, as part of the EU’s strategy aimed at avoiding shortages, which also foresees other measures like stockpiling and diversifying the supply chain.
AI Act: Building agile governance that keeps up with innovation speed. Foundation models, governance, and market concentration rank high on the list of stakeholders’ concerns as EU policymakers prepare to finalise the world’s first AI law.
Full speed ahead for gene editing as lead MEP aims to seal deal before EU elections. There is a possibility to finalise a deal on the EU’s plans on gene editing technology before next June’s EU elections, rapporteur Jessica Polfjärd told Euractiv in an interview, stressing this is necessary to equip farmers in the face of growing environmental challenges.
EU Commission boosts Jewish, Muslim protection amidst Israel-Hamas war. The European Commission unveiled on Wednesday (6 December) a set of measures and recommendations across policy areas to tackle hate crimes across Europe, especially against Jewish and Muslim communities – but some say it may fall short.
It’s official: 2023 will be the warmest year on record, EU scientists say. European Union scientists said on Wednesday (6 December) that 2023 would be the warmest year on record, as global mean temperature for the first 11 months of the year hit the highest level so far, 1.46°C above the 1850-1900 average.
What we are reading
Can the Green Deal survive the 2024 European election? Brieuc Van Damme writes for EU Observer.
Sorry America, China has a bigger economy than you, Chris Giles writes for the Financial Times.
Islamophobia and antisemitism are equal scourges – and the EU is finally recognising that, Shada Islam writes for the Guardian.
The next week in politics
Very busy days at the Council next week: Agriculture and fisheries council on Sunday and Monday (10-11 December); Eastern partnership foreign affairs ministerial meeting and foreign affairs council on Monday (11 December); general affairs council on Tuesday (12 December); EU-Western Balkans summit on Wednesday (13 December); and eventually, the European Council will take place on Thursday and Friday (14-15 December).
European Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg, where MEPs will meet for the last plenary of the year.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]
Read more with EURACTIV
Bulgarian socialists accused of cobbling fake coalitionIn today’s edition of the Capitals, find out more about the EU Commission boosting Jewish and Muslim protection amidst the Israel-Hamas war, Macron’s plan to host Orbán to find a compromise on a new Ukraine aid, and so much more.