Don’t change the rules if you expect others to stick to them. This old adage could well be applied to the ongoing debate about whether Hungary should be allowed to chair the EU Council Presidency next year. Because, if the EU changes the rules overnight, why should it expect Hungary to stick to them?
The European Parliament will on Thursday (1 June) question Hungary’s ability to hold the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council, scheduled between July and December 2024, citing Budapest’s problems with the rule of law, according to a draft resolution
A member state holding the rotating presidency organises and runs EU ministerial and preparatory body meetings, and represents the interests of the EU27 when interacting with other EU institutions and international bodies.
MEPs will argue and, in all likelihood, conclude that Hungary is not able to fulfil the requirements to lead the work on EU legislation and serve as an honest and neutral broker due to its numerous flash points with the European Commission.
Although the presidency schedule has been altered in the past to accommodate new member states, citing the rule of law disputes of a future presidency as a reason to do so would be unprecedented.
Germany, in addition, has added fuel to the fire by openly casting doubts on Hungary’s “fitness” to lead the six-month stint.
“I have doubts about the extent to which Hungary will be able to lead a successful Council presidency,” Berlin’s Europe Minister Anna Lührmann told reporters on Tuesday, citing Hungary’s encroachment on the rule of law and ambiguous stance in supporting Ukraine.
Dutch legal experts recently published a paper describing three options to prevent or mitigate conflicts of interest during Hungary’s stint. According to them, it also could apply similar options to Poland, which takes over after Hungary.
“Nonsense”, Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga has retorted, dismissing the European Parliament’s push as “very, very damaging” for European democracies.
For once, Brussels corridors say, she might be right.
Blocking a Council presidency is not in the gift of MEPs. Ultimately, it would be up to EU member states to decide by unanimity whether to change these procedures.
And, realistically, EU diplomats say, the chances of them touching this particular “hot potato” are almost zero.
“It’s quite an artificial debate – there are tools to deal with rogue member states, including Article 7 and other appropriate measures, but starting to change the rules of the game as we see fit and exclude for the sake of exclusion, is a dangerously hypocritical approach,” a Western European diplomat told EURACTIV.
“It’s like penalising a naughty child with unrelated measures – not the best pedagogical approach,” the diplomat added.
“If we want them to follow the rules, we can’t just start to invent our own,” a second EU diplomat says.
“It is the right of every member state to chair an EU presidency – which in practice is more technical in nature – and then it is up to the rest to make sure things run their correct course.”
In the end, such a step would penalise a whole country rather than just its government and deprive Hungary – probably for the next decade or so – of a chance to show it is aligned with the European project.
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Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]