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Hungarian Occupation of Brussels

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Photo: Six Months for Orban: Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (right) handed over the six-month presidency to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on 1 July, who had promised to “occupy Brussels.” Source: Viktor Orban X (formerly Twitter)
Photo: Six Months for Orban: Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (right) handed over the six-month presidency to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on 1 July, who had promised to “occupy Brussels.” Source: Viktor Orban X (formerly Twitter)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has commenced his country's six-month presidency of the EU Council with a visit to Kyiv. Prior to this, he managed to announce his opposition to the current EU leadership and visited several key capitals of the Alliance. Although it is the country, not its leader, that holds the presidency of the EU Council, in the case of the rather autocratic Hungary, the position of its leader must be considered. With this background from the new EU Council president, significant political turbulence is expected. However, the heavyweights of the EU and Brussels are prepared to handle this challenge.


The presidency of a country in the EU Council rotates every six months, with a different country taking the helm. Belgium held the previous presidency, and Poland will follow Hungary, with Denmark next in line. With 27 EU member states, each country holds the presidency once every 13 and a half years. Hungary last held the presidency in 2011, with Orban already serving as prime minister, but it was his first term.


The presidency of the EU Council is not a ceremonial role, even though the influence of the presiding country is described as "honest brokerage."


How "Honest Brokerage" Works

The EU Council presidency operates during Council meetings. The representative of the presiding country chairs these meetings. Whenever there is a need to discuss new EU laws, relevant ministers from all 27 countries gather in the Council. For instance, if the topic is healthcare, health ministers convene, and the health minister of the presiding country chairs the meeting. In Hungary's case, this minister will closely follow the instructions of Prime Minister Orban, as his Fidesz party dominates the country.

 

The principles of the Alliance state that the EU Council presidency should ensure four core values:

  • Preservation of the EU agenda
  • Justified law-making
  • Cooperation among member states
  • Collaboration/coordination with other EU institutions

Thus, the presidency of a particular country in the EU Council should not aim to steer the Alliance's actions in a direction favourable to that country but should act as an "honest broker." Therefore, the role of the presidency should have nothing to do with national self-interest.


Photo: On 30 June, Viktor Orban (right), together with former Czech Prime Minister and head of the right-wing populist ANO party, Andrej Babiš (left), and leader of Austria's ultra-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), Herbert Kickl, announced the formation of the "Patriots for Europe" group in the European Parliament. Source: Viktor Orban X (formerly Twitter)



Orban on the Offensive

What does Orban bring to Hungary's presidency of the EU Council? In short – grand European ambitions. This might sound surprising, but it's true. Eurosceptic Viktor Orban is rallying a group of like-minded sceptics to challenge Brussels. And he is attempting to use European mechanisms to achieve his desired outcomes.


Orban's approach in Brussels, where Hungary presides over the EU Council until 31 December, can be well understood from his speech on the national holiday commemorating Hungary's failed 1848 revolution against Habsburg rule. On 15 March, Orban declared that Hungary must choose between "Brussels and Hungarian freedom" during the European Parliament elections in early June. "If we want to preserve Hungary's freedom and sovereignty, we have no choice: we must occupy Brussels," said Viktor Orban.


Of course, by "we," he meant not only Hungary but the entire front of European ultra-right factions.


Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party won 10 of Hungary's 21 seats in the European Parliament elections in June. This result aligned with pre-election polls.


However, these ten seats in the European Parliament do not carry much weight. Fidesz's problem lies in the fact that, shortly before the elections, a large group of right-wing political forces, the ECR, ceased cooperation with them. Why? Because the ECR is led by Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy party, which was displeased with Orban's overly pro-Russian stance. The ECR currently holds the most seats among ultra-right factions in the European Parliament, with 83.


So, what about Orban? He is attempting to form his own group in the European Parliament – "Patriots for Europe." This group includes Orban's ultra-right Fidesz (Hungary), right-wing populist ANO (Czech Republic) led by ex-Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, and the ultra-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) led by Herbert Kickl. Orban's party holds 10 seats, Babiš's party 7 seats, and Kickl's party 6 seats – a total of 23 seats across three countries.


However, the current rules of the European Parliament require that a political group must have at least 23 deputies representing no fewer than 7 countries. So, while the number of mandates is sufficient, four more national political forces from other countries need to be recruited. This goal is achievable, as "Patriots for Europe" already has a base of 23 deputies.


Nevertheless, Hungary, particularly Viktor Orban, promises to be an "honest broker." There is widespread concern, however, that Orban's government is not only authoritarian and sympathetic to Russia but also too close to China.


It is also unclear how Hungary will play the role of an "honest broker" when its leader was in fierce opposition during the election of new EU leadership. "European voters have been deceived. The EPP formed a coalition of lies with the left and the liberals. We do not support this shameful agreement!" Viktor Orban wrote on X (formerly Twitter) on 27 June, in connection with the vote for EU leadership candidates.


However, ahead of 1 July, Viktor Orban visited Paris, meeting with Emmanuel Macron on 26 June. He also visited Rome to meet with Giorgia Meloni on 24 June and Berlin to meet Olaf Scholz on 23 June. During this notable tour, Orban promoted his call for MEGA, inspired by Donald Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again," proposing "Make Europe Great Again."


Calls for greater competitiveness are undoubtedly positive, and a nod towards the potential winner of the US presidential election doesn't hurt. But simultaneously, Viktor Orban sent a strong signal against Euro-Atlantic unity. Following a meeting in Brussels with the then-Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, who was nominated for the position of NATO Secretary General, Orban wrote openly and Eurosceptically on X (formerly Twitter): "...we reached an important agreement with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. We agreed that no Hungarian personnel will take part in the activities of NATO in Ukraine and no Hungarian funds will be used to support them. Our next step this week was to ensure that this agreement can stand the test of time. After yesterday's meeting in Brussels, Prime Minister Mark Rutte confirmed that he fully supports this deal and will continue to do so, should he become the next Secretary General of NATO."


It appears Hungary's role in NATO and the EU is to remain in opposition and act as a hindrance. In whose interests? It seems in the interests of Russia and China. One can only hope for the strong institutional capabilities of the EU and the effectiveness of Brussels bureaucrats. This should work.

 "If we want to preserve Hungary's freedom and sovereignty, we have no choice: we must occupy Brussels," said Viktor Orban.





Photo: Viktor Orban made his first foreign visit after the start of Hungary’s six-month presidency of the EU to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Source: president.gov.ua




An Offer That Must Be Refused

On 2 July, Viktor Orban visited Kyiv for discussions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. This marked his first foreign visit during Hungary's presidency of the EU Council.


Orban stated that the purpose of his visit was to address bilateral relations, expressing Hungary’s interest in signing a bilateral agreement in the future.


It is worth noting that Budapest has significant disputes with most of its neighbours, stemming from the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, which marked the defeat of Austria-Hungary in the First World War. As a result, Hungary lost control over territories that are now parts of Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, and Ukraine. While Hungary has significantly reduced its disputes with the first three countries since joining NATO and the EU, it continues to raise issues with Ukraine, mainly concerning the rights of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine’s Zakarpattia region.


The discussions between Kyiv and Budapest were not limited to bilateral relations. After talks with Zelensky, Orban announced on X (formerly Twitter) his perspective on ending Russian aggression in Ukraine: "My first trip after assuming the Presidency of the Council of the EU led me to Kyiv for a meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky. I assessed the possibility of a deadline-bound ceasefire that could provide an opportunity to speed up peace negotiations. I will report my findings to the Council immediately." This statement was met with surprise, as the EU's general position on Russian aggression supports restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Orban’s proposal effectively suggests freezing the conflict and temporarily legitimising the territorial gains Russia has made so far.


Photo: Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Europe in May concluded in Budapest with a very warm meeting with Viktor Orban. Source: Viktor Orban FB



Budapest’s close relations with Moscow are causing open irritation not only in Brussels but in other key capitals as well, as is Hungary’s strong alignment with China. There are growing concerns that Hungary could become a hub for the aggressive export of Chinese goods and projects into the EU.


It is also expected that Orban might use Hungary's presidency of the EU Council to unblock billions of euros from EU funds currently frozen due to Hungary’s key issues from the Alliance's perspective: minority rights, migration laws, and transparency in public procurement. Nonetheless, there is hope that the robust European institutions will uphold pan-European values.

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