Daniel Freund

1. July 2024 Anti-Corruption

Background briefing: Hungarian Council Presidency

As of July 1, Hungary holds the EU Council Presidency. It is the first time ever that we see a non-democratic government in this powerful position. How could Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (ab)use this role to his advantage? Answers to the most important questions:

What powers can the Council Presidency take advantage of?

Chairing the various Council configurations and preparatory bodies

  • According to its own statements, the Hungarian Council Presidency expects to organize 37 official Council meetings, including two EU summits and around 1500 working group meetings over the next six months. The Hungarian government plans to organize a total of 230 additional events, including 16 informal Council meetings, an informal EU summit, and a meeting of the European Political Community (EU27 + 18 other states);
  • Agenda: The Council Presidency typically sets the agenda for each meeting and moderates it (introducing the topics and individual points to be discussed, deciding who can provide input, drawing conclusions). While the Council Presidency cannot prohibit other member states from raising issues that are not on the agenda, it is unlikely that the representatives of the 27 member states will make tangible progress on a matter if it is not officially placed on the agenda by the chair, moderated, and properly prepared and followed up on. If a number of member states wish to discuss certain topics despite the Presidency’s refusal, they would need to meet informally within a group of “like-minded” states;
  • Timing: Although official Council meetings and preparatory body sessions follow a predetermined schedule, the Council Presidency has significant flexibility in deciding the timing of informal events. For example, the meeting of the European Political Community, scheduled for November 7, 2024 – two days after the US election – will be held in Budapest.

Leading the legislative negotiations within the Council

  • The Hungarian Council Presidency takes over more than 120 legislative acts from the Belgian Presidency that have yet to be concluded. Among them are 50 acts requiring the Council to agree on a common position and 30 dossiers currently in final negotiations with the Parliament; 
  • The Council Presidency decides on the agenda, and thereby effectively determines which legislative acts will progress towards achieving a common Council position and which will not. For dossiers already prepared for the trilogue phase (meaning there is already a common Council position), it should be more challenging to halt negotiations. The dates for trilogue negotiations are agreed upon among the three negotiating parties (Commission, Parliament, Council) and therefore are not solely decided by the Council Presidency.

What issues could Hungary abuse for its own interests?

Support for Ukraine/Sanctions against Russia

  • When it comes to Ukraine/Russia, the Hungarian government’s stance sharply differs from that of the other 26 member states. While the official agenda of the Council Presidency labels Russia as an “aggressor” in the conflict with Ukraine, Hungary has historically opposed military support for Ukraine by Western nations. Prime Minister Orbán has consistently threatened to obstruct EU financial aid to Kyiv and sanctions against Moscow. Concurrently, he maintains close ties with Putin and advances energy deals with Moscow, whereas most EU countries seek to reduce reliance on Russian fossil fuels;
  • Just a few days before the end of its Council Presidency, the Belgian government managed to pass the 14th package of sanctions against Russia, consisting of unprecedented measures targeting the Russian gas sector. However, the task of initiating similar sanctions against Belarus will most likely fall into the hands of the Hungarian government. Given the stance of the Hungarian government, discussions on further sanctions related to Russia are likely to stall until early 2025.

Migration policy

  • The Hungarian government has declared combating illegal migration as one of the main priorities of its Council Presidency. The government appears determined to pursue a tougher stance within the Council. In the past, it has repeatedly asserted that the EU forces it to accept more migrants and has voted alongside Poland against the reform of the European asylum system in the Council. Most recently, Orbán described the fines imposed by the ECJ for Hungary’s violation of EU laws on migrant treatment as “outrageous and unacceptable”;
  • The reform of the European asylum system, which Hungary and Poland recently tried to prevent, has now been adopted, and a Hungarian Council Presidency cannot change that. Instead, the external dimension of migration policy, which includes cooperation with origin and transit countries, will be a focus of Council debates in the coming months. Among other things, discussions will include the Council’s position on the Directive on preventing and countering the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and stay in the EU, which could effectively criminalize humanitarian assistance such as rescue operations in the Mediterranean. 

Competitiveness/China/Green Deal

  • Hungary has become an important trading partner for China under Orbán’s leadership. Just this past May, during his state visit to Hungary, Chinese President Xi announced his intention to elevate bilateral relations with Hungary to a high level. He hopes that Hungary’s Council Presidency will provide an opportunity to improve the EU’s relationship with China. Orbán has recently welcomed significant Chinese investments in Hungary, putting his policies sharply at odds with several other EU countries seeking to reduce their dependence on China. If the Hungarian government prioritizes creating a framework to enhance European competitiveness during its Council Presidency, it could seek to advocate for stronger ties with authoritarian third countries like China;
  • In addition, the Hungarian government mentions in its priorities “sustainable growth” and promoting a “green and digital transformation.” However, in the past, they have repeatedly blocked certain aspects of the Green Deal. The Hungarian government-supported think tank MCC recently likened European net-zero policies to Soviet-like rules. Therefore, the “New European Competitiveness Deal” envisioned by the Hungarian Council Presidency is likely to aim at weakening EU climate policies.

EU enlargement

  • Orbán has repeatedly caused irritation among his European colleagues due to his close relationships with illiberal leaders in the Western Balkans. He maintains particularly strong ties with authoritarian politicians like Serbian President Vucic and the President of Republika Srpska, Dodik, and defends their interests at the EU level. Hungarian EU Commissioner for Enlargement Varhelyi has also sparked irritation in Brussels by favoring Serbia’s EU application and downplaying democracy deficits;
  • If the Hungarian priorities include a “consistent and performance-oriented enlargement policy,” they will likely focus more on the aspirations of Western Balkan countries rather than Ukraine, whose EU membership it opposes. While EU ambassadors have already given the green light to start accession negotiations with Kyiv, Minister Boka made it clear during the Council Presidency’s press conference that the government has no interest in helping Ukraine open any of the 35 accession chapters during its presidency.

Election of the US President

  • The election of the next US President will take place on November 5, 2024, coinciding with the Hungarian Council Presidency. Orbán makes no secret of his desire for Trump to win the election. A variation of Trump’s slogan (“Make Europe Great Again!”) is even intended to be the central theme of the Hungarian Council Presidency;
  • While Orbán cannot dictate the EU’s communication strategy in the event of Trump’s election victory, a congratulatory message would not only come from the Hungarian Prime Minister but also from the current holder of the EU Council Presidency. Additionally, the Hungarian government has scheduled a meeting of the European Political Community in Budapest just two days after the US election—a first opportunity for representatives of European states to establish a unified approach with a potential US President Trump, under Orbán’s leadership.


The EU can be our best tool in the fight against corruption, money laundering and tax evasion. But it must also be used in the right way. In the future, the EU should fight corruption much more decisively. That is why I have set up an Intergroup against corruption in the European Parliament.