Will Michel’s ambitions leave the Council’s reins to Orbán?

Will Michel’s ambitions leave the Council’s reins to Orbán?

Only six months before the European elections and the big Brussels top job carrousel, Charles Michel’s announcement that he will step down as President of the European Council before his replacement has even been named is creating waves, as the tumultuous Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is set to take over as interim President.

“I’m going to lead the list in the European elections”.  The phrase, heard at every European election, every five years, pronounced by dozens of politicians in every corner of the Union, rarely makes major waves.

On 6 January, however, this phrase, uttered by Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, set the Brussels scene abuzz, right up to the Union’s highest decision-making level. Not so much for Charles Michel’s personal choice to lead his Belgian liberal party Mouvement Réformateur, but for its consequences.

As head of the list, Charles Michel is guaranteed a seat in the European Parliament, regardless of the results of the European elections. He would therefore be obliged to leave his current post by mid-July at the latest, even though his term as President of the European Council is due to end on 30 November 2024.

The keys to Europe left to Orbán?

If Charles Michel leaves office early – five months ahead of schedule – and no replacement is appointed, he will automatically be replaced by the head of state or government in charge of the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. In this case, it would be up to the Hungarian Prime Minister to take this role.

“That scenario — an unchecked Orbán ruling the Council roost for the six months directly after the 2024 European election — is one most of the other 26 leaders of EU countries would be desperate to avoid, given escalating tensions between them and Orbán, for example over the Union’s support for Ukraine and Hungary’s rule-of-law infractions,” writes Politico.

The Hungarian Prime Minister, renowned for his euro-scepticism, is stepping up initiatives against European decisions. He for instance launched a second ’national consultation’ in Hungary in autumn 2023. His veto tactics culminated at the last summit in December 2023, blocking any possible agreement on granting funds to Ukraine and revising the EU’s seven-year budget.

The European Parliament sounds the charge

Since Charle Michel’s announcement, diplomats and members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have been on the move to avoid a catastrophic scenario that would, according to them, allow Viktor Orban to block negotiations at a time when a compromise will be key to forming a new European Commission and setting major political guidelines for the years ahead.

The move was initiated by a petition from Finnish MEP Petri Sarvamaa, who said that Hungary “Hungary has been repeatedly criticised for its erosion of the rule of law, and especially after Hungary’s actions to disrupt the decision-making of the member states in the December EUCO [EU summit], we believe that the time has come for the European Parliament to take action.”

On Thursday 18 January, MEPs therefore adopted a resolution envisaging depriving Viktor Orbán of his right to vote in the Council, by triggering Article 7 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). This same article had already been activated in 2018 for the many violations of the rule of law in Hungary, the main consequence of which was the non-repayment of European funds to the country.

A non-issue?

The European Commission does not really share the same view, it showed when recently released a tranche of €10 million for Hungary. This decision has been heavily criticised by the European Parliament, which is now considering the possibility of challenging that decision in front of the European Court of Justice.

For many diplomats, there is no need to panic. Two meetings have already been scheduled to reach agreement on the “top jobs” (Commission Presidency, Council Presidency, High Representative for foreign policy, security and defence): an informal meeting on 17 June and a summit on 28 and 29 June.

The 27 will therefore have more than a month to come to an agreement after the European elections of June. And if no agreement is reached, an additional meeting could be convened in early July.

This should avoid leaving Charles Michel’s seat vacant for too long.