Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán could take the reins at the European Council in July unless EU leaders can swiftly find a successor to its current president.
Charles Michel unexpectedly announced on Saturday that he would be the lead candidate for his Belgian liberal party – the Reformist Movement (MR) – in the European elections which take place on 6-9 June.
This means Michel, a former Belgian prime minister who has presided over the European Council since 2019, is highly likely to be elected as a member of the European Parliament (MEP) and stand down as Council chief following the election.
The EU’s 27 heads of government now have less than six months to name his successor. The President’s role involves chairing European Council meetings and brokering agreements among member states, including on sensitive budget and foreign policy decisions.
According to EU treaties, in the absence of a president, the country that holds the six-month rotating presidency of the Council takes on caretaker responsibility. This means that without a successor, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would take control of the Council when his country’s takes on the rotating presidency on 1 July.
A European Council source brushed off the potential disruption of Michel’s surprise announcement, saying that the decision on his successor was “due to happen in June 2024.”
“It is therefore possible to have the next president of the European Council starting his duty in summer 2024, if the European Council decides so,” the source said.
June’s European elections will trigger a reshuffle of Brussels’ top jobs, but the process sometimes takes months due to the intricate nature of discussions and the need to ensure political, geographical and gender balance between appointments.
Criticism against Michel mounts
Many have denounced Michel for a move that will throw a shadow of uncertainty over the Council during a politically pivotal moment.
Speaking to Euronews, Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Law at HEC Paris said that Michel’s decision risks triggering a “constitutional crisis.”
“As Michel abruptly ends his mandate at the most critical moment when the powers of the council are at their peak (…) he is set to become a lame duck president with little authority,” Alemanno explained.
“This is really terra incognita,” he said, adding that Michel was pursuing “his own self-interest” rather than wider European Union interests.
Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, a liberal who belongs to the same political family as Michel, sharply criticised his decision on social media platform, X: “The Captain leaving the ship in the middle of a storm. If that is how little committed you are to the fate of the European Union, then how credible are you as a candidate?”
Alarm raised over potential Orbán takeover
The possibility of Orbán seizing influence in Brussels in the second half of the year has spooked many in the EU capital. The nationalist prime minister, recently seen shaking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand in Beijing, is infamous for being a thorn in Brussels’ side.
The bloc’s proposed €50-billion package in long-term financial support to Ukraine is currently being held up after Orbán vetoed its approval during a European Council summit in December.
It followed the release of €10 billion in EU funds to Budapest, previously frozen due to backsliding on the rule of law. The move fuelled speculation that Orbán is using his veto power in the Council to pressure Brussels to unfreeze more frozen cash.
Orbán also consistently uses anti-EU rhetoric to foster Eurosceptic sentiment among his domestic audience in Hungary.
His government recently personally targeted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a billboard campaign and implied that Brussels wanted to “create migrant ghettos in Hungary” in an inflammatory public consultation.
EU lawmakers have in the past cast doubt over Hungary and Orbán’s credibility to take on the Council’s presidency in the second half of 2024.
In a non-binding resolution adopted last June, MEPs questioned “how Hungary will be able to credibly fulfil this task in 2024, in view of its non-compliance with EU law and the values enshrined in Article 2 (of the EU treaties), as well as the principle of sincere cooperation.”
Despite having no executive powers, the EU state that holds the Council’s presidency can wield significant influence over the institution’s functioning by setting the agenda, hosting meetings, steering negotiations and organising votes.
Should the president’s responsibilities fall temporarily into the hands of Orbán, it could increase his capacity to shape the EU’s legislative calendar in the last six months of 2024.
But Alemanno told Euronews that he believes leaders are unfazed by the prospect of Orbán stepping in temporarily to do the job.
“I’m not so sure that European leaders are so afraid of Mr. Orbán,” Alemanno explained.
“Otherwise they would have taken many more measures in order to counter his defiant stance vis-à-vis (…) foreign policy and rule of law and a number of issues,” he said, adding that Orbán’s role would be limited to chairing meetings should he need to step in.
Countdown to name successor begins
European Council chiefs are usually former heads of state, with a preference for leaders versed in complex negotiations or with experience managing coalition governments.
Names speculated for the role include the Netherlands’ current caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte, who was forced to step down in July amid a coalition rift over the issue of immigration, or former Luxembourgish premier Xavier Bettel.
Portugal’s caretaker prime minister Antonio Costa was also speculated for the role, but his candidacy could be marred by a sprawling corruption investigation involving his key aides.
The EU treaties also allow the 27 leaders to change the rules should they fail to name a successor. Fourteen member states, representing a simple majority, could vote to block Orbán from temporarily taking on the president’s responsibilities and appoint another temporary chief.
Alemanno predicts that a “temporary, interim” successor will be found in due time, with a permanent replacement then named after the June ballot.