Sánchez’s election gamble and Orbán’s rule-of-law defiance cast a shadow over the EU’s policy cycle

By Euronews Brussels bureau

It’s a ritual well known in Brussels.

Every six months, one of the 27 member states of the European Union takes over the rotating presidency of the EU Council, one of the bloc’s co-legislators. As such, the country is tasked with chairing meetings, setting the agenda, steering negotiations and drafting compromise texts. The duties are intense and exhausting but also highly rewarding: the selected country enjoys a first-person role in shaping political agreements.

This time, though, the transfer of power has come under question.

In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has called a snap general election after his socialist party performed poorly at last week’s local and regional polls. Snap elections are nothing unusual in Europe, but this one comes with a special twist: it has been scheduled for 23 July, just three weeks after Spain replaces Sweden at the very top of the EU Council.

The coincidence of a high-stakes election and the start of a rotating presidency spells bad news for what was – until Monday – expected to be Spain’s big moment on the European stage. Eager to seize the opportunity, Sánchez has spent the last months travelling around the continent, meeting his counterparts and laying the groundwork for a successful, deal-maker presidency.

The high expectations didn’t stem solely from Sánchez’s promotional tour but from the sheer reality on the ground. Before the end of the year, the EU institutions are meant to wrap up a series of consequential pieces of legislation that have been piling up on the to-do list.

Chief among them, a post-crisis overhaul of the electricity market, a world-first attempt to regulate artificial intelligence, an unprecedented scheme to confiscate frozen Russian assets, a €500-million plan to ramp up ammunition production for Ukraine, and the long-awaited reform of the EU’s fiscal rules.

Given their weight, these files will require a strong, consistent impetus to move forward and achieve consensus among the 27 capitals, a hard task that a country immersed in a polarised election might struggle to fulfil. An abrupt shift from Sánchez’s socialists to the conservative opposition party – perhaps with the support of the far-right – could inject an extra dose of chaos into the policy cycle.

Making matters more urgent, the next presidency, to be held by Belgium, will inevitably be humstrung by the election to the European Parliament, an occasion that will bring Brussels to a standstill as the entire bloc gets in campaign mode.

Next in the line will be Hungary, whose turn at the rotating presidency has been scheduled for the second half of 2024. This, too, has been put in doubt.

In a non-binding resolution voted on Thursday, the European Parliament raised questions on how Hungary might be able to “credibly fulfil” the tasks associated with the presidency and respect the principle of “sincere cooperation,” given the country’s democratic backsliding and long track of rule-of-law breaches.

The resolution calls on the Council to find a “proper solution as soon as possible,” which MEPs did not specify. “Parliament could take appropriate measures if such a solution is not found,” they add.

Despite the criticism levelled at Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's government, the text falls short of calling for an outright cancellation of Hungary’s scheduled presidency.

Such a move has no precedent in European history and legal experts are highly sceptical on how, or even if, the Parliament could interfere with a prerogative that rests exclusively in the hands of member states.

Still, the debate is poised to continue, as many in Brussels wonder: How high should the bar be?



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