Will Orbán Be Allowed to "Seize" EU Power? Сonsequences of Charles Michel's Resignation

Monday, 8 January 2024 — , European Pravda
Credit: AFP/East News
Viktor Orbán [Prime Minister of Hungary – ed.] has the right to lead the European Council temporarily, but he has no chance of overcoming the objection of other states.

Last weekend, Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, announced his planned resignation. He has decided to run for the European Parliament elections and is almost certain to be elected. This means that his current position will become vacant by mid-July.

Such a development will impact Ukraine directly, considering that Michel, who has chaired the EU summits for over four years, has become a true friend and advocate of Ukraine's interests. But the greatest source of concern is that the temporary successor to Michel could be Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

EU procedures indeed allow for such a possibility. Orbán doesn't even need to gather votes from other leaders. From July 2024, he can automatically take over this position as soon as it becomes vacant.

This catastrophic scenario is unlikely, however, to become a reality. Orbán has practically isolated himself in Europe, not just from Ukraine. Other leaders will have the opportunity to do everything possible to rule out his temporary presidency.

In any case, the era of Michel as an EU co-leader has ended. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, may stay on for a second term, which is of utmost importance for Ukraine.

First time ever in the EU history 

The news of Charles Michel's intention to step down from the position of President of the European Council came as a surprise to European journalists and to the leaders of EU member states alike. He announced his resignation early so that all other players could prepare for it.

He made this decision public in a joint interview with three Belgian outlet (Michel is Belgian and the country’s former Prime Minister);  he will need Belgian votes again.

In this interview, he announced that he would be running in this year's European Parliament elections at the top of the list of the Reformist Movement (MR), his party. He also guaranteed that if elected to the European Parliament, he would take up his seat and leave the position of President of the European Council. There is no doubt that Michel will be elected a Member of the European Parliament, as his party is sure to secure at least one seat.

The European elections will take place on 6-9 June. The first session of the new European Parliament is scheduled for mid-July. From then on, the European Council will be without its head.

Michel's planned term in office expires in late November.

The European Union faces such a challenge for the first time ever. EU legislation, however, provides an algorithm of actions for such a case.

The outcome could have dire consequences for Ukraine.

The European Council Rules of Procedure state that "in the event of illness or death, or if the President's term is ended due to impediment or serious misconduct in accordance with Article 15(5) TEU, the member of the European Council representing the Member State holding the six-monthly Presidency of the Council shall replace the President of the European Council until the election of his or her successor."

In July, when Charles Michel plans to step down, Hungary will be the presiding country.

Therefore, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is expected to become his temporary successor, without even requiring a vote by the other member states.

Why is this position important?

The position of President of the European Council is relatively new, introduced in 2009. Michel is the third official to hold it. This position is sometimes referred to as the "President of the EU", although this is not quite accurate.

The European Council members meet at the EU summits and meetings of the leaders of all 27 EU member states. The President of the European Council is the person who presides over these summits, is responsible for their preparation, and ensures that the leaders' negotiations lead to a decision.

The President also has a decisive impact on the negotiation agenda. In other words, he or she can propose to discuss a particular topic (such as strengthening support for Ukraine) or remove it from the initial plans for the meeting. The President can also convene emergency summit meetings (devoted to Ukrainian issues since 2022) or refrain from holding them.

This is enough to imagine the potentially destructive influence of Orbán, were he to hold this position. The President of the European Council has the right to attend international meetings on behalf of the EU. We might witness very unexpected moves by Viktor Orbán, the only EU leader who continues to hold meetings with Putin. 

That is especially in contrast to Michel, who, after 24 February 2022, became one of the main lobbyists in favour of Ukraine. On top of that, he managed to maintain good relations with all EU leaders, including the aforementioned Orbán. It is rumored that Michel, alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, orchestrated the course of events at the December 2023 summit when Ukraine obtained a political decision to open EU accession negotiations.

Orbán will not succeed

In the statement that Viktor Orbán may temporarily assume the position of acting President of the European Council, the key word is "may." If another country were presiding over the EU, there might be a chance of obtaining a temporary leader for the European Council. Orbán, however, has become toxic and a serious problem for the vast majority of his colleagues in the European Council over the past years.

They consider handing him the responsibilities of the President of the European Council, even temporarily,to be unprecedented and unacceptable. The situation is somewhat complicated, since by the rules of procedure, the new President of the European Council can only be elected after the results of European elections are made public, which is to happen around mid-June.

During this period, EU leaders will try to propose names for the three top leaders of the European institutions: the new President of the European Council, the President of the European Commission, and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs.

The negotiations will be chaired by Michel. He will do everything possible to ensure that the EU has a new President of the European Council by July. It is impossible to predict who it will be. The only thing certain is that he/she will be a former leader of one of the EU countries.

The head of the European Council is always elected from among individuals with experience in participating in European summits – preferably recent experience. Additionally, due to the "danger of Orbán," only candidates without other commitments or those who can immediately resign from their current position will be considered, so as to avoid a period without an active President in the European Council.

There are quite a few former leaders who meet these requirements.

For example, negotiations will likely involve the Italian technocrat and former Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who would be an excellent option for Ukraine. In 2022, he advocated candidate status for Ukraine.

Candidates from the Baltic States, which have never held top positions in Brussels, cannot be ruled out either, as this is an important argument.

Regardless of whom the European Council elects, it is sure be a pro-Ukrainian politician. Other candidates simply do not stand a chance of gathering enough votes. There is no need to fear that Orbán will block pro-Ukrainian candidates.

Decisions at summits are usually made by consensus. The EU treaties provide for several exceptions. Personnel decisions are one of them. A qualified majority is sufficient for a positive vote.

Other consequences of Michel's resignation

However, both with an early and planned resignation, Charles Michel would end his career in the European Council this year, as Article 15 of the Treaty on European Union allows for this position to be held only for five consecutive years. On the other hand, theoretically, Michel could continue his career in European institutions, vying for positions such as commissioner, High Representative for Foreign Affairs or, potentially (though less realistically), President of the European Commission.

Instead, he has opted for an achievable goal – a member of European Parliament. This is also positive for Ukraine. Michel's MR party in the European Parliament belongs to the Renew Europe political group, which lacks prominent leaders. This group is significantly oriented towards French President Emmanuel Macron.

It is not ruled out that with Michel's arrival, France may decide to yield its leadership role to him. Depending on the results of the European elections, he may also run for a leading role in the European Parliament.

Considering that Michel has been a supporter of Ukraine in recent years and has lobbied on its behalf, this would be a plus.

Additionally, the early end of Michel's presidency of the European Council, even by a few months, will relieve the burden on another EU co-leader, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

Michel and von der Leyen have become uncompromising, radical opponents in the last year or two. Their internal rivalry has begun to harm the European Union.

By the way, Kyiv has benefited to some extent from this rivalry, because both leaders are explicitly pro-Ukrainian. They even competed to be more publicly supportive of Ukraine.

Maintaining Ursula von der Leyen in her position would be crucial for Ukraine. Over the next five years, the role of the European Commission is going to be exceptional. Von der Leyen is determined to stay in this position, and although she has opponents, her reappointment for the next five years will not require unanimity.

Sergiy Sydorenko,

Editor, European Pravda

If you notice an error, select the required text and press Ctrl + Enter to report it to the editors.