Hungary Takes on the EU Presidency: Facing International Climate Policy Challenges
Author: Tibor Schaffhauser

As of early July, Hungary has taken over the rotating presidency of the European Union from Belgium. We will examine the green priorities set by our country and the challenges it may face during the upcoming presidency.

In a previous article, we reviewed the program of the Spanish-Belgian-Hungarian presidency trio and what Belgium aimed to achieve in the first half of the year as the second member of the trio. The Belgians, who held the presidency from January 1 to June 30, achieved several environmental results, including agreements on the right to repair, emissions from heavy duty vehicles, sustainable urban wastewater management, reducing and making packaging more sustainable, representing the EU in negotiations on an international treaty to eliminate plastic pollution, and at the UN technical climate conference in Bonn in June. A significant environmental achievement during the Belgian presidency was the contentious adoption of the EU nature restoration law aimed to restore 20% of Europe’s terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems by 2030, and all ecosystems by 2050.

Hungary’s Green Priorities

The Hungarian Presidency, starting in July, builds on the trio’s 18-month priorities and has outlined seven main areas for its semester until the end of the year: adopting a new European competitiveness agreement, strengthening European defense policy, pursuing a consistent and merit-based enlargement policy, curbing illegal migration, shaping the future of cohesion policy, promoting a farmer-oriented EU agricultural policy, and addressing demographic challenges. During the presidency, 1,500 working group meetings, 37 council meetings, and 230 presidency events are planned.

Regarding climate policy, the presidency has adopted the motto “Sustainable, Healthy, and Competitive Europe.” To achieve this, the focus will be on implementing the European Green Deal and the “Fit for 55” policy package, which aims for an at least 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and supporting the transition to a green, climate-neutral, and circular economy. The presidency aims to involve citizens in implementing these policies, as a successful green transition is not possible without them. Specific objectives include advancing negotiations on the EU’s new 2040 climate targets and involving citizens as much as possible in implementing these policies. Additionally, the presidency seeks to facilitate smoother cooperation between the European Commission and member states in implementing National Energy and Climate Plans, and to encourage third countries to adopt more ambitious and realistic climate policies at the COP29 UN climate conference.

Under other environmental topics, the presidency has highlighted the importance of the UN conference on biodiversity and the role of water resources, as well as the importance of transitioning to a competitive circular economy.

Regarding energy policy, the Hungarian presidency has highlighted two key themes. Firstly, they plan to prioritize the promotion of geothermal energy utilization, viewing this energy source as crucial for achieving energy independence, supply security, and climate goals. Secondly, to further support supply security, the Hungarian presidency’s program will also focus on network development, with plans to give this area special attention in the coming months.

Challenges for the Hungarian Presidency

The Hungarian presidency will face challenges to move these topics forward due to the European Parliament elections held in June, as EU decision-making usually slows down for several months until the new Commission is established, new positions are assigned, parliamentarian teams are assembled, and parliamentary committees are formed. As a result, many analysts have expected limited progress in EU energy and climate policy during the early months of the Hungarian presidency.

However, recent news from Brussels suggests that these negotiations might conclude more quickly than usual, potentially allowing EU work to resume without long delays. Nevertheless, this is not certain, as the Hungarian, Italian, and Czech Prime Ministers are dissatisfied with the nomination process. On June 28, the European Council however confirmed the current President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, from the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), in her position. Von der Leyen still needs confirmation from the European Parliament on July 18.

To secure this support, von der Leyen will need to gain backing from the EPP, which has campaigned to review several already adopted EU climate policy goals. Given that the von der Leyen-led Commission was responsible for the European Green Deal, it is uncertain how many compromises she will need to make regarding her next term’s climate policy in order to secure EPP support.

A key legislative issue this year will be defining the EU’s new 2040 climate goals, which the previous Commission prioritized. The Commission’s communication suggests a 90% reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 compared to 1990 levels. Setting medium-term targets is crucial for industrial and business stakeholders to align their strategies and investments. The EU and its member states currently have short-term climate targets up to 2030 and a 2050 climate neutrality goal, but a medium-term target is lacking currently. The EU must also communicate its new commitments to the UN by early 2025.

Given the uncertainties around the formation of the new Commission and potential backroom deals, it remains to be seen when the Hungarian presidency can start substantial work and how ambitious it can be regarding European climate policy. It is certain, however, that the Hungarian negotiating delegation will have plenty of work on international climate negotiations. Hungary will be responsible for preparing the EU’s mandate for the next UN climate conference in Azerbaijan and leading the EU delegation, focusing on adopting new long-term climate finance goals. Preliminary technical negotiations in early June did not result in agreements on emission reduction and scientific issues, while these are the cornerstones to meet the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C and urgent steps are needed globally.

Hungary’s upcoming presidency may be beneficial for representing the EU’s interests at the climate conference in Azerbaijan, given the strong diplomatic relations between Hungary and the Caucasian country. Several upcoming international events will provide opportunities for the Hungarian delegation to advance EU climate, energy and environmental policy.

The ambitions and efficiency of the new European Commission will significantly impact Hungary’s presidency schedule and the future of EU climate policy. It will be interesting to see how far the Hungarian presidency progresses in both EU and international climate policy, especially as Poland, set to hold the presidency after Hungary, has expressed intentions to fundamentally rework key EU climate decisions during its term in early 2025, which could lead to significant debates among member states, the Commission, and the incoming Polish presidency.

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