Sunday

15th Dec 2019

Hungary's commissioner-to-be grilled over loyalty to Orban

  • Oliver Varhelyi told MEPs that he had previously proved his independence, while working as an EU civil servant (Photo: European Parliament)

Hungary's new commissioner-designate for enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi on Thursday (14 November) told MEPs he would not take instructions from any government, including prime minister Viktor Orban's.

A career diplomat, who most recently served as Hungary's EU ambassador in Brussels, Varhelyi was grilled by MEPs in the parliament's foreign affairs committee over his loyalty to Orban.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join as a group

"As a commissioner from the day I am elected, I will be acting in a completely independent way, take no instruction from any government or institutions, […] and I will be pursuing the EU line and only the EU line," he said.

Several MEPs called on Varhelyi to distance himself from Orban, who has close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has raised concerns if Varhelyi would follow EU interests in neighbourhood policies.

Hungary is also under an EU probe over the rule of law and democratic backsliding, provoking questions whether a Hungarian commissioner for enlargement could credibly demand judicial independence and fight against corruption in EU-membership hopeful countries.

During the hearing, Varhelyi defended his independence, arguing he had worked as an EU civil servant in the commission - before Orban came to power - when he had acted on behalf of EU interests without interference.

"I have already been working in an independent way as a EU civil servant I intend to deliver the same approach," he said.

Varhelyi also said he would defend the EU position against any government.

Responding to centre-left MEP Tonino Picula (S&D), Varhelyi said the EU has clear rule of law criteria that accession countries in the Western Balkans need to meet, and he does not intend to change those.

Green MEP Ernest Urtasun called on Varhelyi to specifically distance himself from Orban's recent comments that he would help Turkey and others in their relations with Europe if Hungary gets the enlargement portfolio.

Varhelyi repeated his line on working for the EU and the EU alone, adding that he will not "not accept any interference" from any government.

Lawmakers also asked about how he could stand up to Russian influence in the region given Hungary's close ties to Moscow, but Varhelyi stuck to his line on working for the EU.

Austrian MEP Andreas Schieder asked Varhelyi about North Macedonian's former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who had been convicted of corruption and fled his country with the help of Hungarian diplomats and was then given asylum by Budapest, evading justice.

Varhelyi did not address the issue, saying the decision to grant asylum belongs to member states' competence and it is not part of his portfolio.

Balkans, Turkey, Ukraine

On Turkey, Varhelyi said the EU needs to have a "full reflection" in relations, despite clear interests on migration and customs.

He said that the bloc needs to address "negative developments in rule of law and human rights, provocative and illegal drilling in Mediterranean sea, and military intervention in Syria". He said Turkey was clearly moving away from EU values and norms.

On Ukraine, Varhelyi said he wished to do everything to integrate the country into as many EU policies as possible, including investments and infrastructure, pledging support for the country's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.

"Our goal should be to create stability and security in [the] eastern neighbourhood," he said.

Varhelyi said he would continue to defend the proposal to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, which was prevented by France and others at the EU leaders' summit in October.

"I don't think the whole enlargement framework needs to revise," he said, referring to France's wish to reform the entire process before starting talks with new countries. "There is no binary choice between going deeper and wider," he said.

He added that as commissioner he would intensify work on judicial independence, fight against corruption in those countries to alleviate the member states' concerns.

Varhelyi said if the EU does not assume its responsibility in the Western Balkans region "others will take our place", without going into specifics.

"The Western Balkan accession prospective must be credible, it is in our geopolitical interest," he said.

He said that in five years, he want to see peace between Kosovo and Serbia, full visa liberalisation for Kosovo, "very much advanced" accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, and Serbia very much ready to join the EU.

The political parties' representatives in the committee will decide on Varhelyi's confirmation, who is the second Hungarian commissioner-designate, after Laszlo Trocsanyi was earlier rejected by MEPs for a conflict of interests.

MEPs again reject Romanian, Hungarian 'commissioners'

Hours before the European Parliament hearings of would-be commissioners begin, two nominees are rejected in a second vote by MEPs on the legal affairs committee. It is an early blow to president-elect Ursula von der Leyen.

Hungary claims EU 'witch-hunt' over rule of law hearing

Hungary was quizzed by EU ministers over its domestic crackdown on media, judges, academia and NGOs. Hungary's minister responded by saying the country had defended "the European way of life" for centuries, and it should be respected.

Agenda

Key moments for new commission This WEEK

MEPs will decide on Monday if they want the Hungarian commissioner-designate to come back for a second hearing, as commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen hopes to finally take office on 1 December.

Tusk pledges 'fight' for EU values as new EPP president

The outgoing president of the EU council, Donald Tusk, is set to be elected as the president of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP). Tusk will have to deal with the final decision over Hungary's ruling Fidesz.

EU threatens legal action against UK over commissioner

The European Commission has started an infringement proceeding against the United Kingdom for failing to nominate a commissioner-candidate. The new commission, which wants to launch on 1 December, first requires a commissioner from each of the 28 EU states.

News in Brief

  1. EU Scream podcast wins media award
  2. Sturgeon will set out Scottish independence plan next week
  3. Slovenia, Croatia ex-leaders highlight jailed Catalans
  4. Italian court tells Facebook to reopen fascist party's account
  5. EU extends sanctions on Russia until mid-2020
  6. UK exit poll gives Johnson majority of 86
  7. Orban: 'financial guarantees' to reach climate neutrality
  8. Merkel hopes EU leaders agree 2050 climate-neutrality

This is the (finally) approved European Commission

MEPs gave the green light to the entire new European Commission during the plenary session in Strasbourg - but with the abstention of the Greens and a rejection by the leftist group GUE/NGL.

Magazine

Welcome to the EU engine room

Welcome to the EU engine room: the European Parliament (EP's) 22 committees, which churn out hundreds of new laws and non-binding reports each year and which keep an eye on other European institutions.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  5. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture

Latest News

  1. EU values face scrutiny This WEEK
  2. EU sighs relief after 'decisive' Johnson victory in UK
  3. Huge win for Conservatives in UK election
  4. Behind bars: a visit to an imprisoned Catalan politician
  5. Leaders agree 2050 climate neutrality - without Poland
  6. EU leaders cagey on 'Future of Europe' conference
  7. Pressure mounts to grill Malta's Muscat at EU summit
  8. Revealed: little evidence to justify internal border checks

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  2. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  3. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us