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29th Mar 2020

Von der Leyen commission on track for December start

  • Hungary's Oliver Varhelyi was requested to provide additional assurances that he will be independent from prime minister Viktor Orban (Photo: European Parliament)

The largest political groups in the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee supported Hungarian commissioner-designate for enlargement Oliver Varhelyi on Monday (18 November).

Varhelyi became the final commissioner-designate to be approved by MEPs, and the move means that commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen's new executive is on track to take office on 1 December.

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Varhelyi was approved after he responded on Monday to further written questions following his hearing last week , giving further assurances that he will distance himself from Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban.

The Hungarian premier's close ties with Russia and Turkey, and his attacks on rule of law at home alarmed MEPs from the Socialists and Democrats, the liberal Renew, the Greens and the far-left GUE/NGL groups.

On Monday, Varhelyi told MEPs in his answers that he "will neither be bound nor influenced by any statement or position of any prime minister of any country or any other representatives of any government".

"I will not be the envoy of a specific country, but the representative of the European Commission towards our neighbouring countries," he added, saying the commissioners are "completely independent" from any institution or government.

To a question on Orban's recent comments offering help to Turkey and Azerbaijan in their European aspirations, Varhelyi said that while "Turkey is an important partner for the EU", it will not prevent him from giving "unambiguous messages on issues such as the serious backsliding on rule of law and fundamental freedoms, the illegal drilling in the Mediterranean or the military incursion in Syria".

MEPs also questioned Varhelyi on Hungary granting asylum to North Macedonia's former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who was convicted of corruption at home.

Varhelyi reiterated his response, previously stated at his hearing, that it is for member states to examine and decide on individual asylum requests.

Asked about what he would do if an enlargement country would limit space for opposition parties, control the national media, restricts academic freedom, fail to combat corruption, and curb the judiciary - the same issues that Hungary has been accused of - Varhelyi said he "will ensure that we continue to give priority to the 'fundamentals first' principle".

He added that he would support these countries in their efforts to strengthen the rule of law, tackling corruption and organised crime, work towards the proper functioning of democratic institutions.

Varhelyi also said safeguarding the freedom of expression and media are key, and that he will work towards enlargement countries respecting academic freedom.

While last week socialist and liberal MEPs wanted to see further questioning, on Monday they gave the green light to Varhelyi.

"Commisioner-designate Varhelyi given a chance by European parliament. That the Hungarian candidate is the last confirmed shows there is very little trust towards Fidesz in the EP," Hungarian liberal opposition MEP, Anna Donath, tweeted after the decision, referring to Orban's ruling party.

"Despite Varhelyi having pledged to be independent from Orban, I'll be here, ready to flag whenever he isn't," she added.

Von der Leyen on track

With the final commissioner-designate given the okay by the parliament, the plenary session on 27 November could vote on the new EU executive for it to take office on 1 December.

The final decision will be made by leaders of the parliament and the political groups on Thursday (21 November).

Von der Leyen's commission is already one month late with taking office.

And it still misses the commissioner candidate from the UK - as British prime minister Boris Johnson refused to send one before the elections in Britain on 12 December.

The current commission had launched a disciplinary procedure against the UK for failing to abide by EU rules and send a nominee.

However, if member states (including the UK) and the parliament approved, von der Leyen can become a full-fledged commission chief on the first day of December.

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Agenda

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MEPs will decide on Wednesday whether to support the new EU commission as a whole during the plenary session. If approved, Ursula von der Leyen's team will finally take office on 1 December.

Analysis

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The first female commission president and her (almost) gender-balanced team can take office on 1 December. Despite a large majority of MEPs backing the new commission, many warned that their support was not a "blank cheque".

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