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4th Feb 2023

MEPs keen to scalp Orbán's EU commissioner

  • EU enlargement commissioner Olivér Várhelyi (l) with Bosnian Serb separatist Milorad Dodik (Photo: European Commission)
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The European Parliament (EP) has cast doubt on whether Hungary's EU commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi, is fit to do his job following his antics in the Western Balkans.

The EP "urges the commission to initiate an independent and impartial investigation into whether the conduct engaged in and policies furthered by the commissioner for neighbourhood and enlargement [Várhelyi] constitute a breach of the code of conduct for the members of the commission and of the commissioner's obligations under the [EU] treaties," it said in a wider report on EU foreign policy adopted on Tuesday (18 January).

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It did so after becoming "deeply concerned" that Várhelyi "deliberately seeks to circumvent and undermine the centrality of democratic and rule-of-law reforms in EU accession countries".

Commissioners are meant to be politically neutral and to defend EU values.

But Várhelyi has been cuddling up to troublemakers such Bosnian Serb president Milorad Dodik and Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić in a way that goes against EU interests, but falls in line with Hungary's national politics and hard-right values instead.

In one incident in 2021, Várhelyi and Dodik colluded on Dodik's plans for Republika Srpska to secede from Bosnia, according to a leaked internal EU report.

Earlier the same year, Várhelyi also watered down EU Commission criticism of Vučić in an annual report, for instance on Serbia's poor track record on LGBTI rights, according to an investigation by Politico.

Dodik became even more toxic towards the EU in January, when he awarded a medal to Russia's bloodthirsty president Vladimir Putin.

But all the while Hungary's prime minister and Várhelyi's political party boss at home, Viktor Orbán, has tried to deepen ties with pro-Russian strong men in the region.

Orbán donated €35m of Hungarian taxpayers' money to a Bosnian economic development programme last year to help Dodik get re-elected, Ágnes Vadai, the shadow defence minister in Hungary's opposition Democratic Coalition party, told EUobserver.

"It's difficult not to see this in action," Vadai told EUobserver when asked if Várhelyi served Budapest instead of Brussels.

Pro-Russian Serbs aside, Várhelyi has also tried to help Orbán's friends in Turkey and Israel, which sold spyware to Orbán's illiberal government.

The Hungarian commissioner tried to water down Turkey-critical EU texts, Politico reported.

Last year, Várhelyi unilaterally withheld EU funding for Palestinians if they did not start using pro-Israeli school textbooks, in a pressure campaign that later flopped.

This year, Várhelyi offered €10m of EU taxpayers' money to support the Abraham Accords — a project of ex-US president Donald Trump, which aims to forge closer ties between Arab states and Israel, while throwing Palestinian and EU hopes for a two-state solution under the bus.

"Three years into the job, there is serious cause to believe that the commissioner [Várhelyi] pursues Mr. Orbán's agenda," Thijs Reuten, a Dutch socialist MEP, said on Tuesday.

"The persistent reports about Orbán's commissioner cosying up with autocrats to undermine democracy requires immediate action. We cannot allow a commissioner accused of supporting secessionists [Dodik] to run amok in EU accession countries," he added.

More than 400 MEPs voted in favour of Tuesday's overall report. More than 300 specifically endorsed the socialist group's amendment calling for the Várhelyi probe.

For its part, the EU Commission knew the storm was coming, with the amendment in the pipeline for over a week, but it appeared unprepared to handle the news on Tuesday.

"The resolution has just been passed," the commission's chief spokesman said, asking press for more time to react.

"Our enlargement policy is not in the hands of a single commissioner," he added.

Várhelyi's spokeswoman didn't know what to say when asked by EUobserver if the commission was prepared to heed the parliament's call, which commission unit would carry out any investigation, and what the outcome might be if the Hungarian politician was found to be in violation.

EUobserver also asked, on 11 January, whether the whole commission had endorsed Várhelyi's Abraham-Accords funding and where the money would come from.

But seven days later, his spokeswoman said: "We need more time indeed for the replies".

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