Hot on the heels of the Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán having announced his preference for ‘illiberal democracy’, imposing punitive taxes on independent media, and withdrawing the tax status of leftwing NGOs, Tibor Navracsics, Commissioner-designate for Education, Culture, Youth and Citizenship seemed especially problematic.
The significance of the gesture was not lost on Hungarian academics, who, on 10 September, sent a public letter to outgoing Commission President José Manuel Barroso, about the crisis in Hungarian education under the rightist leader.
The letter, published in English by the Budapest Beacon under the heading “The Hungarian government devalues knowledge and expertise”, was clearly aimed at Navracsics nomination. Decrying government cuts to education funding, its attacks on the autonomy of universities, and the increasingly direct role it plays in the appointment of chancellors, the letter speaks for itself. For those who follow Hungarian politics, this was an perceived as an impolitic designation. His portfolio assignment was tantamount to receiving the imprimatur of the EU for Orbán’s politics.
Nonetheless, Navracsics’ performance at his Wednesday (1 October) hearing left the impression that the Hungarian Commissioner-designate preferred EU’s values over his own. “To be a European is a good thing, and I am proud of being a European,” he said. “The EU is the most successful regional-integration entity,” he late added in response to another question. Asked by Romanian MEP Mircea Diaconu (ALDE) if he could trade his Fidesz party for the EU, the Hungarian nominee replied that he had always been a defender of the Union back home.
Throughout the hearing, MEPs repeatedly voiced their skepticism at Navracsics’ pro-European answers, due to how much they conflicted with their views of his record. Legislators made no bones about raising these contradictions with him, either. Asked about Hungary’s restrictive media laws, for example, which Navracsics helped put into place, the ex-Orban official said that he “supports” free speech and cooperated with the Council of Europe in matters of media law.
It was Navracsics’ replies to repeat queries about his relationship and attitudes towards NGOs that were perhaps the most interesting, particularly given the Orbán government’s decision to suspend tax approval of progressive NGOs in recent months, including the Hungarian office of anti-corruption organisation Transparency International. Perhaps his most revealing, and unbelievable answer, was given to a reporter after the hearing.
What aspect of your experience in the Orbán government would you like to bring to Brussels, a reporter asked.
“I had really good relations with the NGO sphere,” Navracsics replied. “We made a task force and worked together with NGOs, tackling corruption with the NGOs…. It was by cooperation with the NGOS. As an experienced politician I can make coalitions for a good purpose and I would utilize that talent to make coalitions regardless of party lines just for the common interest of the European union.”
How a Commissioner of Navracisics’ background could actually do so is subject to question. Yet, Navracsics’ after-session response was very much in keeping with what he had said on the subject earlier in the evening: Hungary did work with NGOs, he had said – very good work on corruption, doing so in collaboration with campaigning organizations.
The repetitiveness of his post-hearing statement was noteworthy, insofar as the Hungarian politician stuck to a script, one which was obviously rehearsed, which appeared to be anticipated and deflect exactly the sorts of criticisms that could and were leveled at him by center-left MEPs and journalists at his confirmation hearing.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the new President of the European Commission, announced the distribution of portfolios among his new team on 10 September.
Among the new Commissioners, due to take up their posts on 1 November, are 18 former (prime) ministers. The President has announced that the new Commission will be "very political".
The new Commission must now be approved by the European Parliament, who will interview the Commissioners between 29 September and 7 October.
During these two weeks of hearings, the 27 Commissioners will be interviewed by MEPs from relevant parliamentary commissions.
The European Parliament must then accept or reject the whole team.