Hungary’s Commission pick survives enlargement test, deflects on Orban

European Commissioner-designate in charge of neighborhood and enlargement policy, Oliver Varhelyi from Hungary during his hearing before the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 14 November 2019. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The Western Balkans must have a credible perspective of joining the European Union as it is in Europe’s geopolitical interest, Hungary’s Commissioner-designate for enlargement and neighbourhood told his European Parliament hearing on Wednesday (14 November).

Hungary nominated its ambassador to the EU, Olivér Várhelyi, after the European Parliament blocked his predecessor, László Trócsányi, put forward by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, over concerns of conflict of interest. Hungary is set to keep the enlargement portfolio, despite some speculation to the contrary.

Varhelyi’s appearance in the European Parliament hearing came amid troubled times for the EU’s enlargement prospects after France blocked the opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia in October.

Western Balkans

The Western Balkans have a clear EU accession perspective, and “our deed is to support this”, Varhelyi told MEPs, pledging to work for the opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia “as soon as possible” because the countries “have met our requests.”

“What is at stake here is Europe’s credibility in the region and beyond,” he added, stressing that he intends to deepen sectorial cooperation with countries that are ready, not only with the Western Balkans but also with the Eastern Partnership.

“The EU must be ready to accept the region, and internal reforms can go hand in hand with Union enlargement,” he added.

Asked by Renew Europe MEP Ilhan Kyuchyuk, how he intends to convince the European Council to change its decision, Varhelyi said he wants Albania and North Macedonia to open accession talks before the Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May.

Varhelyi also stressed that he would have to work on existing concerns, mainly related to fake asylum claims and corruption, and engage with partners to mitigate those concerns to smooth the process in the next couple of months.

Commenting on the prospect of a possible new methodology in the accession talks, the Hungarian candidate stressed that it was not necessary to change the overall negotiating framework.

In a side jab at French President Macron, Varhelyi recalled the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, saying that nowadays the event is seen as having been in the general European interest, saying that although some had warned about the dangers and tried to slow down the events, ” history proved them wrong.”

Asked about his preferred accession timelines, Varhelyi said that five years from now, his vision would entail “a much more developed Western Balkans, peace between Kosovo and Serbia, very much advanced accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia and a Serbia that is ready to join”.

He admitted that, for now, this is “just a dream” but told MEPs: “No ambition, no achievement.”

The Hungarian candidate also assured that together with the EU’s incoming chief diplomat Joseph Borrell, he will work to resolve the stalled dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade in 2020.

Although offering scarce comments on other Western Balkan countries (no mention of Montenegro, the most advanced candidate, for example), when referring to Bosnia’s accession prospects, Varhelyi warned that it “cannot become a candidate country until they implement those reforms”.

Eastern Partnership

Asked how he intends to find a way to reinvigorate dialogue with Eastern Partnership countries, the Hungarian said his ideas include the EU trying to “help them to create a market economy to withstand outside pressure and create a climate for investment.”

The EU’s geopolitical goal is to create “stability in the Eastern Partnership,” he told MEPs.

“There is still work to be done” on Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreements (DCFTA), but if EaP countries are ready to engage more, “then we should integrate them in as many policy areas as possible”.

On the security scope in engagement with those countries, Varhelyi spoke about the EU’s “special responsibility” towards Ukraine and said the country needs support to regain full control over its territory.

On Moldova, he said EU financial assistance to Moldova will be suspended unless reforms in the country continue.

Turkey

Asked about the EU’s rather uncomfortable enlargement relationship with Turkey, Varhelyi said  the EU needs to reassess the partnership as the process itself “is already in a standstill”, but warned that finishing the negotiations without accession is a grave move that is not going to be decided by a Commissioner but the member states.

“We should not forget that Turkey is the second- biggest NATO ally,” he added, saying that such a fundamental decision would require “taking all factors into the account”.

Turkey and Hungary have recently bolstered their relations, with Orban attending a Turkic Council and meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in October.

All Orban’s man?

The hearing, as previously expected, also focused heavily on Várhelyi’s independence from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government in Budapest, which is currently at odds with Brussels over its deteriorating rule of law situation.

“We need proof of your independence,” French MEP Raphaël Glucksmann (S&D) warned during the hearing, asking whether the candidate will be condemning the illiberal democracy which has developed in Hungary.

In response to this and a number of other questions in the same vein, Varhelyi defended himself from accusations of being “Orban’s man” and kept repeating that his past and future work at the European Commission will prove that he will “follow the EU line, and the EU line only” and as Commissioner “will not accept any interference in my portfolio from any government”.

Asked if he thought Hungary in its current state would meet the criteria to become an EU member state, Varhelyi surprisingly replied:

“If any of the accession countries would be in such a position and we would see such shortcomings, of course, I couldn’t get the support of member states to let that accession country into the European Union.”

Answering a question on a hypothetical situation of having to condemn the Hungarian government, Várhelyi said: “I will have no choice but to take a stand, yes, and defend the EU values.”

Political group coordinators will meet this afternoon for an evaluation and forward their recommendation to European Parliament President David Sassoli.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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