Is von der Leyen on course to ease tensions with Hungary?

EU Commissioner-designate for enlargement, László Trócsányi, is considered to be Orban's close confidant. He was responsible for the law that criminalised the work of NGOs supporting refugees, as well as for the law that forced the CEU to leave Budapest. [EPA-EFE/Szilard Koszticsak]

European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen’s Commissioner pick for the enlargement and neighbourhood policy, the former Hungarian Justice Minister László Trócsányi, is appearing to be a particularly controversial one. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Trócsány’s nomination is an attempt by von der Leyen to cool tensions between the EU and Hungary, according to Péter Balázs, the director of the Centre for European European Neighbourhood Studies at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. Balázs used to be the Hungarian Commissioner for Regional Policy in the Prodi Commission.

“We have so many other problems – Brexit, the trade wars with the US. It seems that the new Commission wants to improve relations with Hungary and Poland,” he told EURACTIV.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also supported von der Leyen in her election as Commission president – although he had no other choice after opposing Timmermans, according to Balázs.

Trócsányi, who was Hungary’s justice minister until June of this year, is considered to be Orban’s close confidant. He was responsible for the law that criminalised the work of NGOs supporting refugees, as well as for the law that forced the CEU to leave Budapest.

The portfolio itself is also of great interest to Hungary. Enlargement and neighbourhood policy is one of the country’s priorities, particularly with the Balkans and especially Serbia in mind.

Budapest also wants Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia to join the Schengen area.

We lack alternatives to Article 7 – German analyst

Poland and Hungary have been on collision course with Brussels. The EU wants to up the pressure to restore the rule of law in the member states. But what are the instruments at hand? EURACTIV Germany spoke to Nicole Koenig.

“Witch hunt” and the rule of law

However, it would seem that we are still far from improving relations, as seen during a debate in the EU Council on Monday (16 September). The Council debated the allegations of violations of EU values and the rule of law that the European Parliament made against Hungary a year ago, after which it initiated proceedings under Article 7 of the EU Treaty.

This is the first time in the EU’s history that Parliament has called on the EU Council to “take action against a member state to prevent a systemically relevant threat to the fundamental values of the Union”, the Parliament stated in a press release at the time.

During the debate, Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga accused her counterparts of “witch-hunting” Hungary, adding that the case against Hungary was the “next step in the revenge campaign of pro-migration forces”.

But the harsh tones are to be seen in the context of the upcoming local elections in Hungary on 13 October. It, therefore, remains to be seen how Hungary’s relationship with the new Commission will develop after these elections.

Orban hopeful on ties with von der Leyen’s Commission

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said on Thursday (12 September) he was optimistic that the new European Commission would improve ties with the EU’s eastern members, long strained by disagreements over migration and multi-culturalism.

The Article 7 procedure is closely linked to the allegations currently made by MEPs against the Hungarian Commissioner-designate, notably for his work as justice minister.

For example, Parliament Vice-President Katharina Barley told the newspapers of the RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland (RND) that “as justice minister, László Trócsányi undermined the rule of law in an EU member state”.

According to Barley, the Hungarian Commissioner-designate “shares responsibility for judicial reform, discrimination against minorities and discriminatory laws against non-governmental organisations”.

And Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld told the Guardian that Trócsányi’s nomination was provocative, adding that she expects “him to get a lot of headwind from Parliament.”

The Balkans priority

And what would it mean for enlargement policy if Trócsányi were able to assert himself during the hearing in the European Parliament?

First of all, little, because as much as von der Leyen emphasises that enlargement in the Balkans is a priority of her Commission, member states such as France or the Netherlands would hardly agree to the admission of a new member in the foreseeable future.

“Nothing will happen there. It doesn’t matter who becomes enlargement Commissioner,” said György Schöpflin, a long-time Hungarian MEP for Fidesz.

Moreover, Trócsányi does not have the necessary experience to shape the European Commission’s policy. Initially, at least, he would probably read his briefing notes, according to Schöpflin.

Trócsányi himself announced on Twitter that he felt “honoured to have been proposed for the portfolio of Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy”.

Asked to comment on the accusations levelled by the European Parliament and on the issues he wanted to focus on as Commissioner, he declined, saying he would only talk to the media after the hearing.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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