Várhelyi repeatedly questioned by MEPs about his independence from Orbán

Hearing of Oliver Varhelyi in AFET; Photo: European Union

BRUSSELS – Commissioner-designate for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi went through two and a half hours of hearing in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament today, during which he defended his future status as an independent member of the EC and laid out his vision for the next five years of the EU enlargement process.

“As a Commissioner, I will represent the EU, and not my country. I will follow the EU line, and only the EU line. We have clear criteria which Western Balkans have to reach – I do not intend to change the criteria but to work more intensively on them. I will not accept any interference with my portfolio from any government” – this was the answer the Hungarian nominee and until recently Permanent Representative to Brussels had to give on several different occasions.

When the Members of the European Parliament pointed out the state of democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression in Hungary, which are all assessed to be on a downward trend, Várhelyi expressed his support to the fundamentals first principle, which means that the speed of accession negotiations depends on the criteria in these fields.

“My position as a Commissioner is not only to convince the WB countries to deliver on their obligations, but to convince our citizens that the enlargement is in our interest if the conditions are met”, he emphasised.

However, the concerns over the recent actions of Hungarian government most closely connected to the Western Balkans – granting asylum to former Prime Minister of North Macedonia Nikola Gruevski, who was convicted for corruption, and the statement of the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that Hungary will use the portfolio to promote the interest of Azerbaijan and Turkey during his visit to Baku, did not receive the answers MEPs were hoping for.

Várhelyi avoided to condemn both actions as an internal mater of an EU member state, for which he will not be responsible as a Commissioner.

When the session returned to the rule of law issues, MEPs once again tried to tackle the issue of Várhelyi’s fitness to promote Copenhagen criteria given the state of these conditions for membership in Hungary.

Asked what evidence he can give that the Copenhagen criteria will not be replaced with “Budapest criteria”, Commissioner-designate stated that he will not work without unanimous agreement of all EU member states and that he is not afraid to make value choices.

Five years from now: An ambitious agenda

Both in his opening and concluding remarks, Várhelyi stated that his priority would be the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.

“Major EU leaders went to North Macedonia before Prespa Agreement referendum and promised that the talks will be opened if it is passed”, he said, adding that he would like to see both countries in the late phases of the accession negotiations by the time he left office.

He set an even more ambitious goals for Serbia and Kosovo: that he would work on a successful conclusion of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue in 2020, Kosovo visa liberalisation and Serbia being ready for EU membership by 2024 (he did not mention Montenegro).

Várhelyi welcomed the increased engagement of the United States in the region, saying that he would reach out to the new envoys if he becomes the Commissioner.

When it comes to yet another current topic, the reform of the enlargement process, the Hungarian nominee stated that while he agrees that the methodology needs to be enhanced, he does not believe that the entire process need to be revised.

“I do not see deepening and widening being a bilateral choice”, he added.

In his concluding remarks, Várhelyi reminded of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, saying that the EU has a historic opportunity under this mandate to establish peace, prosperity and stability for the Balkans.

“We have the opportunity to look back to this period in 30 years and say that we were worthy to our predecessors”, he concluded.

European Parliament will vote for the new European Commission on 27 November. Before that, Foreign Affairs Committee will decide on whether to support Várhelyi, which will be indicative for the feeling of the entire EP.