European Western Balkans

Politico: Várhelyi has attempted to play down concerns about rule of law in candidates

Olivér Várhelyi, European Enlargement Commissioner; Photo: European Union

BRUSSELS – According to more than a dozen officials from multiple institutions and an analysis of internal documents, European Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi has overseen a push to play down concerns about the rule of law and human rights in candidates for EU membership, Politico reports.

According to the magazine, although the Commissioner is meant to produce even-handed assessments of all would-be members, he’s pushing the candidacy of one country above all: Serbia — despite the fact that Belgrade has failed to make progress on key issues and even regressed on some, according to democracy watchdogs.

The article assesses that Várhelyi’s stance does match with the agenda of one EU government — his own.

“Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has repeatedly dismissed EU institutions’ views on the rule of law and democracy, above all when it comes to criticism of his own rule. He has championed the EU aspirations of Serbia, Hungary’s southern neighbor, ruled by his ally, President Aleksandar Vučić. Both men have been widely accused of authoritarian tendencies”, the article reads.

His stance, Politico states, risks damaging the standing of the Commission among EU governments and the credibility of the European Union among leaders in the Western Balkans.

The article quotes an email to staff from Maciej Popowski, acting head of the Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, from February.

“Commissioner Várhelyi has made it a priority to accelerate the enlargement negotiations with Serbia… While this depends first and foremost, on reforms in Serbia, we need to be ready to move forward on the EU side as soon as Serbia demonstrates the necessary progress”, the email reads, according to Politico.

However cabinet, Politico claimshas tried to delete or water down language in official texts about Serbia’s democratic failings, according to officials and internal documents.

“Those efforts stand in contrast to multiple assessments of the state of the rule of law in Serbia from NGOs and independent analysts”, the article reads.

“There was a lot of pressure” to open new clusters for Serbia, a Commission official said, noting that staff were “asked to cut corners” and “fast-track” work.

Another EU diplomat supported that assertion. The commissioner “pressured to open clusters and chapters” on Serbia when the necessary work had not been done, he said.

Three officials also said for Politico the Commission’s Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers gave a “negative opinion” on this year’s draft enlargement report. The move was mostly due to concern that Serbia’s progress was portrayed too positively, two of the officials said.

“Multiple officials said DG NEAR staff have made calls to colleagues in other departments asking them to push back against DG NEAR’s own policy drafts. But officials say that pressure from other parts of the Commission has not proven a complete counter to Várhelyi’s approach”, Politico writes.

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