After its first candidate for the post of EU Commissioner, Laszlo Trocsanyi, was blocked by the European Parliament, Hungary was tasked to find a new nominee to join Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission.
European Parliament committee rejects Hungarian pick
Accused of potential conflict of interest, Trocsanyi came under scrutiny due to links between a law firm he founded and his work within the Hungarian government, along with obvious concerns from MEP’s regarding his job as Justice minister and role in passing through controversial legislation accused by the EU of undermining the rule of law in Hungary.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who overwhelmingly voted in favour of Von der Leyen as the next EU Commission President, accused the committee of being unfair and of having rejected his candidate to punish Hungary’s stance on migration.
Echoing the Premier’s attacks, several other Hungarian MP’s also condemned the committee’s decision motivated, according to them, by Trocsanyi’s pledge and action in favour of defending Hungary’s borders from migrants and refugees. Trocsanyi himself said that the move lacked any factual basis, and that he could take legal steps against it.
Trocsanyi was initially tasked to take over the EU’s Neighbourhood and Enlargement policy, a noteworthy portfolio considering Hungary’s vested interest in stopping migration from the Balkan route and economic and political influence strategy in the region – prompting outrage and bewilderment among many observers who saw it as too big a concession to be made to Hungary’s illiberal champion.
Oliver Varhelyi poised to become Hungary’s next EU Commissioner
As for the new candidate, Hungary picked its current permanent representative to the EU, Oliver Varhelyi, following a conversation with von der Leyen. Orban further said that he “will not have anyone pick and choose from Hungarian politicians” and that “under the circumstances”, he can “only propose a technocrat”.
Oliver Varhelyi, Hungary’s next pick for EU Commissioner, is a career diplomat, Fidesz member and a loyal ally to Orban since the beginning of his career. Although described as a highly intelligent and extremely knowledgeable official, especially on EU issues, his own countrymen and colleagues paint him as a rather abrasive, combative person, who enjoys screaming at and humiliating staffers, depending on his mood. Concurrently, his alleged rude and competitive behaviour makes for a very sharp and focused work result.
Varhelyi began his career at the Ministry of Industry and Trade before joining the Foreign Ministry in 1996. He climbed the ranks and ultimately started working at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Internal Market and Services.
Hungary’s new nominee faces scrutiny from EU lawmakers
Just as with Trocsanyi, Varhelyi’s close relationship with the Hungarian Prime Minister will probably come under scrutiny during the confirmation process in the EU Parliament – although him being a respected and familiar face in Brussels might also ease the process.
Given the strong criticism Orban’s regime receives from Brussels, it might be questionable whether Varhelyi can be a credible proponent of democracy in the Balkans or promote a neutral approach with countries that have difficult or close ties with Russia. If he takes over the same portfolio given to Trocsanyi, Varhelyi will oversee the EU’s relationship with the western Balkans, Turkey and the so-called Eastern Partnership countries of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan. His tasks would also include managing the EU’s bilateral relations with countries such as Libya, Algeria and Tunisia, and working with them to address migration flux from Northern Africa.
Hungary has troubled relationships with some of its neighbours, most notably Ukraine, due to its close ties with Moscow. Many fear that Varhelyi’s appointment might enable Russia to gain a substantive access to EU policy making. Hungary also has a troubling relationship with Balkan countries, where it has been expanding its political and economic influence for years, as exemplified, for instance, by its controversial decision to grant asylum to the fugitive former Macedonian Prime Minister and speaking out against an EU-backed deal to resolve the Macedonia-Greece name dispute.
Other countries, including Austria and Serbia, have however come out in favour of handing this portfolio to Budapest considering Hungary’s close ties with both the Balkans’ EU-hopeful and Central Europe’s EU member states.
Varhelyi still has to go through the whole confirmation and hearing process, and his nomination hangs in the balance – although it appears unlikely Hungary’s picks will be rejected twice – as well as the nature of his portfolio – many observers believe he won’t receive the Enlargement portfolio, considering Romania and France’s EU Commissioner picks were also rejected by MEP’s. Due to his close ties to controversial domestic leaders counterbalanced with his respected abilities and expertise in EU affairs, Varhelyi appears slightly reminiscent of Slovakia’s Maros Sefcovic or the Czech Republic’s Vera Jourova.
Issues such as potential conflicts of interest or conflict between party alliances and EU Commission goals should always come into the spotlight and be investigated, but if experience and work results are taken into account, then Varhelyi might be the right pick for the Commission.
Written by Mark Szabo
An international relations and European politics student at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, Márk grew up in a bi-cultural Slovak-Hungarian family, stoking his interest in Central European politics and cross-national relations. A former intern at the Bratislava-based Globsec Institute, Márk aims for a career in diplomacy. He joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. To check out his latest articles, it’s right here!