The Wrong Man in the Wrong Place


After the rejection of László Trócsányi, the first candidate of the illiberal Hungarian PM for the European Commission, by the Parliament’s JURI committee, the country’s acting ambassador to the EU, Olivér Várhelyi, was soon afterwards nominated by Viktor Orbán to the position. It is broadly considered that Várhelyi’s chances are much better, as he most probably lacks the questionable business-government interlinks that Trócsányi stumbled over. Even so, I would argue that there are major questions hanging over his nomination, not only because of the general concerns regarding the Hungarian government, but also due to his personal record. The portfolio proposed to the Hungarian Commissioner is particularly sensitive, and Várhelyi could be Commission President von der Leyen’s worst option for this post.

The problem of giving the enlargement and neighbourhood policy portfolio to the Hungarian Commissioner exploded right after von der Leyen announced the new Commission in mid-September. This has more to do with how the illiberal Hungarian government is generally viewed in Europe than the individual who will take the role. The concerns that were raised in the case of Trócsányi have not gone away with the swift change of nominee. Hungary is one of the first member states in European history (along with Poland) to become subject to an Article 7 procedure regarding the rule of law and democratic performance. Now, the Commissioner delegated by this country is supposed to represent the EU’s fundamental values and rights and its commitment to the rule of law in accession countries that are already not untouched by illiberal and autocratic tendencies. What is the message being sent out to these countries, such as Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbia? Or North Macedonia, where Hungarian-style illiberalism was pushed back only a few years ago, and court-condemned corrupt former PM Nikola Gruevski was rescued from the country by Hungarian diplomatic and most probably intelligence assistance? Receiving asylum status within a few days in a country that systematically denies this status to minors fleeing the Syrian civil war? Awarding the role of the EU’s rule of law arbiter in the accession countries to the member state which is often regarded as the most disappointing in this area may have devastating consequences.[1] As Paul Butcher of European Policy Centre points out: "In the Western Balkans, we already see a similar authoritarian attitude towards the rule of law, national sovereignty and democracy as in Hungary. [2] So if the Hungarian Commissioner follows the self-interest of his country, he has no interest in having the Copenhagen criteria respected. On the contrary.”A Hungarian Commissioner for Enlargement would tacitly replace the Copenhagen criteria on democracy and the rule of law with the "Budapest criteria". And how would this be seen by the democratic forces in the accession countries? Being in contact with many of them, I can tell you: as a betrayal, an abandonment by the EU. 

But it’s not only the rule of law that may concern us. Hungary’s warm relationship with Moscow creates an even more confusing situation. One of the main issues in recent years for European external policy in the Balkans and in Eastern Europe has been to limit the presence, influence and strength of Russian interests in the region. From military actions (such as those in South Ossetia or the Crimea) through indirect intervention (as in the Donbass), an attempted coup d’état (Montenegro) or supporting pro-Russian far-right political forces (as in the case of Bulgaria’s Attaka), to less visible intelligence manoeuvres or ramping up economic influence and energy dependency, the repertoire of Vladimir Putin’s Russia to make trouble in the EU’s Eastern Partnership and accession countries is endless.[3] Hungary’s Pro-Russian leader, Viktor Orbán, is on extremely good terms with President Putin and held more bilateral meetings with him in the last few years than with any European leader. The Russian-built and financed nuclear power plant at Paks or the move of the headquarters of the dubious International Investment Bank (which is believed by many to be a front for intelligence services) to Budapest are just two examples of the strong Moscow-Budapest friendship. Again, the message sent out by the decision to offer the neighbourhood and enlargement policy to Hungary can hardly be misunderstood by Russia: it’s a kind of green light for further troublemaking. 

Of the Eastern Partnership countries, Hungary’s reputation is particularly bad in Armenia and Ukraine. The extradition of the Azerbaijani army officer and murderer of his Armenian fellow soldier, Ramil Safarov, to Azerbaijan cooled diplomatic relationships between Hungary and Armenia to freezing point and sparked mass demonstrations in Yerevan. With Ukraine, tensions are even more complicated. Since Russian aggression flared against the former Soviet state, Hungary has had a constantly turbulent relationship with Kyiv. The conflicts have been numerous. Budapest has repeatedly criticised EU sanctions against Russia introduced in response to the occupation of the Crimea. The sudden switch-off of the gas pipelines from Hungary to Ukraine a few days after a meeting between Orbán and Gazprom boss Alexey Miller in September 2014, when Russia hadn’t sent any gas to Kyiv for months already. Blocking Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration and the ongoing dispute over the questionable Ukrainian minority language law.[4] As far as Ukraine is concerned, Hungary is much more part of the problem than of the solution; trust and confidence in Budapest are extremely low. 

As regards Hungarian enthusiasm towards Russia and the openly discussed activities of Russian intelligence services in Hungary, we must raise another issue as well.[5] As Várhelyi is commonly known for his absolute loyalty to Orbán, the concern emerges: how sure can we be that confidential information regarding neighbourhood policy issues will be properly protected without any chance of being leaked to Budapest and thence to Moscow?[6]

To the south, Hungary also has a track record of conflict and here, Várhelyi’s personal position is also problematic. The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EUROMED) countries have had particularly unpleasant experiences with Hungary and with Várhelyi. He personally vetoed the EU-Arab League agreement at a COREPER meeting in preparation for the Sharm-el-Sheikh summit this February. “On Friday, we became witnesses of a diplomatic rampage in Hungary,” an EU diplomat commented concerning Várhelyi’s action to German press agency dpa.[7] Euractive’s Albrecht Meier adds: “Obviously, the country stands alone in the blockade of deeper cooperation with the countries of the Arab League.”[8]

It was also Várhelyi who blocked the text of an agreement between the EU and African countries this April, triggering a major diplomatic row. In response to his last-minute veto, the French and German ambassadors attacked what they described as “regular Hungarian efforts to undermine the EU’s important collective issues.”[9] The language of the agreement, incidentally, had already been signed off by Hungary back in 2015 and this time, the same wording should have been approved again. 

Confidence in Hungary and the country’s ambassador to the EU, Várhelyi, was undermined among EU member states and partner countries as long ago as May 2017 by the veto of the EU’s development strategy.[10] The veto was so unexpected that the meeting of the permanent representatives had to be suspended.

This automatically raises the question: why, going forward, would the countries of the Mediterranean Partnership trust an EU negotiator who personally blocked several agreements of particularly importance to them? How can the EU  select someone to be its face for the southern neighbours when he is principally known to them for his last-minute vetos of essential documents that they have been working on for a long time? 

And how far can the member states trust a Hungarian Commissioner to manage the Union’s partnership and enlargement relations, when he once did all in his power to block the EU’s common external policy actions? Rejecting the Council conclusion earlier this year on the EU-Switzerland relationship because of references in the text to migration may be seen as simple ignorance.[11] Várhelyi’s veto of an EU memorandum to China  last April because it warns that "One Belt, One Road cannot weaken the liberal world order, cannot strive for the division of other countries or the preparation of Chinese hegemony”, however, is much more alarming.[12] It is, in fact, a hostile action to destroy the strength and power of the common EU foreign policy line against China, which has important interests in the Balkans. "Because of the Hungarian veto, the whole affair became merely the action of 27 EU ambassadors instead of a high-level EU statement of principles”, the online English-language news site Hungarian Spectrum wrote. 

The problem is even more obvious in the case of the EU statement on Israel, which was also vetoed by Várhelyi, the head of the Hungarian Permanent Representation. The statement, in line with the common EU position, recalled the need for a two-state solution, expressed concerns regarding current trends and stressed that the European Union is alarmed by Palestinian deaths. "The very, very last-minute” veto with no proper explanation provoked an absolutely unprecedented move by the EU.[13] The document was read out at the UN Security Council by the Finnish ambassador to the UN, as a common opinion of 27 member states. Hungary not included.

Ursula von der Leyen, the President-elect of the European Commission, said not so long ago that she wants to end the practice of member states’ vetos on foreign policy.[14] To say that the best way to do this is not rewarding the champion of vetos with an important external relations portfolio is an understatement.

Várhelyi’s nomination as new Commissioner designate is, in a way, a smart move from the illiberal card-player, Viktor Orbán. However, switching candidate after the rejection of László Trócsányi is not a guarantee of the same portfolio. Von der Leyen may decide not to put  aspects of common European external relations into the hands of someone who has repeatedly undermined the common, one-voice action of the EU. And the European Parliament foreign affairs committee could also have many, many questions.