The rejection of Hungary’s Trocsanyi as EU enlargement commissioner is an opportunity for a wider reshuffle of commission candidates, taking this sensitive portfolio out of the hands of Hungary’s ‘illiberal’ government.
By Florian Bieber*
The decision of the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee, JURI, to reject the nomination of Hungary’s Laszlo Trocsanyi as Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, together with Romania’s Rovana Plumb as transport commissioner, was the first major upset for Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen.
After protesting, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has now named Oliver Varhelyi, the current Hungarian ambassador to the EU, as a substitute.
However, this first test for von der Leyen provides her with an opportunity to reshuffle the distribution of Commissioner’s portfolios, rather than just continue with Varhelyi as Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement.
While Trocsanyi officially stumbled due to unresolved conflict of interests, the real challenge was his political background as a high-ranking member of Orban’s ruling Fidesz party. Replacing him with another candidate nominated by Orban would therefore be a mistake.
Varhelyi might appear to be an apolitical bureaucrat. But he has loyally defended Orban’s policies in Brussels for years. The Orban government has not afforded diplomats and other technocrats any independence and those whose careers have advanced during the past decade have had to display full loyalty to the regime.
So while Varhelyi might be less exposed than Trocsanyi, who had helped dismantle the rule of law in Hungary, his support for the country’s transformation into a personalised illiberal regime is beyond doubt.
The EU has rightfully put rule of law at the centre of enlargement and in its 2018 strategy the Commission noted that all countries of the region had experienced elements of state capture.
How credibly can a Commissioner close to Orban promote this agenda, when Orban’s rule has been marked by state capture and the systematic erosion of the rule of law?
While Commissioners represent the Union and not their country of origin, it is hard to imagine that a person nominated by Orban would be a plausible candidate to promote the rule of law. Even if he, or she, did, it would stink of hypocrisy, further undermining EU credibility in the Western Balkans.
The hope that, if a Hungarian commissioner had to promote the rule of law in the Western Balkans, this would have a positive trickle-down effect in Hungary is naive, considering the deliberate and systematic erosion of independent institutions Hungary experienced during the past decade.
In a first response to the rejection of Trocsanyi, Hungarian officials criticised the decision and pointed to their country’s support for enlargement.
Indeed, Hungary has been a strong supporter of bringing the Western Balkans in.
However, this agenda seems largely self-serving and it is hard to shake the suspicion that with close ties to current and former strongmen in the region, such as Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, the goal is to bolster an illiberal counterweight within the EU.
An enlargement commissioner from Hungary will be hard pressed to assuage French and Dutch concerns over the rule of law in the Western Balkans. In fact, a Hungarian commissioner lobbying for enlargement will act as a constant reminder why French and Dutch publics and governments are reserved about enlargement.
Aiding a fugitive
Furthermore, Orban’s government has been obstructing the EU agenda in the Western Balkans.
While the EU and most member states openly supported the Prespa Agreement that ended the long-standing name dispute between North Macedonia and Greece, Orban openly lobbied against it.
In November 2018, Hungary not only offered asylum to Gruevski, who was sentenced to jail in North Macedonia for corruption, but Hungarian embassies helped in his escape and transport to Hungary, effectively obstructing the rule of law.
The complicity of embassies and the foreign ministry in bringing Gruevski to Budapest highlights how in Orban’s Hungary, there is little space for independent and professional institutions, reflecting that even seemingly professional or apolitical candidates proposed by Orban are primarily expected to demonstrate loyalty to the regime.
Beyond the Balkans, the new commissioner is also responsible for neighborhood policy, including relations with Ukraine. Considering the close ties the Orban government built with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and its repeated exploitation of Ukraine’s difficult position to put pressure on it regarding the status of the Hungarian minority, Varhelyi will also be conflicted between Hungary’s agenda and the EU agenda towards its eastern neighbour.
Thus, while Trocsanyi might be gone, a straight swap with Varhelyi, a different Orban loyalist, will only undermine the EU agenda in this important and sensitive region for the bloc.
The combination of undermining the rule of law at home and promoting like-minded regimes makes any candidate for enlargement and neighborhood commissioner named by Orban’s government ill-suited. Von der Leyen would be well advised to use the failure of Trocsanyi and Romania’s Plumb to pass Parliament scrutiny to consider reshuffling portfolios.
*Florian Bieber is Professor for Southeast European History and Politics, coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) and author of The Rise of Authoritarianism in the Western Balkans (Palgrave, 2019), on behalf of BiEPAG.
The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.