Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission is on track to take office on December 1 after the two largest political groups in the European Parliament said they would support Hungarian candidate Olivér Várhelyi to be the commissioner for neighborhood and enlargement policy.
Várhelyi, currently Hungary’s ambassador to the EU, got the green light from members of the Parliament’s committee on foreign affairs after he gave assurances about his independence from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in answers to additional questions from MEPs.
“I will neither be bound nor influenced by any statement or position of any Prime Minister of any country or any other representatives of any government,” Olivér Várhelyi wrote in answers to members of the committee.
Last week, MEPs, particularly those from the Socialists and Democrats group, refused to approve Várhelyi because of concerns about his independence. Critics accuse Orbán of meddling in the Balkans and maintaining an overly close relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Some members of Parliament said they were particularly concerned about a speech made by Orbán in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, last month, where he appeared to pledge Várhelyi’s assistance to the Hungarian government’s Turkish and Azerbaijani allies.
“Hungary is currently fighting to ensure that, in this European government, Hungarians are given the portfolio of enlargement and neighborhood policy,” the prime minister said. “If we manage to secure this portfolio, we will have close cooperation with Azerbaijan on the issue of Eastern partnership, and with Turkey on the issue of membership talks. If we manage to secure this portfolio, we will gladly assist you in furthering your endeavours.”
In his written answers, Várhelyi distanced himself from the Hungarian leadership’s foreign policy positions.
“The EU is a key trade partner of Azerbaijan, provides support to economic diversification and promotes reforms to improve the business climate. We also have a mutual interest in energy cooperation. However, I will not shy away from clearly addressing the human rights situation in Azerbaijan and raise relevant issues, e.g. political prisoners and freedom of assembly and speech, both publicly and directly with the Azerbaijani authorities at the highest levels,” the Hungarian candidate wrote.
“The same applies to Turkey. Turkey is an important partner for the EU and we have a strong interest in cooperating effectively with Turkey. However, this will not prevent me from giving unambiguous messages on issues such as the serious backsliding on rule of law and fundamental freedoms, the illegal drilling in the Mediterranean or the military incursion in Syria,” he wrote.
The next Commission is now set to be voted into office during the European Parliament’s plenary session on November 27, although the institution still needs to find a solution to the U.K.’s refusal to nominate a commissioner.
Last week, the Commission launched an infringement procedure against the U.K. after Britain’s ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, wrote a letter saying the U.K. would not nominate a commissioner until after the December 12 national election. The U.K. government has until November 22 to “provide their views,” according to the Commission.
A spokesperson for the Commission told reporters on Monday that the institution didn’t have any update on the case, saying: “You are aware of how infringement procedures go.”
Hungary was the last country to not have a Commission candidate approved after the Parliament backed French businessman Thierry Breton for an expansive portfolio overseeing the internal market, industrial policy, defense and space, and Romanian MEP Adina-Ioana Vălean was backed for the transport post.
Asked whether Várhelyi would be independent of Orbán, one senior Fidesz party official told POLITICO that while no one can know for certain, “I do not think” the incoming commissioner would be “really” independent.
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