Former European Commissioner Günther Oettinger has defended his plan to take up a top post at a controversial science council set up by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Hungary’s Official Journal said last week that Orbán had appointed the German politician as co-chairman of the newly created National Science Policy Council, which advises the government on innovation and research.
Critics say the council is part of efforts by the Hungarian government to exert stricter control over the academic sector, for example by cutting funding for researchers who oppose Orbán’s policies. The government argues that it’s reforming the country’s science sector to become more innovative.
Hungary is also currently facing the so-called Article 7 censure procedure, triggered in 2018 during Oettinger’s last mandate as commissioner by the European Parliament, which cited rule of law concerns, including about academic freedom.
Oettinger, who bowed out as a commissioner late last year after almost 10 years in Brussels, confirmed that he wants to take up the job, provided that he gets approval from the EU executive: Former commissioners are supposed to request permission for new jobs after leaving office during a two-year “cooling off” period to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
He stressed he hadn’t been told the job would involve any payment and said he wants “to shape the agenda of meetings and contribute to discussions” to help boost science in Hungary.
“Science, innovation and research must be a concern for the whole of Europe and must therefore also be better promoted in individual countries,” Oettinger told POLITICO. “Throughout recent years, I have always criticized Europe for not doing enough research. We have to put 3 percent of our gross national product into research and instead we’re constantly at 2 percent.”
But critics, particularly left-leaning and green lawmakers in the European Parliament, accuse Oettinger of supporting Orbán’s ambitions to put science under government control. Accusations of a lack of academic freedom in Hungary have increased in recent years, especially after the Central European University financed by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros said it had to move to Vienna due to restrictions imposed by Hungarian authorities.
Hungary has also faced scrutiny for laws that impose strict conditions on foreign-funded NGOs, and the European People’s Party — of which Oettinger is a member — recently extended the suspension of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party indefinitely.
“Lending credibility to a regime that is attacking the independence of science is a terrible idea for a former commissioner,” said Green MEP Daniel Freund. “And that in a situation where NGOs and journalists are heavily under pressure, there is blatant corruption in the country, there is an ongoing Article 7 procedure and [Orbán’s ruling party] Fidesz is suspended from his party family, the European People’s Party.”
Oettinger rejects that criticism. “The name says it all: The National Science Policy Council has an advisory role, it’s not taking any decisions,” he said. “Freedom of science and teaching has always been very important to me. That’s why I don’t accept that criticism. It’s very far-fetched.”
As co-chairman, Oettinger would work alongside Hungarian Minister for Innovation and Technology László Palkovics, who leads the institution. Oettinger would be the only non-Hungarian member on the council.
The announcement of the appointment also raises questions about the code of conduct for former commissioners. Under the rules, outgoing commissioners have to notify the Commission at least two months in advance of work they plan to take up. The Commission then has to approve the request. That rule applies for two years after leaving office.
Oettinger said he wrote to the Commission three days ago and described his planned job at the council. “The Commission now has to analyze my note,” he said. “I will only start my role after the Commission has issued a decision.”
The German has come under fire before for having close ties to Orbán. In 2016, when he was commissioner for digital economy, he used the private jet of a pro-Russia German businessman working for the Hungarian government to fly to a dinner with Orbán. Oettinger said at the time there had been no commercial flight available to get him to Budapest in time for the dinner.
“There are concerns that this new job might somehow be the result of Oettinger’s involvement — as a European commissioner — in decisions that affected the Hungarian government,” said Margarida Silva from the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory. “If this turns out to be the case, then this might require an investigation by OLAF [the EU’s anti-fraud office].”
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