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Hungarian Commissioner-designate dodges criticising Viktor Orbán

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"I will not be the envoy of a specific country, but the representative of the European Commission towards our neighbouring countries."

- stated the Hungarian Commissioner-designate Olivér Várhelyi in his written answers for the questions the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee asked him following Várhelyi failing the first round of his hearing last Thursday.

As Politico reported, the Hungarian Commissioner-designate received the following questions from the Committee to be answered by Monday noon:

  • If Várhelyi feels "bound or influenced" by Viktor Orbán's statements made at the Turkic Council,
  • How he would evaluate if an EU government granted asylum to a convicted former Prime Minister of a candidate country,
  • What his views are on the EP's recommendation for a targeted human rights sanctions regime,
  • What would he recommend as the commissioner responsible for enlargement if a country wishing to join the EU limits the space of opposition parties, controls national media outlets, forces judges into early retirement, restricts academic freedom, and does not combat organised crime and corruption,
  • What support he would provide to the civil society in the EU's partner countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East, and if he would commit to suspending budget support to governments breaching human rights,
  • What he thinks the level of IPA support for the Western Balkans should be, and if the IPA and other financial support for Turkey should be reduced.

The topics already came up at the hearing as well, but the Socialist and Democrats, the Greens, Renew Europe and GUE/NGL did not find Várhelyi's immediate answers convincing enough. Summarising her expectations of Várhelyi, S&D vice-president for foreign affairs Kati Piri stated:

"We set, as a red line, that he needed to clearly and fully distance himself from Viktor Orbán and his government’s actions that breached core EU laws and values on multiple occasions and have been the cause of the Article 7 procedure launched by the European Parliament."

Index.hu managed to acquire Várhelyi's written answers, in which he mostly reiterates the main points of his three-hour-long hearing, stressing that as a commissioner, he will be impartial and independent, but

at no point did Várhelyi criticise the Hungarian government despite the questions expressly requiring his evaluation.

With regards to the question referring to the asylum Hungary granted to Nikola Gruevski, the convicted former Prime Minister of Macedonia, Várhelyi dodged the question by writing: "It is for Member States to examine and decide on individual asylum requests, in full accordance with EU legislation and international conventions." 

Responding to Orbán's speech in the Turkic Council, where the Hungarian Prime Minister practically promised EU memberships to Turkey and Azerbaijan, Várhelyi gave a detailed account of the current relationship between these countries and the European Union but refused to directly comment on Orbán's words as

HE WOULD NEITHER BE "BOUND NOR INFLUENCED BY ANY STATEMENT OR POSITION OF ANY PRIME MINISTER OF ANY COUNTRY OR ANY OTHER REPRESENTATIVES OF ANY GOVERNMENT."

Várhelyi also noted that he would be in favour of targeted IPA cuts "if Turkey were to continue its serious backsliding on the rule of law and fundamental freedoms," and also addressed the human rights situation in Azerbaijan as well. 

The Commissioner-designate reinforced his commitment for human rights, press freedom, and judicial independence at several points and gave exhaustive and thorough answers to policy questions show his level of expertise. The Committee is set to vote about Várhelyi on Monday afternoon, they can either approve the Hungarian Commissioner-designate or call him in for a second hearing.

(Cover: European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner-designate Oliver Varhelyi of Hungary at his hearing before the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels, Belgium, November 14, 2019. Photo: Francois Lenoir / Reuters)

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