Hungary EU nominee insists he will not be Orban’s man

BRUSSELS (AFP) – Hungary’s nominee to the powerful European Commission insisted on Wednesday he would not bow to influence from nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, seeking to allay concerns about Budapest’s close ties to Russia and Turkey.

Oliver Varhelyi, the Hungarian ambassador to the European Union (EU), told a confirmation hearing at the European Parliament that he would act independently if approved as commissioner for “neighbourhood and enlargement”, responsible for relations with countries aspiring to join the bloc.

And he said he wanted long-stalled membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania to be approved before an EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb next May, taking a swipe at French President Emmanuel Macron for blocking the decision last month. MEPs grilled Varhelyi about a speech by Orban last month in which the PM told the Turkish and Azerbaijani leaders that if Hungary were to “obtain” the enlargement portfolio, “we will be happy to be at your disposal to help you with your aspirations”. Varhelyi insisted he would not take orders from Budapest, where Orban’s strongman government is locked in a tussle with the EU over issues of rule of law and media freedom.

Turkey is nominally in the process of joining the EU, but accession talks have been frozen as concern grows in Europe over the erosion of rights under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Varhelyi is Hungary’s second choice to join the commission after MEPs rejected first pick Laszlo Trocsanyi over a conflict of interest – along with the French and Romanian candidates, in a serious blow to President-elect Ursula von der Leyen. The key region for the enlargement part of the portfolio is the Western Balkans, where North Macedonia and Albania are itching to be given a date to start membership talks, and Varhelyi said he would push for this to happen “in the shortest time frame possible”. France has led opposition to the opening of talks, with Macron insisting the EU must strengthen existing ties before adding new members.