Who thought putting a wrecker of European values in charge of EU enlargement was a good idea?

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Who thought putting a wrecker of European values in charge of EU enlargement was a good idea?

As the incoming President Ursula von der Leyen unveiled her team for the next European Commission, Hungary reliably played its usual troublemaker role. The Hungarian nominee was confirmed as László Trócsányi who previously served as the Justice Minister under Viktor Orbán between 2014 and 2019.

As a minister, Trócsányi was the architect of some of Hungary’s most controversial policies. He was a key player in banishing the Central European University from the country, and in criminalising the work of migrant aid NGOs.

As if that’s not bad enough, Tróscányi’s portfolio raised eyebrows even further. A minister who spent years assaulting European values in his home country is now meant to be the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement. It’s hard to imagine a man with worse credentials for lecturing countries in the Western Balkans and elsewhere on rule of law and respecting EU rules.

The European Parliament shouldn’t back down

The contradiction hasn’t gone unnoticed among MEPs either. Already before Trócsányi’s portfolio was confirmed, The Guardian reported the leading Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld as saying the nomination is a ‘provocation’. Sirpa Pietikäinen, a Finnish MEP for the EPP group in which Trócsányi’s Fidesz party also sits, told the Finnish broadcaster YLE that the Parliament is likely to intervene on his nomination.

All Commissioner nominees must attend a three-hour grilling in front of a European Parliament committee. Afterwards, the Parliament has the right to reject the nomination. In 2014, the Parliament rejected the Hungarian nominee Tibor Navracsics, who only got into the Commission after the field of citizenship’ was dropped from his portfolio.

The European Parliament should not back down in 2019 either. Especially in the Western Balkans, the EU needs to take care to maintain its credibility. Albania and North Macedonia already have reasons to grow jaded after member states have repeatedly rejected their bids to start accession negotiations. Moreover, over the next five years, negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina will require special tactfulness and leadership on the EU’s part.

Overall in the Western Balkans, the EU’s influence is rivalled by Russia and China. The latter two can offer business deals and money with seemingly no strings attached. What the EU has is its values, and a social and political model to aspire towards. If the EU sends the right-hand man of an authoritarian villain to represent it, its offer for the Western Balkans will be desperately vacuous.

Trócsányi as an example of the need for EU reform

The Trócsányi affair also raises a more general issue. Namely, the European Commission is meant to represent European values and the European interest, but its individual members are nominated by member states which don’t always respect European values.

As long as the Commission President is beholden to member states like is the case today, we risk having an eclectic crew at the Commission. With the Commission marred by its internal differences, its capability to provide leadership for Europe in fields that require value judgements is weakened. As it happens, enlargement is one field which is all about values.

For the moment, though, the European Parliament can save both the EU and its neighbourhood from Trócsányi. Even though the next Commission will necessarily be burdened by one Viktor Orbán nominee, that doesn’t have to mean it needs to be Trócsányi.

Even more importantly, the Orbanite doesn’t necessarily have to hold one of the more ‘political’ positions within the Commission. There are a handful of slightly more technocratic posts available where questionable views on rule of law and fundamental freedoms are less of an obstacle, like the health Commissioner’s post. Still not ideal, but that would do for now.

This piece has also been published on The Vostokian.

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