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

Brussels (AFP) –


Hungary's nominee to the European Commission insisted Wednesday he would not follow the line of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, seeking to allay concerns about Budapest's ties to Russia and Turkey.

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

But his arguments failed to convince enough MEPs on the parliament's foreign affairs committee and he must now submit written answers to more questions.

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.

In a boost for the German, the first woman to lead the commission, the replacement French candidate Thierry Breton was approved as commissioner in charge of the single market and digital issues.

Varhelyi told MEPs 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.

"As commissioner, from the day I am elected I would be acting in a completely independent way -- I will take no instruction from any government or any institution... I will be pursuing the EU line and only the EU line," Varhelyi said.

"I will not accept any interference with my portfolio or my task from any government."

- Dig at Macron -

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.

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. Varhelyi said he would push for the talks to begin "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 and calling for the accession process to be reformed.

Varhelyi rejected the French leader's analysis, saying that Skopje and Tirana -- which have suffered repeated disappointments at the hands of existing members despite senior EU officials saying they should be given the green light -- must be given a path to membership.

"I do not see a binary choice between deepening and widening. In the history of our union the two have gone hand in hand," he told MEPs.