Varhelyi: Dialogue should conclude successfully in 2020

Questioned by MEPs, Hungarian Oliver Varhelyi said he would work to convince France and others of the merits of further expansion to the Western Balkans.

Hungary’s candidate for the post of European Union enlargement commissioner set out an ambitious plan for integration of the Balkan region before the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee on Thursday, including a target of 2020 to broker a deal to settle relations between Serbia and its former southern province, Kosovo.

Career diplomat Oliver Varhelyi has been nominated by the nationalist government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban to replace Austria’s Johannes Hahn in the role of steering enlargement policy, a policy further cast into doubt last month when France vetoed the start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

Orban has been a strong advocate of EU expansion to the Western Balkans since ex-Yugoslav Croatia became the last country to join in 2013.

Declaring that the EU’s “credibility is at stake”, Varhelyi said he would continue to lobby for the start of accession talks with Skopje and Tirana despite the objections of French President Emmanuel Macron, who says the bloc must first reform itself before taking in any new members.

And he vowed a swift conclusion to the marathon, EU-mediated talks between Belgrade and Prishtina that Brussels says must finalize in a signed agreement to settle relations before either can advance to accession. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as independent and says it never will.

“I will work together with Josep Borrell to bring the dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina to a successful conclusion in 2020,” Varhelyi said, referring to the EU’s next foreign policy chief from Spain.

‘No ambition, no dream’

Varhelyi was nominated for the enlargement post in the European Commission after the Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee rejected Orban’s original nominee, former justice minister Laszlo Trocsanyi, over conflict of interest concerns.

Asked about the Western Balkans, Varhelyi said he would need “to convince” both the governments of France and the Netherlands about the merits of enlargement.

Pressed on his vision for the next five years, Varhelyi said he would like to see peace and stability in the region, visa liberalization for Kosovo, Albania, and North Macedonia advancing in negotiations “and Serbia ready to join.”

“That is my dream, and I know it sounds ambitious, but no ambition – no dream”, he told the committee.

MEPs grilled the candidate, a former European Commission official, over his ability to press for reform in the countries of the Western Balkans given Orban’s long-running standoff with the EU over his commitment to the rule of law and core EU values.

Several MEPs from the Green/EPA and S&D blocs characterized Varhelyi as a loyalist of the ruling Fidesz party and Orban.

French MEP Raphael Glucksmann of the S&D alliance asked him to show “proof of independence” by condemning Orban’s self-styled ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary.

Varhelyi replied that his past work in the Commission was proof of “independent work without any external influence” and that he would “not take any instructions from any government” but would work in line with the bloc’s founding treaties.

He stressed that as an enlargement commissioner he would look to Western Balkan countries for commitments to “independent judiciary, cutting down corruption, checks and balances and everything as required in the accession protocol”.

Pressed on Hungary’s decision to grant asylum to Nikola Gruevski, the former prime minister of North Macedonia who fled corruption charges, Varhelyi said it was “an internal matter”.

In his closing statement, Varhelyi said the EU “should not wait to spread its arms and help its neighbors”. The bloc, he said, must deliver “lasting peace, stability and prosperity that the (Western Balkan) region hasn’t seen in a long time.”