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Viktor Orban's man in Brussels

Keno Verseck
June 10, 2022

EU enlargement commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, an ally of the Hungarian prime minister, waters down criticism and cozies up to autocrats — and makes no secret of it.

Oliver Varhelyi addressing European Parliament in May 2022
Oliver Varhelyi addressing European Parliament in May 2022Image: Dwi Anoraganingrum/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has yet again humiliated the European Union. He threatened to veto the bloc's sixth anti-Russian sanctions package unless Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, was exempted. The EU, in a bid to quickly pass the sanctions, let Orban have his way. Kirill was removed from the sanctions list despite his warmongering and the fact that some want to see Kirill prosecuted for supporting Russia's atrocious actions in Ukraine.

For years, Orban has been playing the EU to further his own agenda. His actions regularly spark Europe-wide condemnation. His latest pro-Putin antics are no exception.

Orban has also exerted his influence elsewhere in the EU, though more quietly. And one man, Oliver Varhelyi, who has served as the EU commissioner for neighborhood and enlargement since 2019, has helped him to do so. The 50-year-old lawyer, diplomat and long-time Orban ally likes to present himself as a loyal EU commissioner. But in reality, Varhelyi has acted as Orban's agent, pushing his agenda.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Brussels in late May 2022Image: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

Orban's strategizing

On the issue of EU enlargement, Orban has insisted that Western Balkan states should join the bloc as soon as possible. The Hungarian leader maintains cordial relations with various regional autocrats, especially Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Neither are interested in reforms that strengthen the rule of law or genuine democratic systems of governance. If Western Balkan countries like Serbia are quickly admitted to the EU, having undertaken external reforms, Orban could gain greater clout in the bloc and weaken his enemies in Brussels.

In past years, few in Europe paid much attention to Orban and Varhelyi's agenda with regard to EU enlargement. That is because adding new members to the club appeared increasingly unlikely in recent years. While irksome, Orban's Western Balkans strategy did not seem very realistic. 

Praising authoritarian leaders

Russia's war on Ukraine may be changing the situation. For many years, the Kremlin has sought to destabilize a range of Western Balkan states. Now, the EU and Germany have begun devoting more attention to the region out of fear of violent escalation in the area.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht visited the Western Balkans in recent weeks, and Prime Minister Olaf Scholz will travel there this week. The hope is that by giving more attention to the region, fostering greater cooperation, supporting reform-minded politicians and their initiatives, as well as anti-nationalist and anti-separatist campaigns, the Western Balkans can be prevented from drifting away from the EU. 

This, however, places German diplomats on a collision course with Orban and his ally Varhelyi. Instead of criticizing outstanding reforms in the region, Varhelyi has praised authoritarian leaders like Serbia's Vucic and Montenegro's Milo Dukanovic for supposedly making good on EU integration targets to the extent that he has seemed like a lobbyist for the Western Balkans.

Watered-down criticism

One EU official close to Varhelyi, who wishes to remain anonymous, told DW that the commissioner and his cabinet have sought to systematically water down any criticism of Serbia. This can be seen in progress reports written by Brussels about EU membership candidates. "Critical sections, for example about press freedom in Serbia, were cut from our reports; negative evaluations were transformed into more positive ones," the EU source said.  

Operating in plain sight

A political adviser, who has provided expertise on the Western Balkans to Brussels for many years, agrees with this assessment. The source wished to remain anonymous as well. "Varhelyi is not a mole," the expert told DW. "He does not hide; he is openly advancing Orban's policies within the EU Commission."

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
EU Commission President Ursula von der LeyenImage: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Viola von Cramon, a Green MEP, is similarly critical of the commissioner. "Varhelyi is approaching all those actors in the Western Balkans who are not democrats but who Orban relies on to pursue his policies."

Earlier this year, Cramon co-initiated a protest letter sent to Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president. The letter, supported by 30 MEPs, called for an internal investigation into Varhelyi's conduct. Controversially, Varhelyi had engaged individually with Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who is one of three leaders who form Bosnia and Herzegovina's tripartite presidency. Dodik has for years threatened the secession of the country's Serbian entity, the Republika Srpska, thereby calling into question the existence of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In late 2021, Varhelyi reportedly discussed the timing of Bosnian Serb separatist initiatives with Dodik.

Green MEP Viola von Cramon
Green MEP Viola von Cramon is critical of VarhelyiImage: DW

Hungarian interest paramount

The protest letter led to naught; Von der Leyen did not respond. "She [Ursula von der Leyen] would not have become president of the European Commission without Orban's backing," von Cramon said. "That is probably why she is ducking away, avoiding problems; I think the enlargement portfolio should never have been handed to Orban."

The Hungarian leader has been clear he wants to keep having a say in EU enlargement policymaking, vetoing steps if necessary. "Berlin and Brussels cannot go about their Balkan policies against or without Hungary," Orban said in a speech last February. "We will accept no decision made by Brussels that runs counter to Hungarian interests."

This article has been translated from German.