The man nominated to encourage democratic norms among the EU’s neighbours has overseen the degradation of Hungary’s own standards. The damage could already be done.
The presentation of Ursula von der Leyen’s prospective college of commissioners came with a bang, and an eventful hearing process is sure to follow. Among all the contested candidates and curious portfolios, however, the nomination of Hungary’s commissioner-designate, László Trócsányi, for the enlargement and neighbourhood policy portfolio stands out as particularly improbable and contentious. What is more, it sends a message that outright undermines the new European Commission’s stated intention to give a “new push for European democracy” and thus both its own internal and external credibility.
Trócsányi served as justice minister under Viktor Orbán from 2014 until his election to the European Parliament in May 2019. After being placed top of the governing Fidesz party list, putting him forward as commissioner comes as no surprise, even if names of potential alternatives (such as Fidesz MEPs Lívia Járóka and Enikő Győri) have also been floating around. Loyal to Orbán, as justice minister Trócsányi was instrumental in implementing domestic reforms that weakened the independence of the judiciary, limited space for civil society, and undermined the rule of law in Hungary. All these processes led to the launch of the currently ongoing Article 7 procedure against the country and the suspension of Fidesz from the European People’s Party, in effect since the spring. Against this backdrop, accepting Trócsányi’s nomination was already a risky step for von der Leyen. Designating him for the enlargement and neighbourhood portfolio, however, brings an additional level of potential pushback from the European Parliament.
Fifteen years on from the major 2004 enlargement, there is little appetite across the EU for welcoming in new member states, as a recent poll by ECFR found. In the newer central and eastern European member states there is more openness to countries of the Western Balkans becoming members than there is in the older, net contributor states. In this light, there is a logic to giving this portfolio to a nominee from a country that, on the governmental level at least, has been a stable advocate of enlargement and could credibly support this agenda.
Trócsányi was instrumental in implementing domestic reforms that weakened the independence of the judiciary, limited space for civil society, and undermined the rule of law in Hungary.
The move is certainly much welcomed by Orbán, who allegedly even lobbied for this portfolio five years ago, and now views the nomination as an “interim” victory pending Trócsányi’s confirmation. Orbán further believes this proves Hungary’s growing influence (and central Europe’s as a region) within the EU. The fact that no enlargement is at all likely in the coming five years detracts somewhat from the importance of the position, but it nonetheless remains a policy area with high symbolic value, especially when it comes to the EU’s external image and role as a normative power.
As commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, Trócsányi would be responsible for driving forward relations with the Western Balkans countries, Turkey, and the eastern and southern neighbourhoods. Both in the case of the Western Balkans and eastern Europe, his role would require him to push for democratic reforms and transparency, and for these countries to bring their governance practices into closer alignment with European standards. Given his track record in Hungary, he entirely lacks credibility in this regard and can be legitimately questioned on these issues. Furthermore, the Hungarian government’s own recent actions would likely make it personally challenging for Trócsányi to negotiate with some countries. For instance, Ukraine has been pressing for a rapprochement with NATO but Hungary has acted to block this. Elsewhere, relations with the government in Skopje would likely be rocky given that Hungary smuggled out and granted asylum to former Northern Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski. Trócsányi’s appointment as enlargement commissioner would say to candidate countries, potential candidates, and associated partners that adherence to the EU’s common democratic values and principles is, in fact, not obligatory. This would further undermine the already weakened normative power of the European Union in its own neighbourhood.
According to his mission letter, the commissioner would also be responsible for reviewing relations with partner countries in the southern neighbourhood during the coming term. This would include a particular focus on effective migration management. Although commissioners cannot represent their countries, given Trócsányi’s profile and proximity to Orbán, he may well seek to strengthen the securitisation of the region overall in this process. This may well count in his favour: the commission president-elect has already borrowed from the populist radical right’s vocabulary in her call to “protect our European way of life”.
Beyond the message that this nomination sends, it also has internal implications in Brussels politics. Allocating such an important portfolio to the Hungarian nominee and thus directly catering to the Hungarian government’s wishes could mean that von der Leyen has remembered that she needed Fidesz MEPs’ votes to win parliamentary approval. It also signifies a more conciliatory tone towards the Fidesz government, forthcoming without it having made any improvement to the quality of Hungarian democracy.
Still, Orbán is celebrating an interim victory now but Trócsányi is in for a tough ride. It would be no surprise if he had to withdraw, or was reshuffled to a different portfolio in the wake of the parliamentary hearings. This nomination is of a questionable nature and may have already sent the wrong message to the EU’s partners. The final decision will have significant implications for the new European Commission’s image and credible commitment to respect and promote democratic values and principles, both internally and externally.
Zsuzsanna Végh is an associate researcher at ECFR and a Rethink.CEE fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.