Von Leyen indirectly defends Várhelyi from accusation of faking report on Serbia

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Source: Tanjug/Johanna Geron, Pool Photo via AP

Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission (EC), discreetly denied the accusations appearing in the public that Olivér Várhelyi, the Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, put pressure on his associates to "fake" the report on Serbia.

Twelve MEPs from the Social Democrats, Greens / European Free Alliance and Renew Europe in the European Parliament (EP), including Tanja Fajon, Klemen Groselj, Tineke Strik and Thomas Weitz, had asked the European Commission to answer the question „when will it investigate reports and allegations“ by the Commission’s employees that Várhelyi ignored the issues related to the rule of law in the neighbouring countries „.

Von Leyen said that conclusions on progress were made after information gathered from various sources – from the authorities of candidate countries, through EU member states and EU institutions, to various international organisations, civil society organisations and others.

She added that based on the EC report for 2021, the European Council decided to open a cluster of four chapters covering the green agenda and sustainable integration at the Intergovernmental Conference with Serbia held on December 14, 2021. However, she did not clearly answer the key question: whether an internal investigation was conducted into the allegations of some staff that they were under pressure, or whether she answered to protect the member of the EC she heads.

Specifically, she responded to only a part of the question related to the accusations that Várhelyi asked for the part related to the rights of LGBTIQ + persons to be removed from the document, explaining that last year's enlargement report offered a "rigorous assessment of progress on fundamental rights" and a detailed explanation of the next steps.

"This includes a detailed assessment and recommendations regarding the legal protection and rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people under Chapter 23 - Justice and Fundamental Rights, Chapter 19 - Social Policy and Employment, and Chapter 28 - Consumers and health care," Von Leyen added, answering the MEPs question.

In a parliamentary question raised in late October last year, MEPs said they were also interested in how the Commission would deal "with findings based on multiple EC top sources and internal documents" and what measures it would take to "restore confidence and ensure impartiality and the integrity of the enlargement process."

They also asked the Commission for guarantees that the assessment of Serbia's progress in 2020 was based on objective criteria.

On October 5, Politiko published an article accusing Olivér Várhelyi of forcing Serbia's entry into the EU without fulfilling the criteria and to the detriment of other candidate countries and allegedly did not lead the EC policy, but the policy of "his real boss Viktor Orbán," the Hungarian Prime Minister.

Citing sources from the EC, the paper said Várhelyi and members of his cabinet had tried to "erase" or "smear" language in official and internal documents on Serbia's failures in democracy, despite already published "warning and dramatic assessments" of the rule of law and NGO's and independent analysts rights in Serbia.

Várhely then replied that "the assessment of the countries' progress on the European reform path is the subject of a long process, with a final decision made by the House of Commissioners" and added that he "pushes forward the enlargement agenda of the entire Western Balkans".

The EC did not officially comment on the accusations at the time but unofficially called for "more responsible reporting on a document that involved a large number of people" who were accused by someone of being biased.

Várhelyi was elected EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy in the second attempt in 2019 after the first Hungarian candidate did not pass the parliamentary check.

Várhelyi also slipped 'through the eye of a needle.' The biggest concern was - whether he would implement the EC policy as he should or Orban's policy, for which he is now accused because even then, he was considered loyal to Orban and a strong advocate of Hungarian political views in the EU.

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