Never a dull moment. I was just ready to sit down to write about the Budapest election and its influence on the parties of the democratic opposition when I learned that the EU parliamentary committee, although it approved Tibor Navracsics as a candidate worthy to be one of the commissioners of the European Commission, found him unfit for the job of commissioner of education, culture, youth and citizenship. There were some earlier warning signs, yet this piece of news was still a surprise to most of us. This development throws a monkey wrench into the plans of Jean Claude Juncker, who was hoping for the acceptance of his candidates in toto. Now Juncker is faced with further negotiations. As far as I can see, he has three choices. First, he can make a swap if he finds a candidate ready to change portfolios and go through another round of hearings. Second, he can further trim the tasks Navracsics would be responsible for in the hope that such an arrangement would satisfy the members of the committee. And, third, Juncker can go back to Viktor Orbán and ask for another candidate, preferably not a politician who bears the heavy weight of the Orbán government’s “illiberal” past. I assume that Juncker finds none of these options especially appealing.
I wrote two posts on Tibor Navracsics’s encounter with the European Commission and Parliament. The first was published before we knew for sure what portfolio was waiting for the Hungarian candidate. The title of that post was “The long shadow of Viktor Orbán.” There I outlined objections to Navracsics’s occupying the post he wanted most, Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy. And, indeed, instead of this or some other more weighty job he had to be satisfied with the post of education, culture, youth and citizenship, a choice that surprised Navracsics and most likely disappointed the Hungarian government. It was at this point that I wrote my second article on the subject. Soon enough the pro-Fidesz press began running article after article extolling the importance of Navracsics’s post. In fact one article claimed that it was the most important of all 28 because “the future of Europe” depends on his work. I ended that post with the following sentence: “Just yesterday at the traditional Fidesz picnic in Kötcse [Orbán] claimed that if there is unity, we will conquer the crisis, the flood, the bureaucrats in Brussels, the financial powers and the banks. He is ready to take on Brussels. Is Brussels ready to take him on?” Well, it looks as if they have.
Immediately after the nomination one started hearing serious criticisms of the nominee’s past and his unsuitability for the job. He was identified as one of the five “problematic nominees”: the Slovenian Alenka Bratušek, the British Jonathan Hill, the Spanish Miguel Arias Cañete, the Maltese Karmenu Vella, and the Hungarian Tibor Navracsics. The chief problem, according to European Voice, was that he was nominated by Viktor Orbán. Members of the European Parliament were also concerned about the “citizenship” part of the portfolio since the Hungarian government “has been accused of trampling on fundamental rights and the rule of law.” At that time, however, the talking heads in Brussels thought that “a rejection [was] unlikely.”
And then came the actual hearing that lasted three and a half hours. To every hard-to-answer question Navracsics’s response was that he personally had nothing to do with it. The media law was not his creation. As far as Hungarian anti-Semitism is concerned, he always had the best of relations with the Jewish community. NGO’s? He’s gotten along with them splendidly. In brief, he tried to disassociate himself from the government he served as minister of justice and deputy prime minister.
Interestingly, the Hungarian media found his performance brilliant. He looked cultured, moderate, and professional while his opponents were ill-prepared. A typical reaction was the article that appeared in 444.hu. But the members of the European Parliament who were present at the hearing had a different take on the matter. They found Navracsics evasive and lacking in credibility. According to Csaba Molnár (DK MEP) who was present, the members of the committee lingered on for some time after the hearing was over and in smaller groups discussed the “disgraceful” performance of Navracsics. What was considered in Hungary “clever” was judged outrageous in Brussels. Molnár was not exaggerating: the committee members were not satisfied.
Six new questions were posed which Navracsics had to answer in writing. The hardest demand was “to take officially distance from the stances of [his] party FIDESZ, the Hungarian government and [his] Prime Minister Viktor Orban.” He was also asked to admit publicly that the media law he co-authored was not in line with the EU charter of fundamental rights. The committee also questioned his reassurances that the law that was eventually changed at the insistence of the European Commission fully complies with EU requirements.
When I first read these questions, I said to myself that Navracsics cannot officially distance himself from his party and his prime minister. This would mean denying his whole past. Well, yesterday he submitted his answers, which I thought would satisfy the committee. He disassociated himself from the media law and admitted that the decisions of the Orbán government that limited the freedom of the media were wrong. Navracsics explained that the infamous law was not drafted in his ministry but was submitted to parliament by an individual member of parliament. In fact, he disagreed with many of its particulars, especially passages concerning the freedom and diversity of media. Navracsics said they “are of key importance in democratic societies and I regret that in the past the Hungarian government, of which I am no longer a member, did not attach due importance to this very significant point.” Well, it seems, this mea culpa was not enough.
Finally, let’s look at the Fidesz and pro-government media’s reaction to the bad news. The Fidesz European parliamentary delegation tonight released a statement in which they called the committee’s approval of Navracsics’s person “an exceptionally great success.” The statement called special attention to the fact that the left majority suggested only modifications to the portfolio, as most likely will be the case with some other commissioners as well. Magyar Nemzet’s headline read: “They suggest another portfolio to Navracsics,” not exactly the most accurate way of describing what happened.
What will happen now? A couple of days ago Peter Spiegel wrote a piece in The Financial Times‘s European edition, “Brussels confirmations descend into bloodletting,” which stated that “‘Mr Navracsics, an EPP member, faces the most uncertain future.” But even the usually well informed Spiegel thought that Navracsics, by distancing himself from the government, would survive. He may be right. But even if he is, will Navracsics–and his portfolio–survive whole? I have no idea.