Auteur: Eszter Zalan
Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has rebuked Tibor Navracsics, Hungary’s EU commissioner, for toeing Budapest’s line in EU affairs.
The rebuke comes after Navracsics objected to the commission’s registration of a European Citizens Initiative which criticises Hungarian PM Viktor Orban.
Juncker reminded Navracsics that, as a commissioner, he must remain neutral and not represent the interests of his home country.
Navracsics, who has the education and culture portfolio, wrote a letter to fellow commissioners last week after they enrolled the citizens inititative at a college meeting from which he was absent.
The initiative, called Wake up Europe!, calls for the commission to trigger the “article 7 procedure” against Hungary for breaches of “fundamental EU values.”
It says the Orban government has acted in a way that is “antidemocratic, xenophobic and contrary to founding principles of the rule of law.”
Article 7 can result in sanctions if “serious and persistent breach of EU values” is established.
The college of commissioners recognised the initiative as legally valid, but did not make any comment on its merit.
The organisers must still collect 1 million signatures from at least seven EU states to force the commission to respond to its appeal. But if Navracsics had been present at the meeting, he could have blocked the recogntion of its validity.
Navracsics' letter said he finds it difficult to accept the college took such a sensitive step when he was absent. He also challenges the legal basis of the registration.
But this week, Juncker sent a letter to Navracsics, seen by EUobserver, saying that, under Article 17.3 of the EU treaty, “commissioners must not defend the view of the government that proposed their appointment, but must be solely committed the general interest of the Union.”
The article states the commissioners “shall neither seek nor take instructions from any government or other institution, body, office or entity.”
Juncker adds that it's his “prerogative to bring certain issues to the attention of the college.”
The 24 November meeting was the last date for the commission to take a decision on the citizens initiative before faling foul of a two-month deadline.
Juncker also reminds Navracsics, who was at a Council meeting on the day, of his duty to attend college meetings. “Even a justified absence is therefore no reason not to discuss an item in the weekly meeting of the college,” he writes.
EUobserver reached out to Navracsics, but he did not want to comment.
Fit for purpose
A popular university teacher of political science, he previously served as Orban’s justice minister and foreign minister.
When MEPs grilled him last year they said he is fit for the EU job. But, amid criticism of Orban’s abuse of parliament and of rule of law, they took away the “citizenship” segment of his portfolio.
“Commissioners are supposed to be independent, they do not represent their country of origin, and they do tend to maintain a neutral position,” Paul Ivan, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center, a think tank in Brussels, told EUobserver.
He added there are some limits to that “since they are politicians and they are the ones in the college who are most well informed about their own country.”
Rare in public
The Juncker and Navracsics letters were not meant for public consumption and bad tempered exchanges between commissioners and their boss rarely get out into the open.
“Even if issues happen [with regards to a commissioner’s independence)], they don’t necessarily come out in the public sphere,” Ivan said.
“Navracsics’s letter could also serve him to defend himself from any possible criticism from Hungary that he didn’t stand up for his country.”