Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Tibor Navracsics Is the Elephant in EU Room

Adelina Marini, October 14, 2014

The European Parliament has created an odd precedent by half approving (not final) Hungary's candidate for EU Commissioner Tibor Navracsics, whom the new European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker entrusted the Education, Culture, Youth and Citizenship portfolio. And the inherent duplicity of the confirmation voting brought more oddity to it. The competent parliamentary committees hold two votes for each candidate - one on his competences and one on whether he is appropriate to take a post. In this way, the former foreign minister of Hungary proved competent to be Commissioner but inappropriate to take the post because of his active role in dismantling democracy in Hungary, started by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Now, Mr Juncker will have to find a way to come out of the situation he was put in by the member states and the European Parliament. A search is underway for a new portfolio for Mr Navracsics, but given the reasons he was rejected to take the education portfolio how can he be appropriate to take any other portfolio, especially in this Commission to which a major priority will be to ensure the respect for the rule of law and the EU charter of fundamental rights? Tibor Navracsics's hearing was of the most anticipated ones precisely because of the problems the EU has with Hungary and which it is obviously incapable to resolve. Moreover, this audition has further deepened these problems and sent a bad signal that the Union is incapable to ensure the respect of its own values.

What is the problem?

Evidently, the link between what the member states have committed to and what they actually do has been broken. During this year's cycle of hearings there was a feeling that the EU is Doctor Jekyll and the member states are Mr Hyde. This was very well illustrated during the audition of Pierre Moscovici, the French candidate, who stated many times that his being as a failed minister of finance was over and had nothing to do with his possible future being as a commissioner for economic and financial affairs. Similar constructions formulated Mr Navracsics as well while he was twisted by MEPs from two committees - of culture and education and of industry, research and energy. He said that the past was a past and during his future being as commissioner he would stick to the European system of values. Is this not an absolute admission that the member states do not respect the rules agreed at EU level which, on top of it, have a priority over national legislation?

The Navracsics problem was created and fuelled mainly on two levels - the Council and the European Parliament, but the reason is only one - party affiliation. In this case, the boring clichйs that the Commission is a "guardian of the Treaties" comes out in flesh and blood. However, no matter what the Commission does if the member states do not apply it it remains on paper only. This is precisely the case of Tibor Navracsics and of the respect of the European system of values. Before becoming a foreign minister in Viktor Orban's second government, Tibor Navracsics was a deputy prime minister and minister of public administration and justice in his first government. In this capacity, he was one of the main actors in passing laws that restricted the independence of the judiciary, the central bank and the media. Judging by his CV, Tibor Navracsics was quite close to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, because before becoming a deputy premier he was a chief of the cabinet of the leader of the Fidesz party, which was Viktor Orban.

Was he close to Orban simply because he was a career-chaser or because he truly believed in Orban's doctrine does not matter from a European point of view because Mr Navracsics was still a member of the government when Viktor Orban pronounced his key speech in July this year in which he stated that he was working for a new illiberal regime. In his capacity as a minister of foreign affairs Tibor Navracsics is also not innocent because he was directly involved in the conflict with the donor countries in the Norwegian fund financing the work of non-governmental organisations. Entirely in Vladimir Putin's spirit, Viktor Orban, too, started an NGO-hunt blaming those that get funding from abroad of being foreign agents whose main task is to change the political status quo.

And if before the European elections the European Parliament, too, played the role of a champion of European democracy by discussing the situation in Hungary and by criticising Orban, this autumn the two biggest political families rejected the proposal of the Liberals to hold a debate during the September plenary session on the developments with NGOs in Hungary. That is why, the Liberals held a hearing of their own of representatives of NGOs and investigative journalists. Because of narrow political calculations, the two biggest political groups traded the European values, which are enshrined in their own statutes. For the sake of a fast approval of the new Commission and the closure of the "Elections 2014" chapter the two biggest political families stroke a deal which will cost them dearly because it will pour more water into the mill of the eurosceptic parties that pose a serious challenge to the comfort of the mainstream political forces.

A ridicule of the European values

This spring, the European Commission published a special new mechanism to protect the rule of law inspired precisely by the developments in Hungary, but it is still not functioning because it is yet to be discussed by the Council and the European Parliament. But how will the MEPs discuss it after they have allowed a member state to violate basic European values for the sake of political calculations? Against the backdrop of Orban's speech, marking his U-turn toward totalitarianism and the Russian model, to allow a member of Orban's government to be nominated a candidate for any portfolio is a mockery with Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty.

This mockery is quite evident in the mission letter Juncker gave Navracsics in the beginning of September. It says that a major responsibility of his will be to make European citizens perceive education, culture and civil participation as a key element of "our shared European identity and values". In his written answers to the MEPs before his hearing on 1 October, he pointed out: "I believe culture is essential to Europe's sense of identity and cohesion; it reminds us that the EU always was and remains, above all, a community of shared values. Therefore, we must never trade it against other policy goals".

In front of the MEPs he said he was a committed European and that the European citizenship is more than words in a treaty. "It is more than a common passport". He also said that if confirmed, he would be one of the guardians of the Treaty. Navracsics was attacked during his three-hour-long hearing mainly by the Liberals and the Greens about his past. He responded to the attacks in one and the same way - that he completely supported the idea of pluralism, freedom of expression and media freedom. He recalled that he personally mediated the negotiations between the Council of Europe and the Hungarian government and that all disputes were settled. He even played the emotional card recalling that he was 23 years old when democracy happened. "I'm a witness to dictatorship. I'm a witness of communism. It is a huge achievement that we are in the EU. It brings sense of belonging, of community".

According to him, the conviction of a person have nothing to do with the posts he or she take. He even portrayed himself as a dissident in the government saying that in Hungary it was not popular at all to support the European integration, but nevertheless he stood for it. Yet in his opening statement, Tibor Navracsics did not hide the conflicts between Budapest and Brussels but underscored that one of EU's greatest virtues was that it gave space to debate and solving problems through dialogue. He also assured that he would not hesitate to support actions against his own country if necessary. In an attempt to persuade the MEPs in his sincerity he read out loud the contents of Article 2 and Article 17 of the Treaty and said he swore in them. However, this was not enough. The MEPs sent him another round of written questions, most of which were related to his complicity in Orban's turn to dictatorship.

One of these questions recalls that during his audition Tibor Navracsics highlighted the fact that he personally mediated and negotiated with the Council of Europe on settling the dispute over the new media legislation. According to him, the amended law after negotiations with the Council of Europe and the European Commission is completely in line with the European values. The MEPs demanded more explanations from Tibor Navracsics about how is that true since the law requires the registration of all media, including fora and blogs, obliging them to participate in balanced reporting on national and European events. The media council, for its part, is a subject of political control because of the way its members are appointed. According to Tibor Navracsics, the requirement for mandatory registration existed in the old legislation and affected only television, radio and print press. The purpose of the new legislation, he explained in his answers, was to expand it to cover online newspapers and news portals. But it does not affect blogs or private websites, he assured.

He also claims that the changes to the media law ensure the independence of the national media body whose president and four members are elected for nine-year terms by a two-third majority in Parliament. Said also that this, too, was agreed together with the Council of Europe. In conclusion, Tibor Navracsics regretted that, in the past, not always was sufficient importance given to freedom of expression and media pluralism.

MEPs recall that in terms of education, Hungary is a well known example of many controversial practises in this area too. For instance, excessive centralisation of primary schooling, control over the content of textbooks, enhanced role of the Church in school education and also the obligation students who have received funding from the state to work in Hungary for a long time to repay it. The MEPs also demanded Navracsics to distance himself from the positions of the Fidesz party, the Hungarian government and personally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Tibor Navracsics said the initial version of the law on the judiciary and media did not reflect his personal views and reiterated that he was a committed European and supported pluralism and media freedom.

The MEPs, however, did not accept these explanations. The reason he was not rejected entirely and now a new portfolio is being sought for him is that doubts emerged that if he were completely rejected Viktor Orban would have nominated him again, thus blocking the confirmation process of the new Commission. The EU does not have a mechanism to counteract in such cases, but the Council can do something. But it is completely silent on the matter. The situation deteriorated additionally because of the European political parties who exerted huge pressure on the new Prime Minister of Slovenia, Miro Cerar, to nominate a concrete person to replace the rejected former prime minister Alenka Bratusek (Liberals), but they did not even try to suggest a more appropriate figure to Orban or at least to publicly criticise his choice.

After a huge explosion of European democracy at the last elections, the European Parliament is seriously undermining what it has achieved allowing and even supporting an inappropriate candidate. Tibor Navracsics is the elephant in EU's room. The more everyone are pretending not to see it, the more obvious it becomes. The European Council and the European Parliament have returned the ball to Juncker who is supposed to find an exit of the current situation. But it has only two exists and both are not in Juncker's hands. One is Navracsics to be completely rejected by the Parliament and if Viktor Orban would nominate him again Hungary to be deprived of a commissioner. This would need the support of the other member states which is highly unlikely, but also of the Socialists and the EPP which is a bit more likely.

Another option is to agree to ALDE's demand for a hearing on the Hungarian case in the plenary with Navracsics and even Orban participating to motivate why he nominated Navracsics. This is the only way the Parliament can wash the shame away from allowing its basic values to be ridiculed by an EU member state. And in the long term, the Spitzenkandidaten procedure could be further developed in the direction the member states to offer more than one nomination after a solid argumentation. The time is over when member countries could send to the Commission people for reward or in political exile. Juncker's Commission is setting a new tone - to seek the most appropriate people for specific posts. This has become necessary by the crisis as well which has revealed that nothing is entirely national in the EU any more. This should be even more valid for the selection of candidates for key EU jobs.