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Who is Olivér Várhelyi, Orbán’s Newly Nominated Commissioner?

Péter Cseresnyés 2019.10.01.

After EP’s Legal Affairs Committee rejected László Trócsányi, Hungary’s former justice minister, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was quick to give away the name of his Plan B nominee. Olivér Várhelyi is an experienced diplomat who wouldn’t shy away from confrontation in the EU. Additionally, he is loyal to Orbán and his government while there’s not much about him the European Parliament could quarrel with.

On Monday, EP’s Legal Affairs Committee confirmed its position that there is a conflict of interest between the post of commissioner to which László Trócsányi had been designated and the activities of a law firm associated with him. Shortly after, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that he would nominate ambassador Olivér Várhelyi, the head of Hungary’s permanent representative to the EU as Hungary’s candidate for European commissioner.

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This announcement came as a surprise, although the Hungarian press quickly started rumoring Olivér Várhelyi’s name right after Trócsányi’s rejection. Citing foreign sources, index.hu’s Eurológus reported last Thursday that the diplomat, who has a strong professional background, could be Orbán’s plan B if the former justice minister failed, although months before other names had been circulating as Plan B and Plan C.

The career public servant

The senior diplomat seems to be a logical choice as he has spent the past 25 years dealing with EU politics in the European Commission in various ministries and he also worked on Hungary’s accession to the EU.

Várhelyi studied European law in Denmark and has a law degree from the University of Szeged. He joined the Office for European Affairs in the Ministry for Industry and Trade as an intern in 1995. Shortly after, he became responsible for EC Coordination and Harmonization. The first time Várhelyi went to Brussels was in 2001 (2 years before Hungary’s official accession) when he was appointed legal counselor of Hungary’s mission to the EU.

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Between 2003 and 2006, he was head of the Legal Service of Hungary’s Permanent Representation to the EU. He returned to Budapest in 2006, leading the EU Law Department at the Justice Ministry, but in 2008 he was sent to Brussels again.

Having worked for three years at the European Commission, he returned to Hungary yet again in 2011, as he was appointed Deputy Permanent Representative of Hungary. In 2015, he became the leader of the office.

A confrontational professional

In a portrait, after his 2015 appointment, liberal 444.hu described the diplomat as a confrontational personality who does not aim for deals but only for total victory. On the other hand, those who know Várhelyi also admitted that he was a competent and well-prepared professional who had a clear view on how things work in Brussels.

In 2017, Magyar Nemzet wrote that his name had emerged as a possible candidate for Foreign Minister. In the article, they also reported that Várhelyi was a very tolerant person when confronted with conflict.

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As the government has a rather confrontational stance against Brussels, Várhelyi’s nature might be his biggest virtue in Orbán’s eyes, alongside his reported loyalty.

According to liberal hvg.hu, Olivér Várhelyi seems a safe bet as he is not a member of Fidesz and has not been directly involved in the Orbán government, unlike Tibor Navracsics, the former Commissioner, and László Trócsányi. Both have, as former justice ministers, coordinated legislation that the European Parliament heavily criticized and had hard times at their EP hearings. Since Várhelyi has worked in the public sector all his life, conflict of interest is not likely to pop up as a problem either.

These things might make his way paved to become the new enlargement commissioner.

Featured photo by Szilárd Koszticsák/MTI