EU lawmakers seek probe of bloc’s enlargement commissioner

STRASBOURG, France (AP) — European Union lawmakers called Wednesday for an investigation into a senior member of the bloc’s executive branch amid concern that he might be showing too much favoritism toward Serbia’s pro-Russian president.

Oliver Varhelyi — a Hungarian citizen and ally of the country’s nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban — is the EU’s commissioner in charge of enlargement. His brief includes relations with the volatile Balkans region, where many countries are trying to join the 27-nation bloc, and he supervises their accession talks.

In a report adopted in Strasbourg, France, the lawmakers urged the European Commission to launch “an independent and impartial investigation into whether the conduct engaged in and policies furthered by” Varhelyi are in breach of the commission’s code of conduct and of his EU treaty obligations.

Earlier this month, Serbian President Aleksander Vucic hit out at EU demands that he enforce sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine, branding them “a brutal” interference in the internal affairs of his country. Orban has criticized the EU’s sanctions, saying they hurt the Hungarian economy more.

Although formally seeking to join Europe’s club of nations, Serbia has repeatedly ignored calls to align its foreign policies with those of the EU, including on sanctions.

In December 2021, the commission surprised many by opening membership talks with Belgrade on a series of policies, despite Serbia’s unresolved tensions with its former territory of Kosovo. Varhelyi said then that “Serbia is taking another very important step forward in joining the European Union.”

The EU lawmakers are also concerned about Varhelyi’s attitude toward separatist-minded Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik.

Center-left Dutch EU lawmaker Thijs Reuten, who helped draft the parliament’s report, said the commission’s “role is to protect Bosnia and Herzegovina’s territorial integrity, promote democracy in Serbia, and secure peace and stability in Montenegro and Kosovo. Not the opposite.”

“Supporting the nationalistic and separatist stances of Dodik would not only be against the Code of Conduct for the Members of the European Commission, but also playing with fire,” Reuten said. “The persistent reports about Orban’s Commissioner cosying up with autocrats to undermine democracy requires immediate action.”

Dodik has routinely stoked nationalist sentiment and sought to unite his Bosnian Serb mini-state with Serbia. The EU lawmakers renewed calls for sanctions against him and others responsible for organizing an “unconstitutional Day of Republika Srpska” — the region Dodik leads — on Jan. 9.

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