EU commissioner called MEPs ‘idiots.’ Now they want him fired
STRASBOURG — Valentine’s Day turned nasty in the European Parliament.
Hungary’s European Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi is facing calls to resign after a microphone in the Parliament caught him mumbling under his breath that MEPs are “idiots,” during a question-and-answer session Tuesday with lawmakers on the Western Balkans.
“How many other idiots are still there?” Várhelyi, who is in charge of countries’ bids to join the EU, could be heard saying on the hot mic.
Várhelyi already has a reputation for being rude and aggressive to staffers, and MEPs last month called for the Commission to investigate him over his stance on Serbian nationalists.
After his comments, MEPs reacted furiously, calling for his sacking and for a strong response from Várhelyi’s boss, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.
“He should resign,” Green lawmaker Daniel Freund told POLITICO.
Várhelyi eventually issued a statement Wednesday in which he did not apologize, but instead wrote: “I sincerely regret the misunderstanding around my remark.”
The commissioner said he had been taken out of context because his comment was part of a separate conversation with the person sitting next to him during the debate.
“This was linked to a private and ongoing conversation in Hungarian between me and my Head of Cabinet on a completely different matter, which was taken out of context. I apologise for any possible misunderstanding around that,” Várhelyi wrote. “I fully respect all the EU institutions, including the European Parliament and its Honourable Members.”
MEPs weren’t impressed — by the original remark or the explanation.
“Várhelyi had a chance to apologize — and he missed it. He can’t just tell MEPs ‘you misheard’ and carry on. There must be consequences,” said Freund.
Immediately before Várhelyi spoke in the plenary session, Croatian center-right MEP Tomislav Sokol had asked what the commissioner intended to do about Serbian meddling in other Western Balkans countries and its close cooperation with Russia.
Before Várhelyi issued his statement Wednesday, Sokol told POLITICO: “This is what provoked the commissioner. He insulted not just me but all the members of the European Parliament who participated in the discussion.”
“The minimum thing that he can do would be to issue a public apology toward me and all members of the European Parliament. Also I would like that he takes a clear and impartial stance towards Serbia,” he added.
Other MEPs went further and demanded Várhelyi’s sacking.
“It is an unprecedented and serious insult to Parliament. We are convinced that the European Parliament must demand the resignation of Commissioner Várhelyi,” wrote Hungarian Socialist and Democrat group MEP Csaba Molnár in an email to all lawmakers Tuesday evening and seen by POLITICO.
The centrist Renew Europe group was also incensed. “We demand an immediate apology from the commissioner; we call on the Parliament’s president, not to allow Commissioner Várhelyi in our chambers until that apology is issued,” said Katalin Cseh, a Hungarian MEP from Renew.
A spokesperson for European Parliament President Roberta Metsola told POLITICO: “We have asked the services to look into it.”
The Hungarian commissioner was already under pressure from the European Parliament, which called in January for an “independent and impartial investigation” into him over his reported support for Serbian nationalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina, spearheaded by the center-left Socialists and Democrats group.
“There is no plan for an investigation,” into the Serbian angle, said Eric Mamer, the chief spokesperson for von der Leyen.
On the “idiots” remark, Mamer added: “The president, as you know, expects all members of the College to show utmost respect for the institutions and their members and therefore, she takes due note of the apology and explanation which has been issued by the commissioner.”
Várhelyi was appointed to his role in October 2019, having been nominated by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Before joining von der Leyen’s College of Commissioners, Várhelyi worked as Hungary’s ambassador to the EU.
Wilhelmine Preussen, Jakob Hanke and Lili Bayer contributed reporting.