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    Polish envoy’s bid for top EU post sparks Brussels backlash

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    A move to put Poland’s EU ambassador in a top Brussels post has sparked a backlash among diplomats and officials, who fear the department dealing with the bloc’s neighbors becoming a bastion of illiberalism inside the European Commission.

    Some Commission officials and EU diplomats say the appointment of Andrzej SadoÅ› as the top civil servant at the department, known as DG NEAR, would send the wrong message to countries in the Western Balkans that aspire to join the Union and have been told by Brussels to adopt high democratic standards.

    The European commissioner in charge of the department, Olivér Várhelyi of Hungary, has already faced accusations of downplaying democracy and the rule of law in assessments of Western Balkan countries that want to become EU members.

    Várhelyi and Sadoś — who are close friends — both have strong ties to their home governments, which stand accused by EU institutions of backsliding on democratic norms.

    SadoÅ› has applied to become director-general of DG NEAR, the Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, and is expected to be interviewed for the post this week, according to two officials.

    The controversy reflects a broader conflict over the EU’s core values that has become acute in recent years, with Warsaw and Budapest at loggerheads with the EU mainstream on fundamental issues including judicial independence, LGBTQ+ rights, media freedom and migration.

    Opponents of giving Sadoś the job say having him and Várhelyi at the top of DG NEAR would seriously undermine efforts to foster democracy and the rule of law in the EU’s neighborhood, particularly in countries that want to be part of an enlarged Union.

    “EU enlargement is too important to be left to two cheerleaders of illiberalism in the Commission,” said one EU diplomat. “It would be the wrong political signal towards the Western Balkans.”

    Sadoś declined to confirm or deny that he is an applicant for the post. But, in a lengthy email responding to questions from POLITICO, he stressed that ambassadors frequently move to high-ranking EU posts and that Poland is underrepresented among senior positions in European institutions. 

    “I can’t see a conflict of interest in the presence of experienced officials from the Polish administration in the European institutions,” he said. 

    “Polish officials, who meet certain criteria, have the identical right to run for offices in the EU administration as the citizens of other member states,” he said, adding that European neighborhood policy and the enlargement process are “key” for Warsaw. 

    ‘Causing upset’ 

    But Sadoś’s mooted career move has set alarm bells ringing in a number of member countries’ diplomatic missions to the EU, and among officials in different parts of the European Commission.

    “This application is causing a lot of upset on various levels,” said one Commission official.

    The official stressed the Commission’s role as guardian of the EU treaties and said this was “especially” important “when it comes to the respect of the rule of law and EU funds,” and “even more so in the work touching upon … countries aspiring for EU membership.”

    Many European governments see the neighborhood and enlargement portfolio as highly sensitive, particularly at a time of heightened political tensions and geopolitical competition in the Western Balkans. 

    “For us, this DG is really crucial,” said one senior diplomat, adding that it is important to have the “right person” in a leadership position.

    Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s decision to give Hungary the enlargement commissioner post has already made many officials uncomfortable, both due to the Hungarian government’s democratic backsliding and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s involvement in the internal politics of Western Balkan countries. 

    Many officials had hoped that a neutral and professional Commission apparatus — in particular the civil servants at DG NEAR — could help counterbalance Várhelyi and the Hungarian government’s influence.

    Putting SadoÅ› in charge of the department would deal a blow to those hopes.

    A longtime civil servant who has worked for the Polish foreign ministry since the 1990s, Sadoś is widely seen as a loyal ally of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party.

    Some ambassadors represent their governments’ views while keeping a certain distance from ruling parties but Sadoś has always stuck closely to the Law and Justice line, diplomats say. One EU diplomat said Sadoś was also seen as “close to Várhelyi.” 

    For his part, Sadoś defended his professional record. 

    “Every ambassador to the EU, just like every ambassador in every country, to every international institution, represents their state, their government and follows certain instructions,” he wrote in his emailed response.   

    ‘Not happy’ 

    A key element of concern, officials say, is that Sadoś could help Várhelyi amplify Hungary’s influence in the Western Balkans. 

    “I know that a lot of member states and colleagues are not happy,” said one senior official.

    Orbán’s domestic critics also see potential danger.

    “Clearly this is a partnership between the Hungarian and Polish governments to undermine European neighborhood policy,” said Hungarian opposition MEP Attila Ara-Kovács, a member of the left-liberal Democratic Coalition. 

    “If someone close to the Polish government, who as a diplomat represented the anti-EU policy the Polish government was implementing, enters the Commission [DG NEAR], then the Commission’s political goals will be more at risk,” he said. 

    But Sadoś insisted that European institutions speak as one on rule-of-law issues. 

    “Decisions in the enlargement process and accession negotiations are taken unanimously, and Poland, together with other Member States, defines the high standards … related to the rule of law, democratization, good governance, combating corruption, etc,” he said.

    “All Member States and the EU institutions speak with one voice. The Director-General of each directorate carries out his tasks within the framework of specific procedures, the Commission’s work program, strategic plans, and management,” he added.

    Beyond concerns about Sadoś himself, the application process has also raised eyebrows. 

    Critics say there are plenty of highly qualified internal candidates — including Central Europeans — and that it is unusual to open up this type of role to external candidates. That decision “already raised some questions,” the senior diplomat said.

    The process has also raised questions about a possible conflict of interest, given Várhelyi and Sadoś are close friends. Sadoś often refers to Várhelyi as a friend in conversations and Poland’s EU mission posted a selfie of the two men on Twitter in 2020.

    Under Commission rules, the portfolio commissioner — in this case Várhelyi — is consulted on applications for a director-general post.

    The job posting for the DG NEAR role also makes clear that, at the final stage of the selection process, shortlisted candidates will be interviewed by Várhelyi, von der Leyen and Budget and Administration Commissioner Johannes Hahn.

    Várhelyi’s office referred questions about the matter to a Commission spokesperson, who said the decision to open up the job to external applicants was taken collectively by the College of Commissioners.

    The Commission did not respond directly to a question about what steps are taken to ensure all job applicants are treated equally if one of them is a close friend of the relevant commissioner.

    Citing rules on confidentiality, the Commission said “no details can be provided concerning the status of the procedure or any candidates.” But the spokesperson noted the final decision would be taken by the College of Commissioners as a whole, based on a proposal from Hahn, in agreement with von der Leyen after consultation with Várhelyi.



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