Olivér Várhelyi was heard asking "how many idiots are still left?" during a Q&A session with lawmakers.
Members of the European Parliament have expressed outrage and calls for resignation after Olivér Várhelyi, the European Commissioner for neighbourhood and enlargement, appeared to refer to them as "idiots" in a hot-mic moment during Tuesday's plenary session.
Várhelyi said on Wednesday morning that he regrets what he described as a "misunderstanding", adding his comments were "taken out of context".
The incident took place while the Hungarian commissioner was facing a Q&A session with lawmakers centered on strengthening enlargement policy in the Western Balkans, where most countries are official candidates to join the bloc.
The session stretched for almost one hour and a half on Tuesday afternoon and saw a succession of MEPs asking questions directly to Várhelyi on issues related to this portfolio.
Towards the end, Croatian MEP Tomislav Sokol took the floor and condemned Serbia for not following the EU sanctions against Russia in response to the Ukraine war, an issue that has attracted a great deal of attention over the past year.
Serbia's alignment with the bloc's foreign policy dropped from 64% in 2021 to 45% in August 2022, the European Commission in a report released in October, pointing out "a number of actions and statements" made by Serbia that went against the EU's own positions.
"Is the EU ready to suspend the accession negotiations until Serbia has met all the conditions?" Sokol asked.
Várhelyi said that lack of alignment with the foreign policy was not part of the criteria "on the basis of which you can suspend accession negotiations."
"As you know, suspending accession negotiations is only the last resort," he told Sokol.
"I'm still hopeful that Serbia understands the importance of them helping us in this fight against the impact of the war," he went on. "We're hopeful that Serbia will also come around in the end."
Várhelyi then sat down and was heard saying "Hány hülye van még?" in Hungarian, which translates as "How many idiots are still left?"
The audio and translation were verified by the Hungarian-language edition of Euronews.
In a short statement on Wednesday morning, Várhelyi wrote: "I sincerely regret the misunderstanding around my remark."
He said that his comment 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 fully respect all the EU institutions, including the European Parliament and its Honourable Members," he continued.
A spokesperson for the European Commission said President Ursula von der Leyen, who is effectively Várhelyi’s boss, had taken "due note" of the statement and urged commissioners to "refrain from any type of comment that could lead to this sort of interpretation."
A spokesperson for European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said she has asked her services to "look into" the incident.
Calls for resignation
The off-the-cuff remark was not translated by the European Parliament's services and went initially unnoticed until Hungarian MEP Sándor Rónai, who belongs to the socialist group, posted a video of the moment on his Twitter account.
Rónai's video garnered thousands of views and prompted outrage from other lawmakers.
"Insulting members of the European Parliament that do their job by asking critical questions needs to have consequences," said German MEP Delara Burkhardt, calling the apology a "joke."
"At least, idiots know when their mic is open. This is what differentiates them from big idiots," quipped French MEP Valérie Hayer.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen "has to sack him immediately... otherwise she risks losing the trust of the whole European Parliament," wrote Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstad, from the liberal Renew Europe group.
Some MEPs quickly linked Várhelyi's comment to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has been repeatedly criticised for undermining the EU's political unity by pursuing softer policies on Russia.
"Great to hear what Orban’s man in Brussels thinks of (EU) democracy," said German MEP Damian Boeselager, referring to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. "Oliver Varhely should resign. I don’t want to see him in our House again."
"The contempt for Parliament which Orbán’s Commissioner demonstrated today is unacceptable," said Dutch MEP Thijs Reuten.
Socialist MEP Gaby Bischoff simply said: "Time to act."
The reaction reflects an increasingly tense relationship between Várhelyi and the hemicycle.
Last month, MEPs accused the commissioner of "deliberately evading and weakening" the issue of democratic reforms and the rule of law in the accession process of candidate countries.
Lawmakers called for an "independent and impartial" investigation into Várhelyi's conduct and expressed concern about his supposedly amiable attitude towards the Bosnian Serb leaders of the separatist movement inside Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Back in December, Várhelyi was interviewed by Euronews and asked about his testy relationship with MEPs.
"Accusing me of downplaying the rule of law... How should I put it?" he said. "Sounds more like a political game than a real and founded criticism."
This story has been updated to include new reactions.