Expulsion of Fidesz — the debate on EPP's future

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Temporary weakening or a shift towards right-wing populism and following Orbán's model - this is the real dilemma the European People's Party is facing as the expulsion procedure against Fidesz is set to begin. Whether they choose to expel Fidesz or keep it within the political group, the decision will set the wheels in motion for a larger political change within the EPP.

Ne maradjon le semmiről!

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This Tuesday, leader of EPP in the European Parliament and the group's candidate for the President of the European Commission Manfred Weber issued a strict ultimatum to Fidesz, saying their continued stay in the ranks of the EPP depends on these three crucial conditions:

  • Viktor Orbán immediately stops his anti-Brussels campaign once and for all,
  • Orbán apologises to the member parties of the EPP,
  • and he ensures that CEU can stay in Budapest.

Weber added that he expects Fidesz to make its intentions clear this month. On Wednesday, he told Polish news agency PAP that Fidesz does not show any willingness to compromise, however, the following days present the last chance for Fidesz to remain in the group.

Orbán did not respond yet, but Fidesz did on Wednesday. The party's communications director, Balázs Hidvéghi said:

The debate in the EPP is about immigration, and Fidesz is willing to listen to all opinions, including that of Manfred Weber. However, the protection of Europe's Christian values is more important for Fidesz than the party line. We are not willing to compromise on that.

Regarding CEU he added that the "Soros-network leaves no stone unturned" when it comes to the protection of its interests.

In the meantime, as Politico reported, Orbán is supposedly in talks with Le Pen's group Europe of Nations and Freedom, and in a Thursday article, Hungarian pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet is demanding Fidesz to quit the EPP and join ENF:

There is nothing more to wait for, or to be more precise: It is forbidden to wait any longer! This is the way, this is the only way to stand at the forefront of the struggle against immigration, to defend the Europe of nations and Hungary in it. The Hungarian Prime Minister will have to stand in the frontline of that fight. This comes naturally from what he represented so far.

the daily belonging to the giant pro-government media conglomerate writes, which could be auspicious knowing the paper's position. They also added, referring to Jean-Claude Juncker, that these days, "the leader of Europe is a puppet in a mental and moral crisis who is paid for by Soros," and that the EPP is no longer defending "the nations, Christianity, the traditional family model or any other European traditions. By today, the EPP became a servant to mindless liberalism."

Fidesz MEP József Szájer said in an interview in Magyar Hírlap on Wednesday that if Fidesz gets expelled, that means that the pro-migration forces won over the anti-migration forces, and he also said that Fidesz is in constant talks with German governing party CDU.

This all came after EPP president Joseph Daul told AFP on Monday that twelve member parties initiated the expulsion of Fidesz from the EPP, which means the group's political assembly could have the issue on its agenda as early as their next assembly on 20 March.

What prompted the current conflict?

The current wave of outrage in the EPP was sparked by the Hungarian government's latest information campaign that features George Soros and the current President of the European Commission (and EPP member) Jean-Claude Juncker besides the tagline "You have a right to know what Brussels is preparing to do" and various statements the veracity of which is the least to say disputed. At least the European Commission used the phrase "ludicrous conspiracy theory" to describe the contents.

But for Hungarians, this sort of government-commissioned "informatory" campaign is business-as-usual, especially in the lead-up to elections or referendums. After the 2018 parliamentary elections, OSCE's final report even mentioned how the level playing field for campaigning was negatively affected by the government's information campaign that was nearly indistinguishable from the ruling coalition's political one. These government campaigns have many advantages for Fidesz; First of all, they are reinforcing the political messages of Fidesz's own campaigns, and the government can use the ads to maintain the media empire loyal to Fidesz by providing them with a steady flow of ad revenue, with the bill, of course, footed by taxpayers.

However, the current campaign was just the spark on the surface that ignited the current conflict, the tension between Fidesz and the more moderate EPP membership had been culminating for years so much that even the majority of EPP's MEPs voted in favour of Judith Sargentini's report last September that established that Hungary presents a clear risk of the violation of European values, thus starting the currently ongoing Article 7 proceedings against Hungary. However, an MEP of the European People's Party who prefers to remain anonymous told us that it is "inconceivable that EPP expells Fidesz before the elections."   

With all that said, it must be noted that for the members of the European People's Party that now worry about the democratic values, the question of Viktor Orbán is not interesting merely because of Viktor Orbán himself. These member parties are not so much concerned over the deeds of Hungary's government as they are afraid for the future of their political group and what face it might have in ten or twenty years if Fidesz remains part of the EPP. At the same time, they are just as worried about what happens if the Hungarian member party is expelled.

Many don't like populists in the EPP, and for a good reason

Die Welt asked President of the EPP Joseph Daul what he thinks about Viktor Orbán's idea to bring the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) Party and the Italian Northern League, Matteo Salvini's party into the EPP. 

"I've told him that it's not happening as long as I am the president of the party,"

answered the French politician. He regards PiS and Northern League as populists who incite fear in the people, only talk about problems, but lack the solutions. This definition applies to Fidesz as well, especially the "inciting fear" part. 

Many would prefer to not see such parties within the ranks of the political group, partly because they look down upon their campaign methods that are too much for their sensibilities, but that is their smaller problem, because as Alexander Stubb EPP member told us last October, deep down all politicians are a little bit prone to populism. They understand that lies are part of political campaigns and do not necessarily refrain from their use - but there is a point that they do not dare to cross.

The larger reason is that it had become apparent in the past couple of years that campaigns that consciously mislead the population and strike fear in them can have tremendous economic drawbacks. Brexit, for instance, can easily be chalked up to such campaigning. The European Union can take all the blame for a while, but if the daily political discourse is about denigrating the EU, the economy can soon suffer. Nobody believed that an economic disaster such as Brexit can ever happen, but the referendum clearly showed the insane economic damage turning voters against the EU through conscious misinformation is capable of causing.

But the number one reason against these proposed new members is that they are outsiders, unknown factors that current EPP members do not trust, and they are a threat to the group.

Orbán's solution: Let's involve them!

Every member wishes to strengthen the EPP, as they see that these eurosceptic, populist parties that are proponents of nation-states are biting large chunks off of the EPP's voter base from the right. There are two solutions that have been subject to long negotiations in the group.

Viktor Orbán says the EPP should recognise that these parties are the future and the political direction the EPP should be moving towards. He says the time is now, as there are tectonic changes on the political right. There are currently three groups on that side, and they are likely to get weaker as they lose UK parties UKIP and the Conservatives, and it is likely that one of the three groups will dissolve. Orbán's position is that this moment is perfect to pick up the pieces and incorporate any they can into the EPP - and work in coalition with the parties that can't be accepted into the group.

He knows what he's talking about: He has a recipe that was already proven to work in Hungary. Fidesz noticed the demand for a strong right-wing party in Hungary, so the party moved in that direction assimilating or disintegrating any political formation that formerly occupied that political space, as it happened with KDNP (Christian Democrats, the current satellite of Fidesz), FKgP (Independent Landholders' Party, former coalition partner) MDF (Independent Democrats, former coalition partner), or simply taking away their issues and rhetorics as it happened to Jobbik.

Orbán does not want to leave the EPP, he wants to transform it.

He wants to steer it more to the right, turn the group more conservative, populist, and pro-nation state, simply because that works - that is the key to a stronger Fidesz within the EPP as well. Orbán often mentions that it was Helmut Kohl who invited Fidesz into EPP, and it seems that he wants to be the next politician to invite a new generation of parties into the most influential political group of Europe, thus gaining favours for himself.

Western Europe's solution: They should respect Western democracy

Western European members of EPP are not so keen on that idea. Let's raise the populists and hope for the best? They acknowledge the political successes of populism, maybe even envy it a bit, but they get spooked out by the fact that both Fidesz and PiS achieved their victories by disrespecting ideas like press freedom, independent civil society, judicial autonomy, and the separation of political and economic power.

They would rather see everyone abiding by the rules of Western democracy and engaging in political campaigns in that spirit. But if they can't get Fidesz to do that - the Fidesz with whom they had been in a political partnership for the last twenty years - how could they "rein in" the likes of Kaczińsky's party?

Separation can cause damage too

In the meantime, the governing party of Germany is stuck in between two worlds and is hard at work trying to decide what to do. There are important economic ties between Germany and Hungary, and Viktor Orbán had an important role in that. "The current bad blood is all attributable to politics. In all other areas, the German-Hungarian relationship is great; economic cooperation is great, cultural cooperation is great, tourism as well, and there is sympathy between the two societies," Orbán said in his interview with Welt am Sonntag last week.

Later on, he said Hungary helped the reunification of Germany, and thus the reunification of Europe, which is a point that is really important for the Germans. Even more important is what this reunited Europe means for Germany: a mutual political and economic area that keeps Eastern Europe within the German sphere of influence amongst Chinese and Russian attempts at gaining grounds in the region. The great question for the German governing parties is whether or not the expulsion of Fidesz can give the starting push to processes leading to the fragmentation of this political-economic region in the long term.

Because one thing is sure, Viktor Orbán will have his revenge one way or another. Despite claiming in his interview that the politics of vengeance is not something he likes, he seemingly uses its methods with glee: see Jean-Claude Juncker's face in front of George Soros on the latest government billboards, which got there because Juncker already suggested Fidesz's expulsion from EPP last year. Or it's worth remembering that in a speech before Hungary's 2018 elections, he promised his adversaries "legal, political, and moral revenge" for their deeds.

EPP's eyes are on the Germans

The German governing parties will be having the largest say in the debate about the expulsion. That is why Orbán gave that interview to Welt am Sonntag, where he reminded readers about the tight German-Hungarian relationship, and lauded Manfred Weber, despite the fact that Weber had been quietly criticising Fidesz for their campaign methods and the ousting of CEU.

In the meantime - probably by no accident - Ferenc Gyurcsány, former resigned PM and current president of Democratic Coalition (DK) also appeared in German press recently. He wrote an op-ed in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that tried to appeal to the German conscience pointing out that populist politics lead to World War II. Beforehand, he wrote a letter to Angela Merkel about her responsibility in Orbán's politics.

The shaky relationship between CDU and the Bavarian CSU, the two German government parties, further complicates the matters. CSU is much more pro-Orbán, even if their new leader, Markus Söder recently joined Orbán's critics as well when he noted that the EPP will need to sit down and talk about the future of its cooperation with Fidesz, saying at a press conference after CSU's board meeting late February that "we cannot get behind such campaigns, and we need to give a clear signal what can and cannot be done". 

The German connection is a priority for Orbán as well. European-level politics is pointless for him if he is in a different political group than the German governing party. That is why his answer to Manfred Weber's ultimatum is of key importance.

Orbán also gave plenty to talk about for the German parties outside the EPP for their traditional Ash Wednesday speeches as well; the social democrats condemned the EPP's inactivity so far in the matter - MEP Maria Nochl actually called the EPP's top candidate Manfred Weber a wimp.  Winfried Kretschmann, a prominent politician of the German Green party said that the Hungarian government empties freedoms, lets antisemitism out of the bottle, and is conducting a slanderous campaign against European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

Jörg Meuthen, spokesperson of German radical party AfD expressed that he would be happy to see Fidesz amongst their allies, and he said:

I'd roll out the red carpet before Viktor Orbán.

Expulsion could be on the agenda on 20 March, but the decision only comes later

EPP's Political Assembly is the body that decides about the expulsion of Fidesz. Joseph Daul, EPP's president announced that he received the sufficient number of requests to put the question on the agenda of the next Assembly on 20 March 2019. 

His wording is important: "Putting it on the agenda" does not show any of Daul's intentions. It could be a lecture on Orbán, a debate, or even a vote, as it is theoretically possible that the Assembly will decide on its next sitting, however, that is unlikely due to the divisive nature of the question that could determine the future of the political group. EPP's leaders will hold a summit a day after the Political Assembly, where Orbán will get a chance to speak.

If EPP wants to close this matter before the European Election, the Assembly's next session on 8-9 April could be the most practical opportunity for voting on the expulsion, but the most likely scenario seems to be pushing the decision beyond the election date. 

It's worth noting that the EPP has two Hungarian members, Fidesz and KDNP (Christian Democratic People's Party, Fidesz's coalition partner). If the EPP wants to expel both, they will need two separate decisions - and if Fidesz were to find themselves in a trifle, a possible solution is if KDNP remains within the EPP so the group does not lose all contact with the Hungarian government. Also, the expulsion of Fidesz does not mean all its MEPs get automatically expelled from the EP group since that requires a separate supermajority vote from the group's MEPs. 

This article is the translation of the Hungarian original published by Index, with two sections added at the beginning for context and clarity. 

(Cover: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (r) at the EPP Congress in Helsinki on 8 November 2018 with EPP President Joseph Daul in the front . Photo: Szilárd Koszticsák / MTI)

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