Manfred Weber in Budapest: EPP's values are non-negotiable, Fidesz has to respect them
Manfred Weber, leader of EPP's group in the European Parliament arrived in Hungary on Tuesday morning after he initiated a meeting with Viktor Orbán to talk about how the expulsion Fidesz faces in the political group can be avoided. Weber met CEU's president Michael Ignatieff before his talks with Viktor Orbán, after which he had a meeting with representatives of Europe's Jewish communities, and held a press conference in the Budapest Great Synagogue where he answered questions about the relationship of Fidesz and the EPP.
The European People's Party is set to commence a procedure that could end in the expulsion of Fidesz from the political group, and the vote could take place as early as 20 March 2019. Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP's group in the EP and the group's lead candidate initiated Tuesday's talks with Viktor Orbán as the PM's press officer announced on Monday.
Earlier, Weber set three conditions for Fidesz to stay in the European People's Party:
- 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.
After his arrival, Weber went straight to the Budapest building of CEU first where he met Michael Ignatieff, the university's rector - earlier, Weber told German press that in the future, Bavaria would like to take part in the funding of CEU's Budapest departments. CEU issued a press release after the meeting:
"The aim of Mr. Weber's visit is to negotiate how it is possible for CEU to operate in Budapest as a USA-accredited institution. CEU supports Weber's initiative and is looking forward to the results of the talks between Manfred Weber and Viktor Orbán."
Still, CEU is following its plans and it is moving to Vienna, as they cannot enrol new students at the Budapest campus due to the new measures introduced by the Hungarian government, their statement added.
Weber visited the Dohány street Great Synagogue and met András Heisler, president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, and representatives of other European communities to talk about steps that can be taken to guarantee the freedom of religion of Europe's jewish communities.
Before the discussion, he said a few words to the press. He talked about the growing number of antisemitic behaviours and even attacks across Europe. He said that is why it is the task of all politicians to defend religious freedoms in Europe, with special regards to the Jewish communities in Europe, as Europe is unthinkable without the historic contributions of these communities.
About his meeting with Orbán, Weber said:
"We had a constructive atmosphere, but problems are not yet solved."
He said the members of the EPP still have to discuss the upcoming decisions. He said that the EPP has clear fundamental values which are non-negotiable - all members have to respect them, including Fidesz, and if Fidesz met the three criteria he set earlier, that would be proof that they still do. He said that first, respecting academic freedom is crucial, that is why it has to be made sure that CEU can still operate in Budapest, secondly that they will not allow any further anti-Europe campaigning, so the offending posters must be replaced. He said that the third element is important for the EPP's continued operation, so
"It would be a good way to work together in the party for Orbán Viktor to apologise for the burden and for the problems he was creating."
Weber also said he is a politician interested in solutions for the future of Europe, not conflicts, so "let's see how the next few days will develop, whether we can find an agreement or not."
Answering journalists' questions after the meeting in the Synagogue, Weber repeatedly stressed that the EPP is a party that is based on basic principles that have to be respected by members. He refused to guess what the outcome of the current conflict will be, he said the EPP is a large party with lots of member parties that need to be consulted for assessing the situation. Weber said that his three requests are on the table, but other big questions include the currently ongoing Article 7 procedure and the infringement procedures at the European Court of Justice. Weber said:
What we want to guarantee is that Fidesz is committed to the EPP values and that Hungary is a strict pro-European country that sticks to the European values.
Weber emphasised again that this is a dialogue, and he is interested in solutions, his intention is building bridges, his job is to find consensus.
He added that the question of CEU is a key issue, because the other two - the apology and the poster campaign - are internal matters of the EPP, however, freedom of science is a key element of today's European Union. He said that during his talks with CEU president Michael Ignatieff and later, at his meeting with the Prime Minister he proposed a new possibility that would again make it possible to offer US degrees in Budapest, and he said there is an option on the table involving the Technical University of München and contributions from BMW.
When asked by a journalist whether or not Orbán has made his apology yet, Weber did not give a straight answer - he said this is a process involving constant consultation with other member parties, and Viktor Orbán will react over the following days.
He assessed it as a positive development that Viktor Orbán said that the poster campaign comes to an end, as Weber saw them on his way from the airport personally, and he commented:
"This is a small positive signal that he understood that this was way too much for his EPP family and that we cannot accept this kind of campaigning. That is also the first success of the talks."
Although it must be noted that shortly before Manfred Weber's arrival, the posters have disappeared from the billboards on the side of the road connecting the airport to downtown Budapest that Weber was expected to take after his arrival. The quick coverup was probably necessary because the previous night, activists of opposition party MSZP hacked these posters to feature Manfred Weber instead of Jean-Claude Juncker.
After the posters were removed by the morning, activists of opposition party Momentum spraypainted messages to Weber on the blank billboards such as "A day ago, this was hate propaganda," "Are you blind?" and just simply "Grow some balls, Weber." At their press conference, Momentum officials said that covering up the billboards shows how much the government is ashamed of its own campaign and expressed their hopes that the incitement of hate will have consequences.
Viktor Orbán has not yet issued a reaction, however, his chief of staff Gergely Gulyás announced soon after Weber's press conference that
Viktor Orbán is willing to apologise in case he has offended any members of the European People's Party with his use of the phrase "useful idiots."
With regards to the other two demands included in Weber's ultimatum, Gulyás said the poster campaign is over, and in their perspective, the problem with CEU has also been solved, even if the government is open to the option suggested by Weber, however, he insisted that the amendment to the Act on Higher Education is compliant with EU law.
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