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Fidesz's EPP membership suspended - Updated with Orbán's response

D MTI20190320010
2019.03.20. 18:45

On Wednesday afternoon, political assembly of the European People's Party had debated the initiative of its thirteen member parties to expel Fidesz, and ended up adopting the proposal of the EPP Presidency that suggested the suspension of Fidesz's membership and setting up a special committee to monitor how Fidesz complies with the fundamental values of the EPP with 190 delegates voting for the proposal and only 3 against. Earlier on Wednesday, Hungarian Chief of Staff Gergely Gulyás announced that a decision to suspend Fidesz's membership would prompt the party to immediately resign from the European People's Party, however, the EPP's adopted proposal states that the EPP and Fidesz jointly agree that Fidesz suspends its membership. 

On Wednesday, the EPP's political assembly decided not to expel Fidesz, but rather adopted the proposal that suspended the membership rights of Fidesz until further notice, and placed the party under the surveillance of an "Evaluation Committee" comprised of the former president of the European Council, Belgian Herman Van Rompuy,  Austrian Wolfgang Schüssel, and German Hans-Gert Pöttering. 

This committee of "three wise men" was set up to monitor if Fidesz is abiding by the three demands Manfred Weber set forth and if the Hungarian party's policies are compliant with the principles contained in the emergency resolution adopted at the EPP's Helsinki Congress last November. The resolution adopted to protect EU values emphasises the importance of the values of liberal democracy, the very thing Orbán sworn to replace with his "illiberal" system. The decision lists Weber's demands as follows:

  • "The posters and other advertising materials used to run a fake news campaign against President Jean-Claude Juncker must be withdrawn immediately;
  • FIDESZ must understand that this campaign has caused considerable political damage. The EPP expects FIDESZ to fully recognise this and to refrain from these attacks in the future;
  • Freedom of expression, of science and education are fundamental to us. Therefore, the pending legal issues regarding the Central European University must be clarified."

Esther de Lange, a presidency member of the EPP, told journalists before the meeting that this committee is necessary to avoid what repeatedly happened before - Fidesz making promises but failing to keep them.

Fidesz's suspension means that the party is immediately stripped of its voting rights in EPP bodies, cannot suggest candidates for EPP positions, and they are barred from participating in EPP meetings, with the next one being tomorrow, where EPP's heads of governments will meet to coordinate their positions at the upcoming EU leaders' summit. The decision adopted by the Political Assembly does not determine the length of this suspension, it merely states that the committee will present its report to the Presidency in "due course".

As we have reported earlier, thirteen members of the EPP had requested the expulsion of Fidesz from the political group after the Hungarian government started its propaganda campaign featuring Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission's EPP-nominated president. Tensions around Fidesz had been mounting now in the European People's Party for years as Fidesz overstepped one red line EPP leaders warned about after the other, and Manfred Weber, the group's lead candidate made one last effort to smooth the situation over by presenting Orbán with three conditions (no more anti-EU propaganda, apology to EPP members, and CEU's continued Budapest operation). Weber said compliance with these conditions would prove Fidesz's willingness to respect the fundamental values of the EPP, therefore the party would not be expelled. 

On Wednesday afternoon, Gergely Gulyás said Fidesz can only afford to remain in the EPP if the group does not suspend its membership. He added that if the EPP sets up a committee of "three wise men" to decide about the expulsion, Fidesz is willing to voluntarily withdraw from the EPP's committees until they come to a decision, however, the party can not acknowledge a suspension, and in line with government communication that often confuses Hungary with its ruling party, said:

"THIS IS ABOUT THE DIGNITY OF FIDESZ AND THE COUNTRY."

After the vote, a relieved Manfred Weber said that now he's passing on the case of Fidesz to Herman van Rompuy. Weber emphasised that the EPP has made a clear decision and that Fidesz will not have a say in the future of the EPP. He also said that he would not call Orbán's actions in the last few days proof of Fidesz's willingness to respect EPP's values in the future, but they gave Weber hope.

Orbán's press conference

After the meeting concluded, Orbán held an international press conference, where he explained that according to him, members from the left wing of the EPP tried to expel the right wing of the EPP in order to move the group's political centre more towards the left, towards liberalism. According to Orbán, Fidesz is the defining power of the EPP's Christian-conservative wing. Orbán said that the main question was the EPP's future - whether or not it remains united, and whether or not the EPP can conduct a coordinated campaign. Orbán opined that 

the current dispute within the EPP is a gift to the socialists of the European Parliament.

He said that throughout the meeting, he repeatedly asked the thirteen members who requested the expulsion of Fidesz to revoke their initiative, but they did not, which is what necessitated the three-hour-long debate, where there were no substantial questions, merely questions of power.

Orbán claimed that the long-term goal of Fidesz is for the EPP to be the strongest party in Europe and to make sure that liberal thought no longer dominates it, and claimed that

Fidesz unilaterally requested the suspension of its membership rights.

Fidesz submits itself to the Evaluation Committee and appoints its own three "wise men" to negotiate with those of the EPP. Orbán said that he's not worried about this committee because there will "at least be three people interested in the facts" about Hungary's rule of law situation which is no worse than it is in Belgium. He added that the European Commission closed all cases concerning the accusations about media and the independence of the judiciary. Orbán said that

IT'S NOT IMPORTANT WHEN THE EVALUATION COMMITTEE SUBMITS ITS REPORT, BUT IT'S IN EVERYONE'S INTEREST THAT IT ONLY HAPPENS AFTER THE EUROPEAN ELECTIONS.

Orbán expressed his happiness over the EPP remaining as broad a political coalition as it was, and noted that all throughout the meeting, his hand was on the official letter to Joseph Daul declaring Fidesz's resignation from the epp, but he concluded that the EPP has made a good decision because it remained united, Fidesz can still support Weber as Spitzenkandidat, and all options are still on the table with regards to the relationship of the EPP and Fidesz.  He also claimed that the fact that the Hungarian society is amongst the most pro-European in the EU is thanks to his government since they involve the population in the decisionmaking process with their national consultations. He said they are pro-European, but they are not willing to change their position on immigration and the defence of Christian culture, and Fidesz would join the group in the European Parliament that represents the same position. With regards to complaints about the government's campaign against Jean-Claude Juncker, he said that

THERE WAS NO CAMPAIGN AGAINST JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER.

Responding to journalists' questions, he added that the government campaign was just an information campaign to keep Hungarians up-to-date with EU events, and Fidesz had no campaign whatsoever, as it is prohibited by law for a party to campaign before the start of the official election campaign - although it's worth noting that while that is true, even the OSCE report on the 2018 Hungarian general elections mentioned how similar government campaigns were practically indistinguishable from Fidesz's own campaign then, and how they negatively affected the level playing field in the leadup to the elections.

As for what's next, Orbán promised to focus all of their energies on their campaign for the EPP.

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