Turmoil in European Parliament – Orbán Forestalls the Expulsion from EPP Group
Shortly after the European People’s Party (EPP) Group in the European Parliament approved an amendment to its Rules of Procedure, which paved the way for Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party to be suspended from its ranks, the Hungarian Prime Minister announced that his party’s MEPs will leave the Group of the Christian Democrats. How does this decision affect Fidesz, the EPP, and the Hungarian opposition? Which party family in Europe could Orbán now join?
On March 3, 84 percent of the EPP Group voted for an amendment to the Rules of Procedure that would enable the exclusion or suspension of national delegations from the Group in the future. The change was passed with 148 votes in favor, and 28 against. This decision paved the way for the potential suspension of the Hungarian Fidesz party led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has been arguing for years with the EPP over violations of EU’s fundamental values and verbal attacks against the former President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. In order to forestall his expulsion, Orbán declared in a letter to EPP parliamentary group leader Manfred Weber, whom the head of the Fidesz delegation Tamás Deutsch had recently compared with the Gestapo, that the twelve Hungarian Fidesz MEPs would leave the EPP Group immediately.
Quo Vadis, Fidesz?
Although Fidesz and the Hungarian government are trying to present the exit from the EPP parliamentary group to the Hungarian voters as a success story, with this step the ruling party loses its previously secure negotiating position in the decision-making processes in the European Parliament. The influential and largest parliamentary group provided Orbán and Fidesz with a platform to advance his interests on the European stage and with the legitimacy for his management of EU funds at home. Although the Fidesz delegation has left the EPP Group, its MEPs are currently unable to join any other political group, as Fidesz is still a member of the European People’s Party, albeit a suspended one since March 2019. However, they do not want to act for too long as independent MEPs, because this would ultimately lead to either the exclusion or withdrawal of Fidesz from the EPP.
With Fidesz no longer tied to the EPP Group, one may expect that this will lead to a tougher campaign against the EU rule of law mechanism led by the Hungarian government: So, will the “outsider Hungary” under the Orbán government exacerbate the politics of scapegoating directed against the EU’s institutions? Invoking a constant external threat remains an important part of Fidesz’s electoral campaigns in Hungary. However, a campaign for the exit from the EU is not likely to be expected, as both Hungary as a whole and Orbán’s family and friends benefit from multi-billion-euro financial aid from the EU.
Conservatives in Turmoil
What would have happened if Fidesz had not voluntarily left the group? The necessary majority of the EPP Group voted in favor of an amendment to the Rules of Procedure, which applies equally to all Members. It applies to the German CDU and the Bavarian CSU as well as to the Austrian ÖVP, the Slovenian SDS, or the Hungarian KNDP and Fidesz. Among the 28 EPP’s MEPs who voted “no”, there were those from Hungary, three MEPs from Slovenia, and six from Austria. The only member of the KDNP party, György Hölvényi, remained a member of the EPP Group. The Christian Democratic KDNP ran in the European elections on a joint list with Fidesz.
Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), led by the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, also remains in the EPP Group. Janša is accused of smear campaigns and verbal attacks on journalists in his country and his presence on Twitter is often compared to that of the former US President Trump, whom the Slovenian Prime Minister declared the winner of the US presidential election in December. Janša is a close ally of Orbán, who publicly supported him in the 2018 parliamentary election campaign. In Hungary, Fidesz has a two-thirds majority in the parliament and can largely create the rules of politics itself. At the European level, a greater willingness to compromise must be shown, which Fidesz was growing less willing to offer and the delegation has now left.
Celebrations in the Far-Right Corner
Just after leaving the EPP, there was an invitation from the “Identity and Democracy” (ID) Group as well as supportive words from the “European Conservatives and Reformers” (ECR) Group. The delegation-head Tamás Deutsch told the Hungarian media that Fidesz MEPs will continue their work as independents. However, this is not in Fidesz’s interest in the long term. In matters of the rule of law, Fidesz finds an ally in the Polish ruling party PiS, which is part of the ECR. This alliance can be described as purely tactical, since the Polish and Hungarian governments are pulling together in the dispute over the rule of law and the EU budget. The EU Commission sees problems in both countries due to violations of the rule of law.
In terms of foreign policy, the two governments are repeatedly on opposing sides, especially in their attitudes towards Russia. On this issue, Orbán is much closer to the former Italian Interior Minister and head of the right-wing national Lega Matteo Salvini and the French right-wing populist Marine Le Pen. The parties of the two politicians, Lega and Rassemblement National, sit in the “Identity and Democracy” faction – together with the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Orbán is aware that an alliance with the AfD would strain, if not endanger, good relations with the German government and important economic ties. Even if Orbán does not join either of the two party families, he explained, he could offer a home to those European citizens “who do not want migrants, who do not want multiculturalism, who have not descended into LGBTQ lunacy”. It cannot therefore be ruled out that a new party alliance with Orbán as the leading figure could soon form in the right-wing field.
Liberals See Their Chance
The fact that Fidesz is now isolated at the European level and the Fidesz’s polls are slowly falling could give the united Hungarian opposition a further boost ahead of the parliamentary elections in spring 2022. At the end of January, the united opposition – an alliance of six parties, including the liberal Momentum party – was able to overtake Fidesz in the polls for the first time. The opposition’s primaries will be held in the fall.
In a total of two rounds, the voters can select the candidate for the office of Prime Minister as well as the candidates for the 106 constituencies. András Fekete-Győr, chairman of the liberal Momentum, will run with his program “New Hungary, New Faces” as a candidate for the office of Prime Minister in the upcoming primary elections. The focus of his program is, among other things, the fight against corruption, the restoration of freedom of the press and the creation of a fair electoral law. A public discussion on the joint election program will start in May. Orbán will try to split the opposition and present himself as the saviour of the Hungarians.
Toni Skorić is project manager for Central Europe and the Baltic States in the Foundation’s office in Prague.