After years of conflict and suspension, Hungary’s ruling party finally departs the EPP parliamentary group with accusations that the political family of Europe’s centre-right parties is trying to “mute and disable our democratically elected MEPs”.
Hungary’s nationalist-populist ruling party confirmed on Wednesday earlier leaked reports it has decided to leave the European People’s Party’s (EPP) parliamentary group, ahead of a crucial meeting that adopted new rules to punish and exclude problem parties like Fidesz.
The decision by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, first reported by the government-supporting daily Magyar Nemzet early Wednesday, followed years of conflict within the EPP party itself – the political family of Europe’s centre-right parties – about Fidesz’s illiberal turn, which led to the Hungarian party’s suspension since March 2019, though its 13 MEPs remained part of the EPP group in the European Parliament. Even without the Hungarians, the EPP group, with its 187 MEPs, will maintain a comfortable lead over the second-placed Socialist and Democrats with 148 MEPs.
“The governing body of Fidesz has decided to leave the EPP Group immediately,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote in a letter to Manfred Weber, chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament. “The amendments to the rules of the EPP Group are clearly a hostile move against Fidesz and our voters.”
Those amendments concerned new rules of procedure that could lead to the suspension or exclusion not only of individual members, but entire national delegations. Under the new rules, if a party is suspended by the EPP, the parliamentary group could decide with a simple majority about suspending those members, stripping them from holding elected positions or speaking on behalf of the group in the European Parliament.
Patience wears thin
Not wishing to look like a pariah in its own party family, Orban apparently made up his mind over the weekend after it had become clear that his attempts to cajole the other EPP members and his numerous threats to leave, the last one in a letter on Sunday, had finally failed.
Dismissing the pressure from Fidesz, which has traditionally relied on the patience of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), six EPP member parties – from the north and the Baltics – urged Weber to put Fidesz’s fate up to a vote as soon as Thursday and suspend its MEPs, payback after years of provocation by Orban and his allies.
Hungary’s independent news site Telex wrote that ill-feeling towards Fidesz had been further strengthened by rumours Hungary and Poland would, in a matter of weeks, turn to the Court of Justice of the European Union to challenge the rule-of-law mechanism, passed last December by the European Parliament and European Council last year, which will make the distribution of EU funds conditional on upholding fundamental rights.
Fidesz has long been at loggerheads with the EPP and the EU in general over its undermining of democratic institutions in Hungary, which already led to the suspension of Fidesz’s membership in the EPP in March 2019. That unprecedented step was the direct consequence of a billboard campaign in Hungary in which Fidesz rallied its voters against the then-president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, himself a member of the EPP. Orban also played a key role in torpedoing the chances of EPP candidate Manfred Weber to become the president of the European Commission, which poisoned the personal relationship between the two politicians.
But Fidesz’s suspension from the EPP only served to highlight the weakness of the party family, which was unable to make up its mind on what to do about the Hungarian party. Despite growing criticism about the governing style and the dismantling of checks and balances by Fidesz, the EPP kept on postponing a decision on whether to reinstate the party with its full rights or kick it out.
As a consequence of the suspension, Fidesz MEPs could not be elected to any office and Orban was no longer invited to the pre-summit conferences of EPP prime ministers; other than that, the parliamentary group of Fidesz continued to work and vote uninhibited within the EPP’s parliamentary group. But the atmosphere had got chillier there, too, of late.
In December, two scandals hit the party. Former vice-president of the EPP Group and leader of the Hungarian national delegation, Jozsef Szajer, got caught fleeing a gay party with drugs in his rucksack during curfew in Brussels and had to resign. His successor, Tamas Deutsch, was suspended two weeks later for comparing the behaviour of Weber to the Gestapo and the Hungarian communist secret police.
Relations hit an all-time low with the EU when Hungary and Poland threatened to veto the EU’s next seven-year budget and the badly needed Recovery Fund – a move which showed that Orban was not averse to undermining the key achievements of the German EU-presidency and any remaining allies. All those factors contributed to the isolation of Fidesz and led to the end of German tolerance.
Where does this leave Fidesz? One option is for Orban to join the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, the party family of his Polish allies, Law and Justice (PiS). Less likely is for Fidesz to remain in a loose alliance with the EPP, as the British Conservatives once were