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Viktor Orbán’s relationship with his European Parliament family finally reached breaking point.
After years of tension and procrastination over their enfant terrible, many members of the European People’s Party (EPP) breathed a sigh of relief when the Hungarian prime minister on Wednesday jumped before he was pushed out of the EPP group in the Parliament.
Orbán announced that MEPs from his Fidesz party were quitting the center-right group — the largest bloc in the Parliament — soon after it approved a rule change that paved the way for them to be suspended from its ranks.
To the EPP’s critics, the separation was long overdue. They have accused the EPP of turning a blind eye for years while the Hungarian government rolled back democracy, human rights and the rule of law, Orbán regularly assailed EU institutions and Fidesz embraced far-right populism.
Fidesz angrily rejected those charges while EPP leaders argued for years that theirs was a broad alliance, and that it was better to try to keep Orbán’s troops inside the camp than have them move further to the right and attack from outside.
The question for both Orbán and the EPP now is whether the rupture benefits or damages them in the long term.
In the short term, both lose something. The EPP group is deprived of 12 MEPs (although one Fidesz member was already suspended). It remains comfortably the largest in the Parliament but the Fidesz departure comes on top of losses at the last European elections.
Fidesz, for its part, loses its place inside a large, influential and wealthy political force that has given it a platform to advance its interests on the European stage.
Publicly, EPP group leaders played down talk of victory and defeat. But they noted the rule change was overwhelmingly backed by the group’s MEPs — a statement that suggested Fidesz had become isolated.
“I am very happy that the EPP group is so united,” group leader Manfred Weber told reporters. “I don’t see winners and losers, and I even would say that I regret that we are losing colleagues in the EPP family.”
A total of 148 MEPs voted in favor of the new rules, while just 28 voted against. Orbán responded quickly with a letter, saying that his group would leave the EPP because the vote was “clearly a hostile move against Fidesz and our voters.”
Tensions between Fidesz and other, more centrist, members of the EPP have been simmering for years. Fidesz has been suspended from membership of the EPP party alliance since March 2019. But its MEPs remained part of the EPP group in the European Parliament, despite moves by some to kick them out.
However, many EPP lawmakers, even some previously in favor of keeping Fidesz MEPs in their ranks, eventually grew tired of what they saw as repeated attacks on both the EPP’s values and its leaders.
The pivotal players in Wednesday’s drama were Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU) — the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — and their Bavarian CSU allies, who had long been reluctant to act against Fidesz but backed the rule change.
Weber said on Wednesday it was “clear” that Fidesz had moved away from the values of the EPP’s founding fathers, including former German Christian Democratic Chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.
“They moved away from the EPP, we did not,” Weber declared.
Fidesz faces choice
It remains to be seen whether others are tempted to move away from the EPP too. Several Parliament officials suggested that MEPs who voted against the new rules on Wednesday could follow in Orbán’s footsteps.
Among the dissenters were members of the Slovenian Democratic Party of Prime Minister Janez Janša and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party. They and other malconents would, however, have to weigh up the loss of clout that would come from leaving the EPP group, even if they feel an affinity with Fidesz.
The next chapter in this political family drama will likely come if Fidesz is expelled from the EPP party umbrella. Or if, once again, Fidesz decides to walk out before the EPP can make such a move.
Fidesz MEP Tamás Deutsch said that while there is a possibility that the party will remain inside the EPP, the course of events points “in the opposition direction.”
Nevertheless, he also noted that new CDU leader Armin Laschet’s comments on Fidesz are “very different in tone” from those of the EPP’s leadership. Laschet has so far avoided saying whether he favors excluding Fidesz from the EPP.
The European Parliament has been rife with talk that Fidesz has been discussing alliances with groups that are critical of the EU, including the European Conservatives and Reformists and the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group.
Jörg Meuthen, a leader of the Alternative for Germany party and leading member of the ID group, said it was clear Orbán and his party belonged in their ranks.
“That is apparent in questions such as migration, identity and national sovereignty,” Meuthen said in a statement. “Fidesz was always the conservative fig leaf of a fake-conservative EPP.”
But Balázs Hidvégi, a Fidesz MEP who acts as the party’s spokesperson in the Parliament, said it was too early to talk about what would happen in the future.
“Fidesz is and has been a dedicated pro-European party,” he said. “We are not Euroskeptic, we are not critical of Europe, but of the Brussels bureaucracy.”
For the EPP, Wednesday’s move offered leaders the chance to claim that they had brought ideological clarity to the group, after years of trying to bridge the gap between Europhile centrists and others who felt closer to the nationalist, anti-migration line of Orbán.
During an EPP debate prior to the vote on Wednesday, Esteban González Pons, an EPP vice president who oversaw his group’s work on the new membership rules, warned MEPs that the adoption of the rules “preserved the unity” of the group. He said if MEPs did not adopt them “it would have been the end of the EPP,” according to one participant to the meeting.
González Pons told reporters later in the day that with the new rules, the group had chosen “moderation instead of radicalism,” and “compromise instead of intolerance.”
But the EPP’s opponents did not give the party much credit. They accused the EPP of having been much too lenient for too long in the face of increasingly autocratic tendencies from Orbán.
“It is regrettable the EPP have harboured the slide to authoritarianism in Hungary for so long,” Dacian Cioloş, leader of the centrist Renew Europe group in the Parliament said in a statement. “Under Orbán, Fidesz has eroded democracy in Hungary and vandalised European values …There is no space for the toxic populism of Fidesz in mainstream European politics.”
Iratxe Garcia, the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group, said Fidesz “should have been kicked out years ago.”
“Instead, the EPP Group sat by and watched while Orbán’s anti-democratic government attacked European citizens’ freedoms again and again,” Garcia added.
Lili Bayer contributed reporting.