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European EPP members push to exclude Hungary’s Orban

Mar 5 2019

France 24 (source: AFP)

Members of the centre-right European People’s Party have officially requested the exclusion of Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party from the group, a top official said Monday.

Three months from the European Parliament election, the move reflects growing sentiment in the assembly’s dominant bloc that Hungary’s nationalist leader goes against EU values.

Also infuriating EPP members was a campaign in Hungary targeting European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, also of the EPP, who is accused of supporting illegal migration.

Budapest said on Saturday that it would put an end to the controversial campaign.

“Twelve EPP member parties from nine countries have requested the exclusion or suspension of Fidesz,” party leader Joseph Daul told AFP, adding that the question will be discussed at a meeting on March 20.

“The decision rests with all EPP members and I cannot anticipate the outcome of the discussion,” Daul added.

The EPP is the biggest party in the European Parliament, and comprises the main centre-right movements in Europe, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU and France’s Les Republicains, which have not moved against Orban.

The EPP was obliged to launch the process once the threshold of at least seven member parties from five different countries was passed.

“We must give Fidesz the opportunity to express itself. Once again, I cannot prejudge the conduct of the debates,” Daul said.

On the list opposing Orban are Belgian parties CD&V and cdH, Finland’s Kokoomus, Greece’s New Democracy, Lithuanian TS/LKD and Luxembourg’s CSV.

Also against the leader are CDA of the Netherlands, the Portuguese parties CDS-PP and PSD, Sweden’s Kristdemokraterna and Moderaterna, as well as Norway’s Hoyre.

The EPP party assembly will take place on the eve of a two-day summit of EU leaders, which will be dominated by Brexit.

Any decision to expel Orban will be fraught ahead of the elections to the European Parliament scheduled for May 23-26, in which the Hungarian populists hard stance on migration is seen by some as a vote winner.

If the Fidesz is thrown out, however, some in the EPP fear that Orban will ally with the Northern League of Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

But the Hungarian government’s direct attack on Juncker’s Commission — with the launch of an anti-immigrant, eurosceptic campaign — increased the pressure on the EPP to act.

Merkel last month voiced full backing for Juncker in the widening row with Hungary’s Orban.

Separately, Manfred Weber, the EPP’s leading candidate to take over as head of the Commission later in the year, also took Juncker’s side in the rift roiling the conservative group.

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Related:

The end of Germany’s Orbán affair

By MATTHEW KARNITSCHNIG – POLITICO

Hungarian PM’s latest provocations have prompted a rethink among conservatives.

BERLIN — Manfred Weber was livid.

“He promised me he wouldn’t do it,” the Bavarian politician lamented to associates after Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán forced Central European University, an institution backed by billionaire George Soros, out of the country in early December.

For Weber, who had just secured the nomination as lead candidate for the European People’s Party in the upcoming European Parliament election, the move amounted to a betrayal.

In recent days, those tensions have led to a much deeper rift between the Hungarian leader and his German allies. The estrangement carries wide reverberations for Europe, setting the stage for a vote on whether to suspend or possibly even eject Orbán’s Fidesz party from the EPP, a step that could reshape the balance of power in the EU and isolate Hungary.

“This could lead to a realignment of the party forces in [European] Parliament,” said Milan Ni?, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations. “But instead of doing it after the elections, as most people predicted, they could be forced to act before the elections.”

The EPP is set to decide Fidesz’s fate at a meeting in Brussels on March 20. While a number of smaller members are pushing for Orbán’s ouster from the group, such a step is unlikely if the Germans don’t get on board.

The loss of Orbán’s Fidesz would likely cost the EPP more than a dozen seats in the next Parliament — a deficit that would complicate the party’s effort to install Weber as the next Commission president. Evicting Fidesz could also prompt Orbán to seek an alliance with Italy’s League and other populists in Europe, possibly even giving them enough votes for a blocking minority in Parliament.

With those factors in mind, Germany’s center right has been reluctant to risk a complete break in the relationship.

Until now.

Weber signaled his patience had run out following Orbán’s latest provocation — a poster campaign laced with anti-Semitic imagery featuring Soros (Orbán’s longtime bête noire) and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

“There has been a fundamental shift in dealing with Orbán,” Weber told Der Spiegel in an interview published over the weekend, declining for the first time to rule out expelling Orbán’s Fidesz party from the EPP. “Enough is enough. That is our message.”

Weber’s comments followed similar statements from both his own party leader, Christian Social Union (CSU) chief Markus Söder, as well as Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU), the Bavarians’ larger sister party.

Taken together, the coordinated statements are meant to send a clear message to Budapest, party insiders say: Orbán is a liability.

“He’s become the black sheep of Europe,” a veteran CDU official said.

Such sentiments represent a sea change for Germany’s center right.

Historic ties

For years, Germany’s conservatives stood up for Orbán, even as the Hungarian openly flouted Europe’s democratic values to cement his hold on power. The Hungarian has deep ties with Germany’s conservatives going back decades. Helmut Kohl, the father of German reunification and a Christian Democrat, considered Orbán his protégé. At Kohl’s funeral two years ago, neither German Chancellor Angela Merkel nor President Frank-Walter Steinmeier were originally slated to speak; Orbán was.

“Orbán likes to test the limits, but in the end, he’s always respected the treaty,” Weber said in 2017, referring to the values anchored in the agreements that led to the creation of the European Union.

Weber joined the majority in September in endorsing Parliament’s disciplinary motion against Hungary amid concern over Orbán’s steps to encroach on judicial independence, media freedom and other issues. Yet he stopped short of calling for Fidesz’s suspension or ouster from the EPP.

Even as Orbán clashed openly with Merkel and her government over migration policy, the Hungarian was assured the allegiance of the Bavarians, who have also been openly critical of the German chancellor’s approach to migration. For Orbán, the CSU represented a bulwark against criticism from the rest of Europe as well.

Despite his party’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and increasing shift toward authoritarianism, Orbán projected a tell-it-like-it-is ethos that was core to the CSU’s own brand of politics. Come what may, the Hungarian leader knew he had powerful friends in Bavaria who would protect him.

No more. A change in the leadership of the CSU, ushering in a younger generation under Söder, triggered a reevaluation — one the Hungarian appears not to have seen coming.

The German shift could be dangerous for Orbán on a number of fronts.

German companies, many like VW’s Audi division based in Bavaria, are among the largest investors in Hungary. Germany-based companies account for nearly one-third of Hungary’s industrial production and employ thousands of locals.

While it’s unlikely the existing investments would be jeopardized, a deepening of political tensions could prompt German companies to think twice, German business executive say.

Orbán’s seeming obsession with Soros, whom he sees at the center of a conspiracy to undermine Christian Europe, and his harsh rhetoric on migration have made doing business in Hungary a PR risk for some.

“I like Viktor and think he’s done a lot of good things for Hungary, but he’s really gone too far this time,” said a German executive who has worked in Hungary for about 15 years.

The executive was referring to Fidesz’s latest poster campaign, which lines the main road from Budapest’s airport into the city.

Politicians from across the Continent as well as the Commission have attacked the campaign, which suggests Soros and Juncker have conspired to both promote illegal immigration and undermine Hungarian sovereignty.

While a Hungarian government spokesman said over the weekend that the Juncker posters would come down by March 15, Orbán himself announced in an interview with Germany’s Welt am Sonntag newspaper that a new phase would begin, featuring Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, the European Socialists’ lead candidate for the upcoming election.

Some observers believe the campaign is an attempt by Orbán to undermine confidence in the EU ahead of what are expected to be dramatic cuts to Hungary’s share of the EU’s next long-term budget, which will take a hit after Brexit.

While the final budget has yet to be agreed and isn’t expected to be until after the European election, Hungary, among the countries that receives more from the budget than it pays in, could face a reduction of up to 20 percent, according to Central European diplomats involved in the deliberations.

That Hungarians’ faith in Europe can be shaken that easily seems unlikely, however. Across Central Europe, a region plagued by corruption, many citizens put more trust in European institutions than national authorities.

While Orbán likes to portray himself as the voice of the so-called Visegrad Group (V4), a club of four Central European countries that also includes Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, those countries are increasingly wary of being associated with him.

At a lunch meeting of V4 government leaders with Merkel in Bratislava last month, his counterparts were embarrassed by his antics, according to the aides of some of the leaders present.

At one point, Orbán suggested Soros was responsible for the recent wave of protests to sweep Serbia, an assertion that was met with awkward silence.

In the run-up to the meeting, Budapest tried to convince Berlin to agree to a side trip for Merkel and Orbán to Hungary’s border with Austria in order to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain. In 1989, before the Berlin Wall fell, thousands of East Germans traveled to Hungary on tourist visas in order to pass over the Austrian border, which Budapest had opened, and then on to West Germany.

Merkel’s office declined the request from Budapest, in part, insiders say, in order to avoid the appearance of endorsing Orbán before the European election. Merkel and other German dignitaries are set to visit Hungary to commemorate the anniversary later in the summer, albeit after the election.

Under pressure

Whatever happens next, critics say Germany’s conservatives acted much too late and that Weber is simply responding to the mounting pressure from around Europe.

“Weber is doing this purely out of opportunism,” said Thorsten Benner, the head of Global Public Policy Institute, a Berlin-based think tank. “It comes at least five years too late. If they had done it in 2014, when he started to push his vision of ‘illiberal democracy,’ it might have made a difference.”

Orbán, meanwhile, shows few signs of changing his spots. Losing Fidesz’s affiliation with the EPP, the odds-on favorite to win the European election, could leave the Hungarian leader out in the cold and make it even more difficult to secure a favorable budget deal.

Yet in his interview with Welt, Orbán called his internal critics in the EPP “useful idiots,” who are only serving the interests of Europe’s left. As for Weber, he noted that unlike past Commission presidents, the Bavarian doesn’t have experience as a government leader or minister and therefore isn’t a shoo-in for the post. Some observers speculate Orbán is effectively daring his German friends to push him out, convinced in the end they won’t have the courage to do so.

“I have made clear that we will support Weber until the end,” Orbán said. “But he will face a difficult time.”

EU Executive Hits Back at Hungary’s Orban Ahead of Elections

Voice of America

The European Union executive accused Hungary’s nationalist government on Monday of distorting the truth about immigration into the bloc, marking a further deterioration in their troubled relationship ahead of European Parliament elections in May.

The EU has long been critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s stance on migrants and his record on democratic freedoms. Orban says the EU has imperiled Europe’s Christian civilization by allowing mass immigration.

Orban has recently stepped up his anti-immigration campaign with billboards and inserts in state media that vilify European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker and Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire George Soros, accusing them of being in cahoots to bring large numbers of Muslim immigrants into Europe.

“The Commission has been unambiguous about our opinion of the Hungarian government campaign that distorts the truth and seeks to paint a dark picture of a secret plot to drive more migration to Europe, allegedly,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a news briefing.

The Hungarian campaign has triggered renewed calls to expel Orban’s ruling Fidesz party from the biggest group in the European Parliament, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP). The EPP will discuss the issue March 20.

The EPP’s candidate to head the next European Commission, senior German lawmaker Manfred Weber, has said he no longer rules out expelling Fidesz.

“Viktor Orban has severely damaged the EPP with his statements and poster campaign,” Weber told the German weekly Spiegel in a weekend interview. “That’s why I expect him to apologize and end the action.”

‘Useful idiots’

But Orban, speaking to the German Welt am Sonntag weekly, dismissed seeking the expulsion of Fidesz as “useful idiots” who played into the hands of the EPP’s left-wing rivals.

“We can chalk it up to the start of the European Parliament campaign,” Zoltan Novak of the Centre for Fair Political Analysis, a Hungarian think-tank, said of Orban’s tactics. “He wants to be the antithesis to the mainstream elite.”

“He wants to embody another Europe, one that rejects immigration … federalization and further EU integration.”

The EPP currently has 217 lawmakers in the 750-strong EU legislature, 12 of them from Fidesz. The EPP is expected to remain the biggest faction in the new European Parliament but will most likely be weakened, surveys show.

The EU has been largely unsuccessful in taming Orban. A probe launched in 2018 against Budapest for weakening the rule of law in the ex-communist country has proven largely ineffective beyond causing Hungary reputational damage.

Brussels is considering making access to EU budget funds from 2021 conditional on respecting democratic principles.

Hungary and most other ex-communist EU members receive large sums from the budget for infrastructure and other projects.

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