By Maïa de La Baume and Lili Bayer – Politico
Opponents see suspension by conservatives as ‘political trick.’
Europe’s most powerful political family imposed a timeout on its troublesome son but stopped short of kicking him out.
The European People’s Party (EPP), the center-right alliance that stretches across the Continent, suspended Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in a move intended to show voters that it takes criticism of Budapest’s rule-of-law record seriously. But the decision also leaves the door open for Fidesz to regain full membership.
The move deprives the EPP of one of its strongest-performing parties — albeit one from a small EU member country — just two months before the European Parliament election. But opponents dismissed the decision as a political trick that would allow the EPP to keep Fidesz in the fold while giving the impression it is taking a tough line.
The EPP’s political assembly approved the decision with 190 votes in favor and three against at a tense meeting in Brussels on Wednesday. Under the terms of the deal, which Orbán presented as a compromise, Fidesz will have to meet various conditions and a three-man panel will judge whether the party is acting in accordance with the EPP’s rules and values.
“EPP is a party of values and each member must abide by the principles that unite us. Today, internal democracy has spoken,” declared EPP President Joseph Daul.
A total of 13 EPP member parties, primarily from Northern Europe and the Benelux countries, demanded Fidesz be suspended or expelled.
“We cannot compromise on democracy, rule of law, freedom of press, academic freedom or minorities’ rights. And anti-EU rhetoric is unacceptable. The divergences between EPP and Fidesz must cease.”
Orbán, who has railed against Muslim immigrants and declared himself a champion of “illiberal democracy,” has been increasingly at odds with Europe’s political establishment in recent years. Critics have accused him of cracking down on academic and media freedom, undermining the rule of law and using anti-Semitic tropes.
Orbán has robustly denied the allegations, but the European Parliament last year triggered so-called Article 7 disciplinary proceedings against Hungary, declaring that Budapest risks breaching the EU’s fundamental values.
Daul and other EPP leaders, such as Manfred Weber, the party’s leader in the European Parliament and its candidate to be the next European Commission president, had long resisted calls to exclude Fidesz from their ranks.
But when the Hungarian government launched an anti-migration billboard campaign last month featuring current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a senior member of the EPP, and American-Hungarian businessman George Soros, a red line was crossed in the eyes of many conservative politicians. Orbán provoked further outrage within the EPP by branding his internal critics “useful idiots.”
A total of 13 EPP member parties, primarily from Northern Europe and the Benelux countries, demanded Fidesz be suspended or expelled from the alliance, which not only forms the largest group in the European Parliament but also unites center-right leaders and other senior politicians from around the Continent.
Daul said the overwhelming majority in favor of the suspension shows the EPP is not divided. “I am applying democracy,” he said.
To regain full EPP membership, Fidesz will have to end the anti-Juncker campaign; recognize the damage it caused and refrain from similar action; and resolve a legal dispute over the status of the Soros-founded Central European University in Budapest.
Orbán has flirted with the idea of joining Euroskeptic groups, but ultimately proved wary of losing his place in the powerful EPP.
After the meeting, while saying he acceptsthe decision, Orbán took issue with the criticism of the campaign that featured images of Juncker and Soros. “We never had any campaign against Juncker,” he declared, in remarks that prompted laughter from reporters and officials. “What we have in Hungary is an information campaign.”
He said Fidesz would be campaigning for an EPP victory in the European Parliament election.
“The good news is that unity in the EPP has been preserved,” Orbán said.
“Thirteen parties attacked us,” the prime minister noted in a characteristically combative press conference, in which he claimed that his party had been in a negotiation with the powerful EPP rather than having had terms dictated to it.
Some EPP members hailed the decision as a fair compromise. Gunnar Hökmark, a Swedish MEP who had called for Fidesz’s expulsion, described it as a “crucial step,” that has “clarified with a big majority that Fidesz is not compatible with the EPP.”
Others saw it as a first step toward expulsion, arguing Orbán is unlikely to meet the rule-of-law demands.
“I think that this was what the vast majority of the EPP could support,” said Frank Engel, an MEP and chairman of Luxembourg’s Christian Social People’s Party. Engel added that while the result is not the immediate exclusion he had supported, “this already means [Orbán is] now on the short leash,” since the suspension is indefinite and could lead to expulsion if Fidesz does not comply with the EPP’s conditions.
But outside the EPP, the decision to suspend rather than expel Fidesz — as well as the fact that the party was allowed to negotiate over the disciplinary measures against it — was met with outrage.
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, called the move “a political trick that shames Europe.”
“This stitch up shows the EPP will always put parliamentary numbers ahead of the collective European interest,” Verhofstadt said in a statement.
Ska Keller, a lead candidate for the Greens in the European election, said EPP members “have shied away from any clear decision.”
“This suspension seems to be an attempt to buy time ahead the elections. But that won’t work. The defense of rule of law and European democratic values cannot be compromised through political tricks,” she said.