By LILI BAYER, MAÏA DE LA BAUME AND PHILIP KALETA – POLITICO
Hungarian leader at heart of crisis for Europe’s center right faces big decisions on his party’s future.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is at a crossroads.
On March 20, the European People’s Party will discuss whether his ruling Fidesz party should remain a member of the center-right umbrella organization — and whether to vote on the matter. The debate comes just as campaigning is intensifying for May’s European Parliament election, with political groups across the spectrum battling for influence.
A dozen parties in the EPP have written to the organization’s President Joseph Daul asking for Fidesz to be suspended or kicked out, angered particularly by the Hungarian government’s taxpayer-funded, anti-migration campaign against European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Officially, Fidesz maintains that it wants to stay in the EPP. “Fidesz is not in talks with any other group,” Balázs Hidvéghi, the party’s communications director and an MEP candidate, told POLITICO Tuesday. “We are in the EPP and wish to remain therein. We are ready to present our standpoint within the EPP family.”
To remain in the EPP, Orbán would likely have to publicly apologize for his recent actions.
But, in the face of growing demands for the party’s ouster, Orbán’s rhetoric on the EPP has also shifted, with him calling his critics within the organization “useful idiots.”
The prime minister now faces a potential crunch decision as to his party’s future political direction. Here are five possible options:
Stay in the EPP
To remain in the EPP, Orbán would likely have to publicly apologize for his recent actions while performing a tricky U-turn for his domestic voters.
The EPP’s lead candidate in the EU election, Manfred Weber, told Spiegel last week that Orbán has “seriously damaged the EPP with his comments and [anti-Juncker] poster campaign.” In a letter later to Daul, Weber insisted that Orbán drop the campaign, recognize the harm it has done, and resolve a dispute that has forced the Central European University’s American-accredited degrees out of Budapest.
That could be a tough sell on the streets of some Hungarian towns, as Orbán has worked hard to convince his domestic audience that Juncker has endangered Hungary’s security. And it’s by no means certain that an apology would be accepted throughout the EPP.
Potentially flagging a future split from the EPP, a former Hungarian MEP, László Surján, said Tuesday that “my kind of old Christian Democrat doesn’t feel well in today’s EPP.” Writing in the Fidesz-affiliated newspaper Magyar Nemzet on Tuesday, he also said it isn’t true that “without the EPP’s support, we would be isolated in the EU,” noting that “the Polish governing party does not belong to the EPP, but is still an integral member” of the EU.
Join the Europe of Nations and Freedom group
While Fidesz says it’s not in talks with other political blocs, a member of the ENF said the group is “having discussions” with Orbán’s party.
By putting his lot in with the ENF, Orbán would be teaming up with Italy’s far-right League party, led by Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, and Heinz-Christian Strache’s far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ).
Ideologically, Orbán, Salvini and Le Pen take a soft line on Russia and share a Euroskeptic attitude toward Brussels decision-making. But on many policy issues, they differ. On migration, Orbán’s steadfast refusal to take in asylum seekers is not supported by Salvini’s League, which wants other EU countries to do more to help Italy by taking in migrants arriving on its shores.
And as politicians from countries that pay more into the EU budget than they get back in funds, French and Italian officials are generally not passionate about big EU spending in less developed Eastern European members.
According to POLITICO’s projections, the ENF is set to win 60 seats in the May European Parliament election, up from its current 37 seats. Fidesz would be the third-largest party in the ENF, with a projected 13 seats, putting it behind the League and the National Rally.
Join the European Conservatives and Reformists group
In many ways, an alliance between Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS) — the dominant force in an ECR group that will be weakened by the loss of British Conservative MEPs after Brexit — looks a natural fit.
The two governments already work closely and have an informal mutual defense pact, vowing to veto any potential EU sanctions over rule of law concerns. Ideologically, they are close on big issues like migration, and domestically they play up the two countries’ historical ties.
But Warsaw and Budapest are far apart on security issues and perceptions of Russia.
“Orbán needed the EPP as a shield. That’s why he stuck around for so long in that group,” Polish MEP and ECR co-chairman Ryszard Legutko told POLITICO. Having Fidesz as a candidate to join the ECR “would be great news for the Polish government,” he said.
Legutko suggested a more general realignment on the right could be under way. He said that “talks between the PiS and [Italy’s] Lega are ongoing,” and that “personally, I would seriously consider welcoming the Austrian FPÖ to the ECR.”
“In terms of values and program, we would certainly not close the door” to Orbán, another ECR official said, adding there are “no formal talks” between the group and Fidesz. But he noted that the ECR has formed a new alliance with Debout la France, and is “talking” to Spain’s far-right Vox party, “but nothing is formal yet.”
POLITICO projections show that the ECR will win 57 seats in May, down from its current 75.
Start a new alliance
Some observers reckon Orbán has aspirations to lead on the European stage, so don’t rule out a Hungarian-led initiative for a new European grouping — one that could reach out to a widespread mix of conservative Poles, Germans, Italians and Nordic Euroskeptics.
But the May election is probably too soon to organize anything robust, and other parties are already campaigning with their current alliances, so this remains an unlikely scenario.
Orbán could, though, just sit tight — assuming Fidesz is not expelled from the EPP — and wait to see how the May election unfolds, and whether there’s much change in the political dynamic, particularly in the EPP and among Euroskeptic groups.
Suspension or expulsion from the EPP ahead of the election would leave Fidesz members as non-attached MEPs, reducing their funding and influence in the legislature. The party thus has a strong interest to be part of a group in the long term.