European People’s Party Rebukes Hungary's Orban, Fidesz
Ahead of the May 2019 European Union-wide elections for the 705 members of the next European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP) — the largest EU-wide political grouping of Christian democratic and center-right national political parties — has become embroiled in a heated internal debate over how to respond to a new anti-immigrant and anti-EU advertisement campaign launched by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose right-wing Fidesz party is a member of the EPP.
Hungary, under Orban and Fidesz, has trended towards an increasingly illiberal and autocratic political direction. Since Orban’s decisive victory in Hungarian parliamentary elections in April 2018, Budapest has pursued hardliner nationalist policies with regards to immigration and further European integration along with the expulsion of Central European University from Hungary late last year. Hungary (alongside Poland) drew formal sanction from the European Parliament in the latter half of 2018 for perceived violations of EU values and law.
On Feb. 19, Orban unveiled a new taxpayer-funded anti-immigration media campaign that alleged Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros and President of the European Commission (EC) Jean-Claude Juncker — a former Prime Minister of Luxembourg also affiliated with the EPP — of conspiring to harm Hungarian national security via mass illegal immigration.
Juncker’s chief spokesman rebutted the campaign on the same day, calling the claims in the “shocking” campaign “a ludicrous conspiracy theory” and declaring that “the Hungarian campaign beggars belief.” Juncker himself, at a public meeting on the same day in Stuttgart, Germany, lamented that “against lies there’s not much you can do” and declared that “there’s no place for [Fidesz] in the European People’s Party” on the grounds that “the conservatives in Hungary in no way whatsoever represent Christian democratic values.”
A Swedish member of the European Parliament sent a letter to the EPP’s leadership on Feb. 20 asking for a discussion to be held on the membership status of Fidesz at the next EPP group meeting on Mar. 6. Sweden’s center-right Moderate Party, a member-party of the EPP, told Swedish media on Feb. 22 that they would, “in accordance with the EPP statutes, gather [support from] seven member parties from five different countries to exclude Fidesz” as “it is quite obvious that Fidesz will not change its attitude on fundamental values.”
Such support among the EPP’s national member-parties may be present. Austrian Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People’s Party (OVP) distanced himself from Orban — calling the anti-immigration campaign “unacceptable” — and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) commented that the campaign “sends the wrong message about the EU migration policy.”
Furthermore, German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) replied to reporters on Feb. 21 that “Jean-Claude Juncker has my full solidarity, and we will also make that clear in discussions with Hungary.” Merkel’s successor as CDU party chief, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, declared that the CDU may break off ties with Fidesz if “it’s no longer possible to come to an understanding” and asserted that “it’s up to the Hungarians to clearly prove that they still belong in the EPP.”
The upcoming European Parliament elections in May will not only decide the composition of the chamber, but also select the leading candidate for EC President to succeed the EPP’s Jean-Claude Juncker come November. Per Article 17.7 of the Treaty on European Union, the EC President is proposed by the European Council — which is required to “tak[e] into account the elections of the European Parliament” — and elected by the Parliament.
Current polling data suggests that no European political group will secure a majority in the new Parliament, with populist, eurosceptic, and right-wing groupings predicted to see large gains in seat share. Whether or not the EPP is willing to sacrifice Fidesz’s seats (and grouping unity) in the European Parliament in the face of such a crucial election remains to be seen.