Departure from European People’s Party Looms for Orban’s Fidesz
The months-long dispute between Hungary’s right-wing governing party Fidesz and the European People’s Party (EPP)— the European Union-wide political grouping of Christian democratic and center-right constituent national political parties — was escalated this past week: Fidesz’s leader Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced that he would not support the EPP’s candidate for President of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, in the upcoming European Parliament (EP) elections.
Orban’s withdrawal of support for Manfred Weber, a former parliamentarian in the state legislature of the German state of Bavaria, current member of the EP (since 2004), and current group leader of the EPP in the EP (since 2014), came during a press conference held after Orban had met Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache — a member of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) currently in coalition with the governing conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) — on May 6 and called for the EPP to cooperate with eurosceptic, populist, anti-migration, and nationalist parties in the European Parliament.
Citing prior statements made by EPP leader Weber criticizing Orban’s increasingly illiberal rule in Hungary in which Weber allegedly asserted that “not only does he not need the Hungarian votes but he doesn’t even want the Hungarian votes to become [European Commission] President,” Orban remarked that “Weber would have been good for us as President of the Commission” but Weber’s sentiments were “such an offense to Hungary and the Hungarian voters.”
Orban’s rejection of Weber is a reversal from his earlier position, announced in October 2018, of backing Weber’s bid for being the EPP’s candidate for EC President in a move many chalked up to the close relations between Fidesz and Weber’s party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
The exact wording of Weber’s statement, however, as said by the EPP group leader to German public broadcaster ZDF in late March this year, was “I would not take up office because I do not want to be elected by the far right… I want to make clear that the center is the dominant force, not the fringes.”
As such, analysts and observers of EU politics suggest that Weber’s statement itself was not the real cause for Orban’s withdrawal of support, instead pointing to Orban’s series of meetings with far-right leaders — including Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, an anti-immigration hardliner — in the days immediately prior to May 6 as a signal that Orban was most likely seeking to leave the EPP entirely and join an anti-immigration and nationalist bloc to contest the upcoming EU-wide elections.
EPP leaders and member parties responded negatively to Orban’s announcement. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of Germany’s governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party and sister party of Weber’s CSU — signalled on the same day of Orban’s remarks that Orban had crossed a line with his behavior and asserted the Hungarian Prime Minister “has given a clear sign that he will leave [the EPP],” even though the EPP had “tried to build a bridge to Orban.”
EPP President Joseph Daul of France, ahead of an informal summit of EU leaders in Romania on May 8, called Orban and Fidesz members “free people,” remarking that “if [Orban] continues to do as he did in the last days, it will be exclusion or he will quit himself and that’s up to him.” Daul also defended the EPP’s move in March to suspend Fidesz from the EU-wide alliance — a compromise brokered by Weber to stave off outright expulsion of Fidesz from the EPP — and reiterated that a final decision on Fidesz’s EPP membership status would be made prior to an EPP party congress in November.
Fidesz’s ultimate fate — whether it be repairing its ties with and remaining in the EPP or leaving the EPP by quitting or expulsion — is a particularly contentious issue in the run-up to the EP elections scheduled to run from May 23 to 26. The composition of the EP will determine the leading candidate for EC President to succeed incumbent EC President Jean-Claude Juncker (EPP, Luxembourg), as the European Council, per Article 17.7 of the Treaty on European Union, is required to “tak[e] into account the elections of the European Parliament” in selecting a candidate who must be elected by the EP to assume office. Should Fidesz bolt (or get booted) from the EPP, the EPP stands to lose additional seats in a new Parliament already forecasted to see significant gains in seat share for populist, eurosceptic, and right-wing parties.