Less than two months ahead of elections to the European Parliament, the body’s largest party is in disarray. The European People’s Party (EPP), a center-right, pro-EU alliance of more than 40 national member parties, has been roiled by a dispute over how to deal with its enfant terrible: the far-right nationalist party Fidesz, led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Since 2010, Orban has taken Hungary far enough down the road to autocracy that the NGO Freedom House demoted the country from “free” to “partly free” in its 2019 report—a first in EU history. Fidesz’s slide into authoritarianism has drawn growing criticism from the European Parliament, including from many EPP backbenchers. But it took a blatant anti-EU campaign by Fidesz, featuring unflattering posters of Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission and one of the EPP’s own, for the EPP to take action. At a party conference in Brussels last week, the EPP announced it was suspending Fidesz—but stopped short of kicking the party out entirely.
Practically speaking, the measure accomplishes less than meets the eye. Fidesz will stop participating in internal EPP party business, but its MEPs will mostly go on as if nothing has changed, and their valuable votes and delegates will still benefit the EPP. The reason for the EPP’s soft-handed approach is simple: the party knows it stands a better chance of coming out on top in this May’s European elections if it doesn’t expel Fidesz outright. By opting for a cosmetic measure, the EPP has chosen ambition over principle. That decision may come back to haunt it.
KEEP YOUR ENEMIES CLOSE?
Orban has flouted the democratic values of the European Union and of the EPP for years. Under his leadership, the Hungarian government has sought to muzzle the judiciary. It has attacked the press and hamstrung civil society. It has also solidified party control of formerly independent institutions such as the election commission, the state audit office, the public prosecutor’s office, and the central bank. Orban’s creeping illiberalism alarmed his European colleagues as early as 2013 when some EPP members supported an omnibus report calling on European institutions to monitor Hungary’s policies.
Criticism within the EPP continued to mount, particularly after Orban forced Central European University to move from Budapest to Vienna. In September 2018, the European Parliament once again chastised Orban and began a formal process, often referred to as Article 7 proceedings, to warn Hungary that it might face sanctions if it continued violating European values. The measure passed with the support of a sizable bloc of MEPs from the EPP, including some of the party’s senior leaders.
Yet power politics have kept the EPP from taking more drastic action. The EPP wants to appear responsive to critics inside and outside the party who have long accused it of sanctioning a rogue government within the EU. But with elections looming, it also wants the big prize that comes with remaining the largest party in the European Parliament: the ability to name the next European Commission president, who wields tremendous agenda-setting power in the EU. Manfred Weber, the EPP’s candidate for the job, knows he may need Fidesz on board to realize his dream.
Current polling suggests that the EPP, like several other mainstream parties, will take a big hit in the May elections. It will likely slump from its current 217 seats to just 178. Though it’s still on track to become the largest party, a diminished EPP will find it harder to persuade others to go along with its pick for commission president. To guarantee Weber’s appointment as head of the European Commission, the EPP will need every vote it can get—including those of the 13 MEPs Fidesz is projected to win.
No wonder, then, that Weber fought hard to avoid having to censure Orban. In mid-March, Weber traveled to Budapest and proposed a compromise solution that would have allowed Central European University to stay in the city—something he had declared a red line. Yet Orban rejected the deal and failed to meet any of Weber’s not-so-onerous conditions, which included abandoning, and apologizing for, his anti-EU poster campaign. Weber had thrown Orban a lifeline, but he refused to take it.
The EPP’s willingness to tolerate Orban may come down to naked political ambition. Orban has been flirting with the idea of creating his own coalition of anti-immigration and Euroskeptical forces to wrest control of the EU’s institutions from centrist parties. Projections put the number of Euroskeptical MEPs in the next parliament as high as 250. Although many of these MEPs would probably be divided across different political groups, Orban might unite enough of them to create a powerful populist force. Orban’s strategy is to campaign on two tracks. He can use the EPP to shield himself from criticism while mulling a run as the leader of a Europe-wide populist insurgency.
“NO EXPULSION, NO SUSPENSION!“
At home, Hungary’s pro-government media have spun Orban’s treatment by the EPP as vindication of his leadership. Orban now claims that Fidesz was not suspended but rather voluntarily “suspended itself.” The country’s public broadcaster proclaimed that Orban had scored a “huge victory.” The government-friendly news website Origo declared: “No expulsion, no suspension!“
The Hungarian press is not entirely wrong. Orban remained surprisingly in control throughout proceedings that were supposedly targeting him. The terms of the suspension were taken from a motion that Orban had himself put forward. According to the final decision, Fidesz will “voluntarily” stop attending EPP meetings, voting on candidates for party leadership, and generally participating in party business. It will also accept a committee of three “wise men”—ex–European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, and former European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering, who will review whether the Hungarian government has violated the EPP’s values. If they issue Hungary a clean bill of democratic health, Orban can return to the fold. Unsurprisingly, Orban has already moved to seize control of this process by appointing a parallel Hungarian team to educate the EPP group when it comes to town.
In the meantime, however, little has changed. Fidesz’s current MEPs will retain their various committee assignments, where they guard several of the chokepoints through which any resolution to discipline Hungary must pass. A Fidesz MEP is still one of the parliament’s vice presidents.
Orban’s behavior has not changed either. Fresh from his sanctioning in Brussels, he promptly renewed his attacks on the EU and the EPP. In a Sunday radio broadcast, he vowed to keep up his anti-EU poster campaign. He also warned that the EPP should not take him for granted, saying that the bloc had become a “semi-left-wing” shell of its former self and speculating that it might be time to join “some sort of new party alliance.”
THE PRICE OF AMBITION
By repeatedly ignoring its own red lines and by sanctioning Orban only as much as he was willing to accept, the EPP has sacrificed its fundamental tenets for electoral advantage. Europe, according to the EPP, is a community of values that must be defended against its detractors. But the willingness of the EU’s largest centrist collective to appease an illiberal government demonstrates that there are no values it won’t abandon if its power is at stake.
Having decided to keep Orban inside the party tent for now, the EPP may struggle to hold on to its more principled member parties when Orban continues to misbehave. It may not even get Orban’s votes in the new European Parliament if he decides to defect after the election. The EPP is trying to both sanction Orban and keep his support. It may well achieve neither.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.