Thursday

26th May 2022

Analysis

Relief in EPP group, as Orbán's party finally leaves

Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán on Wednesday (3 March) announced his Fidesz party's MEPs are leaving their centre-right faction in the European Parliament, marking a major breaking point in the more than two-year-long saga between Europe's largest political family and its combative Hungarian member.

MEPs from European People's Party's group voted overwhelmingly - 148 in favour, 28 against, with four abstentions - to change their rules of procedure allowing entire party delegations to be kicked out or suspended.

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After the vote, Orbán told EPP group leader Manfred Weber in a letter that the 12 Fidesz MEPs will resign from the 187-strong EPP group, the largest in the parliament.

Orbán said he saw the new rules as "clearly a hostile move against Fidesz", and added that it deprives Hungarian voters of their democratic rights. "This is anti-democratic, unjust, and unacceptable," he wrote.

EPP officials argued, however, that the new rules merely bring in line the Hungarian MEPs' status with the 2019 suspension of Fidesz's membership in the larger political umbrella party, also called the European People's Party.

Weber said he was "very happy" that the EPP group was so united behind the rule changes, but added that he "regretted losing colleagues".

The new rules have been in the making since December, and the momentum behind them solidified when last Sunday Orbán in a letter threatened to leave EPP if the vote goes ahead.

"We don't need any kind of lesson on our values in the EPP. This is about the provocations against Europe, about fundamental rights and rule of law," Weber told journalists on Wednesday. "They moved away from the EPP, we did not," he added.

While some Slovenian, Austrian, and French MEPs voted against the new rules in the group, Fidesz found itself isolated on Wednesday.

One Hungarian MEP, who belongs to a small Christian Democratic party in coalition with Fidesz, will remain part of the centre-right faction.

Dilemma for mainstream centre-right

There was a sense of relief among some of the MEPs in the EPP after the vote.

The group, and the larger party too, has been engulfed in a difficult balancing act between more liberal-minded parties that had been fed up with Orbán's anti-EU rhetoric and backsliding on rule of law and Fidesz.

The debate over Fidesz has become an unbearable political burden on EPP - but it also represented a core dilemma for many centre-right, mainstream parties struggling to deal with their populist challengers.

The frustration with Fidesz boiled over after Hungary (and Poland) blocked of the long-term EU budget last year over a dispute on rules to link funding to respect for the rule of law.

"The resignation of Fidesz is a great relief and a historic day for the EPP and Europe. Virtually all of the group, including the largest parties, have lost their last faith in authoritarian Orbán," Finnish MEP Petri Sarvamaa, in charge of negotiating on the rule-of-law conditionality, said.

Crucially, German MEPs - who have so far played a key balancing role with regards to Orbán, backed the new rules on Wednesday.

No tears

"Adieu Fidesz from EPP group. I will not cry," Polish MEP Roza Thun summed up the feeling in a tweet.

"This is a very good day for the EPP. The new rules of procedure are like a vaccine, which gives us immunity to those who break the common rules, priorities of the group and act against European values," the head of the Polish delegation, MEP Andrzej Halicki said.

"This vote is also a clear sign of our ability to act and our credibility. We rejected Viktor Orbán's attempt to blackmail us. Our votes cannot be dictated or prescribed," Austrian MEP Othmar Karas, a key supporter of the new EPP rules, said.

The Fidesz MEPs still need to personally, officially resign from the EPP group.

Fidesz's expulsion from the large umbrella party is also likely to hasten.

Where next?

It remains to be seen which political group Fidesz MEPs could join.

The conservative European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the sixth-largest group encompassing Fidesz Polish allies, the Law and Justice party, in a statement expressed their "sympathies and solidarity" with Fidesz MEPs.

The fourth-largest group, the far-right Identity and Democracy Party (ID) could also be another option.

VoteWatch Europe, a think-tank in Brussels, said in its analysis that Fidesz's departure "weakens the market-oriented factions within the EPP", and pushes the balance of power in the EU institutions to the left.

It also warned that Germany and France are risking losing further ground in central and eastern Europe to non-EU players, such as the US, UK, Russia, China, and Turkey, "whose interests are not always aligned with theirs in the region".

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