23rd Mar 2018

EPP group frustrated with Orban

The air is getting thinner around Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban's ruling Fidesz party in the European Parliament with the centre-right group, the European People's Party (EPP). But little action can be expected as the group struggles to keep the maverick leader at bay.

At a group meeting on Wednesday (26 April), before a plenary debate about the situation in Hungary there was "merciless criticism" of Orban's policies, several sources told EUobserver.

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  • Hungary's premier Orban and one of his ministers listen to the EP plenary debate (Photo: European Parliament)

They said that an unprecedented number of MEPs spoke up in a "heated atmosphere" against the Hungarian PM's latest measures.

Fellow lawmakers accused Fidesz MEPs of misleading the EPP group, of being disloyal, and ruining the reputation of the EPP, a source said.

MEPs were particularly unnerved by the "Let's stop Brussels" questionnaire sent to 8 million Hungarian voters, which contains false claims about the EU.

Several national EPP delegations showed frustration with Orban's latest moves. Poland's Civic Platform deputies, in particular, were critical because they face an increasingly illiberal rule at home that mirrors Orban's Hungary.

EPP lawmakers were irritated that Fidesz was becoming a systematic problem within the party, since they were forced to defend Orban while he continued to challenge European rules and values.

Sick and tired

"The problem has been that, for years, every other month we have had Hungary at the table, and I'm sick and tired of that, and so many colleagues are sick and tired of it," Frank Engel told EUobserver.

"They [Fidesz] have to understand that this circus - where every other month or twice a year at least, the whole EPP does nothing but defend Fidesz - is over. We will not do it anymore," he said, adding that the mood within the group is swinging against Orban.

The Luxembourg MEP is the most vocal EPP lawmaker on the topic of expelling Fidesz from the centre-right parties' family. He had several run-ins with Orban's government, as he was the shadow rapporteur of a highly critical 2013 EU parliament report on Hungary.

"I am not one of those who believe that the size of the family is all that matters. I have a certain view of what the EPP should be. My party [Luxembourg's Christian Social People's Party] was one of those who founded it. And we certainly didn’t found anything that should be used for the purposes of defending Fidesz policies. That was never the point and cannot possibly be the point," Engel said.

The frustration was visible before Wedesday's debate, when EPP lawmakers supported an initiative by the Socialists and Democrats to vote on a resolution on Hungary in May.

During the debate, only Hungarian EPP members spoke out in support of Orban, whereas several fellow EPP deputies criticised him heavily, echoing arguments normally used by Orban's liberal and leftist opponents.

"Is your place among the autocratic leaders we see in our neighbourhood like [Russian president] Putin or [Turkey's president] Erdogan, or do you belong to a Europe based on the core values that you yourself fought for in '89?" Esther De Lange, a Dutch MEP asked, arguing that developments in Hungary run contrary to the EPP's values.

Orban tried to fend off criticism by saying that some are trying to divide the EPP party with salami tactics, and drew parallels to the communist power grab in Hungary after 1945 - during which opposing parties were divided and weakened.

"This is an old communist tactic ... This is how the communists destroyed democracy. I suggest to the EPP not to accept this solution," he said, later adding that Fidesz wants to remain a part of the EPP.

Hungarian MEPs have begun to feel the heat. In a long letter seen by EUobserver, sent to fellow EPP members ahead of the debate in the parliament, Fidesz lawmakers state their commitment to Europe.

"We also admit that in all these activities and achievements we, and particularly Viktor Orban were under constant attacks for our bold and sometimes unorthodox solutions. We are not perfect, not every experiment succeeded, but we are also flexible and ready to engage to substantial discussions about the future of our country and our common Europe," the letter said.

With or without

All this puts the group's leader, Manfred Weber, in a delicate position. His speech in the debate reflected that balancing act: while criticising some of Orban's recent measures, he also praised him for taking part in the debate.

Despite the frustration in the group, MEPs are wary of kicking out the 12-member strong Fidesz. Looking at Poland, where little progress has been achieved on concerns over the rule of law, some question what would do more good: to expel him or to keep him close.

"It is not easy to handle the situation. We can expel and criticise, but then we are losing influence. I would not be willing to expel Hungarian colleagues from the party, it will have zero impact on the situation in Hungary," Artis Pabriks, a Latvian MEP, told EUobserver.

The decision to expel Fidesz lies with EPP party's leadership, which will meet on Saturday morning to discuss the issue.

"More and more voters ask me, colleagues, how can you continue to sit on the same benches as those?", Engel said.

"I wonder how easy it’s going to be, for instance, for Angela Merkel to run a general election campaign against the AfD when in your own European political party you have something that is very comparable to the AfD," he added.

Pedro Lopez de Pablo, spokesman for the EPP group told EUobserver that he did not anticipate a decision this weekend.

He said it may be taken at the end of the process launched by the European Commission on Wednesday over the country's new legislation that would restrict higher education in the country. The EU executive has asked the Hungarian government to address its legal concerns.

Lopez de Pablo pointed out that the Hungarian delegation votes along EPP lines 98 percent of the time, so there is "no objective reason" to kick them out.

"People inside the group express themselves, they are fed up, it's a family debate, that's it," he said.

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