Sunday

24th Mar 2019

What to do with Orban? EU centre-right ponders

The European Parliament's largest group, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), is still wondering whether to digest or spit out Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party, which won a landslide victory in Sunday's election with a campaign marred by xenophobia.

The EPP group held a discussion on Hungary on Wednesday (11 April) , a regular exercise after an election in a member state.

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According to a source familiar with the debate who wanted to remain anonymous, there were intense discussions in the group with several MEPs criticising Fidesz's anti-Semitic tone in the campaign.

Orban's party perceives Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire George Soros as the main threat to Hungary, and promoted a theory that Soros wants to transport one million migrants into Europe with the help of the EU, UN and opposition parties.

In the last weeks of the campaign, the Fidesz government put out a poster featuring the same picture of a group of migrants as British eurosceptic party Ukip had used in Brexit campaign in 2016, with one word written on it: "Stop".

MEPs complained about the use of the same picture, with one member saying the same poster had resulted in Brexit, and wondering what it might lead to in the case of Hungary.

The discussion lasted for almost two hours, but there was no talk of sanctions or taking action against Fidesz.

Despite more MEPs speaking out against Fidesz, the majority of the group still supported the view that while Fidesz is in the EPP, it can be tamed.

"If Orban pushes too much, we call him out, and so far he has changed his views as a result," Pedro Lopez de Pablo, head of communications for the EPP group, said.

"We are not providing an alibi for Orban, we are moderating him," he said, adding that the Soros-funded Central European University (CEU) in Hungary would have been closed down by now if the EPP hadn't intervened.

Orban's Fidesz passed legislation last year that could have stifled CEU , a move heavily criticised by EPP.

The EU Commission is taking the Hungarian government to court over the issue, while CEU is considering relocating to Vienna from Budapest.

Stay or go

Meanwhile, Belgian MEP Pascal Arimont said on Wednesday he would argue for the expulsion of Fidesz's 12 MEPs from the group arguing Orban has crossed red lines.

"If we want to respect our own values, we must exclude Fidesz from the party," he argued in a radio interview.

Arimont said at the EPP meeting that Fidesz should leave, but the majority of the group argued that things in Hungary would go worse then.

Pedro Lopez de Pablo said that there is no decision to make for the group on the expulsion, "because we don't have a problem with Fidesz MEPs in the group".

MEPs could remain part of the group, therefore it is for the EPP party, not the group to decide on any expulsion, he pointed out.

For his part, MEP Jozsef Szajer, a founding Fidesz member, sent a letter to fellow EPP members before the debate arguing that Fidesz's campaign was neither anti-semitic, nor xenophobic.

"My party has a zero tolerance on antisemitism, which has been confirmed by our government several times, the last important occasion for that was the visit of (Israeli PM] Benjamin Netanjahu in Budapest last summer," Szajer wrote in the letter seen by EUobserver.

Szajer claimed Fidesz had a difficult fight during the election going against several opposition parties, even though Fidesz wrote the electoral law in 2011, has control over state media and is supported by many private media outlets.

"It was a seven against-one-fight to win the majority necessary to govern. We were fighting with forces which had overwhelming media-power, unprecedented influence and almost limitless resources," he wrote, pointing to Soros and Lajos Simicska, a former ally of Orban, who has just closed down part of his media holdings on Tuesday.

Several MEPs called on the group's leadership to clarify what red lines mean for the EPP to make sure they are not crossed by Fidesz.

Analysis

Orban, the 'anti-Merkel', emboldens European right

Hungary's premier Viktor Orban has inspired 'illiberalism' across central Europe and far-right politicians in the West. His expected re-election this Sunday will further reinforce his standing as a symbol for being tough on Europe's political mainstream.

Tactical voting stands in way of Orban's majority

Hungarians head to the polls on Sunday but high voter turnout and tactical voting could make it difficult for Viktor Orban's nationalist Fidesz to acquire an absolute majority or get a two-thirds majority it once held in parliament.

Feature

Hungary activists defiant after 'Soros Mercenaries' attack

Immediately after Orban's landslide victory in April, a list of so-called 'Soros mercenaries' was published by pro-government media. Those on it - mostly human rights defenders, activists and Orban critics - are now anxious but vow to continue.

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