Saturday

24th Oct 2020

Orban to EPP: turn 'Christian democratic' or face challenge

  • Orban tells EPP the group should follow his and Austrian PM Sebastian Kurz's example (Photo: Bundeskanzleramt)

Hungary's premier Viktor Orban hinted that he "could" set up a "successful, anti-immigration" pan-European party ahead of European elections next year - unless the European People's Party (EPP) leans back towards his stance of "Christian democratic roots."

Orban's ruling Fidesz is a member of the centre-right EPP, the largest faction within the European Parliament. The EPP has been regularly urged to kick its Hungarian member out due to Fidesz's crackdown on the media and civil society, and concerns of the rolling back of the rule of law.

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  • 'Despite the mistakes made by leaders of the European People's Party at our expense, we have decided to continue standing with this European family of parties,' Orban said. (Photo: EPP)

The EPP has been struggling with Orban , whose 12 MEPs are a valuable addition to the party, but his promotion of "illiberal democracy" has upset more liberal-minded deputies.

"In relation to the 2019 elections to the European Parliament, it would be easy to, say, establish a new formation from like-minded central European parties – or, indeed, a pan-European anti-immigration formation. There is no doubt that we would have great success in the 2019 European elections," Orban said on Saturday (18 June) at a conference held in the memory of former German chancellor Helmut Kohl.

"But I suggest that we resist this temptation, and stand by Helmut Kohl's ideals and party family. Instead of desertion, we should take on the more difficult task of renewing the European People's Party, and help it to find its way back to its Christian democratic roots," he added.

Orban has recently stopped calling his preferred form of government "illiberal democracy" and started using the term "Christian democracy" instead.

The Hungarian PM said – turning around arguments that the EPP provides political cover for his government – that his ruling Fidesz chose to stick with EPP, despite the mistakes of the centre-right grouping.

"Despite the mistakes made by leaders of the European People's Party at our expense, we have decided to continue standing with this European family of parties," he said.

With a surge in populist, anti-establishment and anti-immigration parties in Europe, next year's EP elections put pressure on mainstream groups, especially the EPP, whose member parties, like Fidesz, or Austria's OVP has chosen a more populist streak.

Orban argues that instead of the EPP trying to defend the old, liberal Europe alongside the left-wing parties and the liberals, a tactic that emboldens EPP's adversaries, it should copy Hungary's and Austria's route.

"The response to this situation from the leadership of the People's Party has been a bad one: it has created an anti-populist people's front. Germany is a good example of this, but it is also true in the European Parliament," he said, adding this was a mistake.

"The other model which has been successfully tested in Austria and Hungary is taking up the challenge, is not creating such a people's front, is taking the issues raised by new parties seriously and is giving responsible answers to them," Orban said.

EPP/Macron split?

What makes the EPP's dilemma between embracing some of the populist ideas and solutions and sticking to the liberal politics even more acute, is that France's president Emmanuel Macron seeks to set up his own, liberal-minded, pro-EU party within the parliament.

EP sources say he might try to attract some EPP members frustrated with the party's lack of response to Orban's illiberalism, to his new political family.

In his recent speech in the European parliament, Macron called for a defence of liberal Europe.

EP sources say the perception the EPP leadership would rather focus on their own positioning (with group leader Manfred Weber perhaps aiming for one of the top positions of the EU institutions) reinforces the stereotype that the parliament is self-absorbed and inept at taking up concerns of citizens.

"Defending the apparatus today gives an opportunity for populists to be each other's allies. And that's a catastrophe," said a source.

Sources also make the point that the fate of EPP will not be decided on a European level, but by national elections in member states.

Orban's ideas are nevertheless popular within the EPP, even if many don't agree with the hateful rhetoric and methods chosen to address the issues.

Orban also warned EPP and other member states that if they don't follow Hungary's and Austria's lead, they could be swept away by voters.

"If we are unable to reach a satisfactory result in negotiations, if now we are unable to accept – or even tolerate – one another's views on the issues of migration and the budget, then let us wait. Let us wait for the European people to express their will in the 2019 elections to the European Parliament. Then what must be shall be," he said.

Crisis mode

Orban's speech came just as a political crisis was in the making in Germany, where the interior minister Horst Seehofer threatened to send back asylum seekers at the border.

In a wide-ranging speech on European politics , he said there can be no compromise on migration.

"There are questions on which there will never be agreement. That will not happen, and it is not necessary for it to happen. Immigration is one such question", he said arguing that defending the EU's external borders cancels the discussion on distributing migrants because there will be nobody to distribute.

EU leaders are set to discuss the EU's new asylum policy at the end of June.

However, it is unlikely that they will reach an agreement on those who want all member states to take in asylum seekers to alleviate the pressure on frontline countries, and hardline anti-migration governments that refuse to take in their quota of people.

The upcoming Austrian presidency of the EU wants to refocus on external border protection instead of distributing migrants across the bloc.

Orban said EU member should tolerate each other's choices on migration.

"We tolerate the fact that some member states in the Schengen Area admit migrants. This has and will have consequences – including for us. Meanwhile, they should tolerate the fact that we do not wish to do so. They shouldn't lecture us, they shouldn't blackmail us, they shouldn't coerce us," he said.

Orban praised the recently formed anti-immigration, anti-establishment Italian government, which last week did not allow the Aquarius ship filled with asylum seekers to port.

"The Italians have finally declared something that we all know: that the NGOs are in fact white-collar people smugglers," he said, two days before Hungary's parliament is expected to vote on a bill that threatens to throw jail. NGO workers dealing with to jail.

He also claimed that his arch enemy, US billionaire George Soros is behind the commission's long-term draft budget proposal.

"[…] This budget is exactly like the European Commission itself: pro-immigration and pro-migrant. The essence – or, if you like, the novelty – of this budget is that it takes money from European people and gives it to migrants and NGOs. It is as if George Soros wrote it – and perhaps he did," he said.

Macron and Orban defend opposing EU visions

Two models - of deeper integration and liberal values, versus a Europe of strong and illiberal nations - will define voters' choices in the EU elections in 2019.

Agenda

EU elections and Italy's finances are in focus This WEEK

A debate among would-be EPP 'Spizenkandidat' candidates next week in Helsinki will be the first of many clashes of ideas ahead of European elections next May. The liberals are also holding their own congress.

EUobserved

Weber in balancing act en route to Berlaymont

The German centre-right MEP initially refused to take press questions. Meanwhile, he will have to find a way to distinguish himself from current commission president Juncker.

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