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28th Feb 2020

EPP kicks possible Fidesz expulsion further down line

The centre-right European People's Party (EPP) is to continue with the suspension of its Hungarian member party, Fidesz, the ruling party of prime minister Viktor Orban.

"The opinion of the majority of our political family is quite clear: there is no sufficient progress in Budapest, there are no visible changes when it comes to democratic standards, rule of law and freedom of speech," EPP president Donald Tusk told reporters after the meeting of the party's top officials on Monday (3 February).

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"Nothing has changed. It means that as long as I am president of the EPP, and as long as the situation as it is now in Budapest, there is no return for Fidesz to EPP. This is why we decided to prolongue this indefinite suspension," Tusk said.

Europe's largest political alliance has been struggling with its Hungarian member for years now, as Orban has drifted to the far-right and has repeatedly challenged EU rules and values.

Fidesz was initially suspended last March, after a damning European parliament report on Hungary's backsliding on democratic standards.

Last March, the EPP asked former EU council president Herman Van Rompuy, former European parliament president Hans-Gert Pöttering and former Austrian prime minister Wolfgang Schüssel to come up with an answer on how to deal with Fidesz.

But the 'three wise men' panel have been unable to agree on clear recommendations on the way ahead, and the centre-right party is as divided as ever on whether to completely break ties with Orban.

Tusk also told delegates that he spoke to 30 member party leaders and that not one of them supports Fidesz's actions, according to a source present at the meeting.

Some, however, still hope for change in Budapest, and others are reluctant to divide the centre-right party - which is the largest in the European parliament.

Tusk proposed to organise next year a special EPP congress "not about Fidesz", but about new political challenges for the EPP.

Tusk told delegates there is a "real need for a deep reflection and a new political vision for the EPP, but not for a re-definition of out fundamental values," another source said.

He told reporters that the future status of Fidesz inside or outside of EPP does not depend on negotiations.

"I will not negotiate any kind of compromise on our values, it depends on possible changes in Budapest and Fidesz politics in Budapest," Tusk said. "Without changes, there is no discussion about re-integration of Fidesz into EPP," the former Polish prime minister said.

Radicalisation

The EPP is facing a difficult choice, not uncommon for centre-right parties in Europe: as the political centre shrinks, parties are tempted to move towards the far-right, while others hold firm to liberal values.

"The Fidesz issue illustrated that all the parties, especially tranditional mainstream parties in Europe, they have trouble how to redefine their political identity," Tusk told reporters, adding that he feels the "problem with Fidesz will be solved" before the special congress.

Orban has openly flirted with far-right leaders in Austria and Italy, has been building ties with Poland's nationalistic ruling PiS party (which is not an EPP member). He also urged the EPP to copy his brand of right wing politics.

Orban, who was in Brussels on Monday for talks with Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council president Charles Michel, went straight to Rome in the afternoon for a conference with Italy's far-right leader Matteo Salvini - illustrating the EPP's dilemma.

Several Nordic and Benelux party members initiated moves to expel Fidesz last year, and now they are under increasing pressure at home from political rivals and the press.

"Whenever something happens in Hungary, they ask us how long we can tolerate Fidesz in our political family," said one official from a party which initiated Fidesz's proposed expulsion.

Finland's Petteri Orpo, who leads the Kokoomus party, another that initiated Fidesz's expulsion, tweeted that Orban's party "has made no progress in respecting and living up to fundamental European values".

"To become a full member again, it needs to change," he added.

But centre-right parties from Italy, France and Spain have been supportive of keeping Orban in the family. Germany members have worried that pushing the Hungarian PM out would only further radicalise him.

Orban's government has run public campaigns against the EU and US billionaire George Soros, has centralised media, curbed press freedom and put the judiciary under political pressure.

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