Friday

28th Feb 2020

Analysis

EPP's Orban struggle exposes deeper mainstream dilemma

The tension within Europe's biggest political alliance, the centre-right European People Party (EPP) at times bubbles to the surface.

In January, French EPP MEP Francois-Xavier Bellamy defending the Hungarian government argued: "Does the press have the right to criticise the government? As far as I know, there were no journalists murdered in Hungary," then turning to socialist MEPs criticising them on staying silent on Malta, where a journanlist has been killed.

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Poland's Roza Thun, in an unusual and rare move from a fellow party member during a debate, challenged Bellamy, asking if journalists have to be murdered to prove the absence of press freedom.

Nowhere is the struggle between the traditional mainstream and the populist right more visible at a European level than within the EPP.

The challenge the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban's party poses to the EPP goes to the heart of the dilemma of whether mainstream parties can withstand an increasingly-fragmented political landscape.

It also poses the question if the left-and-right party divide is outdated, and if it should be replaced with a divide between progressive parties championing for open societies and nationalist parties campaigning for closed ones.

This week EPP party officials have decided to roll over an ongoing suspension of its Hungarian member, the ruling Fidesz party.

The Hungarian premier, over the last decade, has eroded rule of law, centralised media, cracked down on civil society, run campaigns against migrants, the EU and US billionaire George Soros, and channelled EU funds to his allies.

This "non-decision" came as the party remained deeply divided over how to handle Orban.

Nordic and Benelux member parties becoming increasingly frustrated, while Spanish, French, Italian and central European member parties continue to back Orban.

Germany's Christian Democrats (CDU) are equally divided. Its Bavarian sister-party, the CSU, has become increasingly anti-Orban, after the Hungarian PM snubbed Manfred Weber, CSU candidate for the EU Commission's top post.

Orban's ideas, in fact, have some popularity within the EPP, even if many don't agree with the hateful rhetoric.

French and Italian members are meanwhile concerned about their own domestic political implications, if Orban teams up with far-right leaders Matteo Salvini (Italy) and Marine Le Pen (France).

In the meantime, Orban has hit back by accusing the EPP of cozying up to leftist and liberals in the face of surging populist parties, and has repeatedly boasted about the possibility of putting together a rival political party.

On Monday, the same day EPP decided to continue with the suspension, Orban spoke at a gathering of right-wing and far-right politicians in Rome.

He said the problem with today's EPP is that it wants to be part of the EU power structure at all costs.

Even "if the price is to concede certain values and make compromises with the left, they will do it, losing their identity step by step," adding that he aims to correct the EPP's course through a "counter-revolution".

We are family

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, German chancellor Helmut Kohl and Belgian prime minister Wilfried Martens pushed the EPP to become a true umbrella organisation for Christian Democrats and like-minded centre-right parties. At that time, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia seemed the biggest risk.

Fidesz joined in 2000 after leaving a liberal organisation.

The strategy worked: since 1999 the EPP has been consistently the largest party in the European Parliament, and thus formed a strong grip over the commission leadership.

For years, the pressure grew on the EPP to act against Orban - but the party have sheltered Fidesz from serious sanctions. Former EPP party president Joseph Daul called Orban their "enfant terrible".

Other key factors in the EPP's calculations include: Fidesz MEPs sizeable contingent, avoiding Orban putting together a rival party after the 2019 EU election, and fearing liberal-minded members might flee elsewhere.

In 2018, the EPP leader in parliament, Weber, gearing up his candidacy for the commission top job, decided to support a parliament report triggering the Article 7 sanctions procedure against the Hungarian government, and most of his MEPs followed.

Tensions within EPP escalated when in early 2019 Orban's government went as far as running public campaigns against EPP member Jean-Claude Juncker, then commission president.

Last March, the EPP decided to suspend Fidesz's membership - which was then communicated by Budapest as if Fidesz had voluntarily suspended its own membership.

Despite the EPP's arguments that Orban would radicalise even further outside the party, the Hungarian PM upped the ante as he pushed out the Central European University's US-accredited programmes from Budapest, and did nothing to tone down hate-mongering.

Some hoped that Donald Tusk taking the EPP helm last November would bring change. But he could't bridge the gap.

Tusk instead has called for a congress next year at which the EPP will redefine itself.

"The Fidesz issue illustrated that all the parties, especially traditional mainstream parties in Europe, have trouble how to redefine their political identity," Tusk told reporters after Monday's meeting.

Realities

Domestically, Christian Democratic parties are facing similar challenges: whether to stick to the shrinking centre, or move to the right, where populist, anti-establishment, and anti-immigration parties across Europe have been making gains.

In other words, whether to reflect the changes in political realities and move from away from a right/left divide towards a new dichotomy.

For Orban, as always, the calculation is more pragmatic: if possible, stay within the biggest parliamentary group, otherwise form another alliance and lead it.

He perhaps has Salvini and Le Pen and some central European allies to count on, and possibly Poland's PiS, although the Polish ruling party, fiercely critical of Russia, would feel highly uncomfortable sitting with the pro-Russian Italian far-right leader.

And sooner or later, the dilemma will come to a boiling point within EPP.

Hungary vote exposes EU rift on populism

MEPs will vote next week on whether to urge member states to investigate Hungary on EU values. Budapest calls it "liberal fundamentalism", with the EPP in a difficult position.

EPP kicks possible Fidesz expulsion further down line

The EU's largest political family decided to continue with the suspension of its Hungarian member, prime minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party. The centre-right group is still divided over Fidesz, and will hold a congress on its vision of the future.

Tusk pledges 'fight' for EU values as new EPP president

The outgoing president of the EU council, Donald Tusk, is set to be elected as the president of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP). Tusk will have to deal with the final decision over Hungary's ruling Fidesz.

EPP suspends Orban's Fidesz party

In a compromise decision, Europe's centre-right grouping stops short of expelling Hungary's ruling party - which has been accused of rolling back democracy and the rule of law.

Central Europe mayors join in direct EU funds plea

They call themselves the "Pact of Free Cities". The mayors of Budapest, Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw want EU funds to bypass their governments, in order to fight climate change and populism.

Agenda

EU budget battle gears up This WEEK

Member states get ready for their first real negotiations on the next seven-year EU budget, while MEPs discuss the next Brexit phase, enlargement, and vote on a highly-controversial trade deal with Vietnam.

Five new post-Brexit MEPs to watch

Five MEPs to keep an eye on from the 27 new members who are joining the European Parliament this week, following the UK's departure from the EU.

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