The Hungarian Prime Minister’s party has been suspended from the European People’s Party, but some see it as a half-measure in the face of a tougher original proposal to expel the party from Europe's largest bloc.
With just two months to go until Europe goes to the polls for parliamentary elections, the centre-right, transnational European People’s Party (EPP) voted yesterday to indefinitely suspended Hungary’s nationalist Fidesz Party, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The revelation followed more than three hours of heated debate during an assembly in Brussels. The result saw Europe’s largest political party, the EPP, vote 190-3 in favour of a measure freezing Fidesz’s membership privileges, including voting rights, with immediate effect.
“EPP is a party of values and each member must abide by the principles that unite us. Today, internal democracy has spoken,” party president Joseph Daul said during the meeting.
The EPP was originally expected to vote on whether or not to expel Fidesz from the party – that was until conservative leaders proposed a suspension aimed at defusing deepening divisions within the party. Orban, who was in attendance, said he was satisfied with the decision and in fact supported it.
“What happened today was that we took a joint decision. We ourselves also voted for it,” he said during a press conference following the vote, framing the suspension as a joint decision. “The EPP remains a broad party where there is place for liberals and for Christian Democrats.”
Orban’s comments run contrary to his own government after his chief of staff said earlier in the day that a suspension would result in Fidesz’s departure from the party. Currently, Fidesz makes up a small but important part of the EPP and is expected to fare well in the May election.
“This is a big concession to Orban that is easier for him to communicate at home. At the same time, the content of the decision is hard enough so it is a win for Orban at a communications level, at least, but not in terms of the space of Fidesz,” said Gabor Polyak, director of the Budapest-based Mertek Media Monitor.
While viewed by some as a half-measure in the face of a tougher expulsion, the suspension is conditional. In order to have their membership restored Fidesz must submit to an evaluation committee chaired by the former president of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy.
Ahead of the May election, Polyak said: “this is not just a message, this is something that will resonate with voters in other European countries.”
Like other Central European leaders, Orban has been a vocal critic of the EU establishment in Brussels since taking power in 2010. At the same time, he has become an increasingly divisive figure for his autocratic policies at home. Since winning a parliamentary supermajority in one-sided national elections last year, he has used an anti-migrant platform to restrict independent media and civil society actors.
“Suspend[ing] Fidesz is an admission that something is deeply wrong in its rule of law record, but it’s also a window-dressing compromise,” said Philippe Dam, Advocacy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “In reality, Viktor Orban has stopped adhering to EPP democratic principles for years.”
While members of the EPP have frequently expressed their dissatisfaction with Orban, a recent media campaign attacking EU officials ahead of the parliamentary elections appears to have been the breaking point.
Billboards and posters plastered throughout Hungary depict those leaders in cahoots with billionaire philanthropist George Soros, accusing them, among other things, of introducing mandatory settlement quotas and reducing financial assistance for countries opposed to migration.
As a part of the conditions for restoring Fidesz’s membership status, Hungary must remove the posters and other materials, part of what it calls a “fake news campaign”.
“Orban claims that the accusations against their party are #fakenews,” Aura Salla, member of Finland’s National Coalition Party –– a member of the EPP –– tweeted during the assembly. “They are conservatives and they only have disagreements with the parties now demanding their expulsion. That’s the only thing we agree, we have disagreements.”