For Europe’s largest political grouping, the question of how big their tent really is gets real next week.
With Hungary facing a vote in the European Parliament on Wednesday that could lead to it being stripped of voting rights in the Council of the EU, some in the Continent’s center-right caucus spy a chance to finally expel the country’s ruling party Fidesz from their ranks.
Any split within the European center right would have potentially far-reaching implications ahead of next year’s European parliamentary election — and be quietly welcomed by rivals on the left and the right. But that political reality also explains why past efforts to push out Hungary’s ruling party haven’t gone anywhere. With Fidesz in the tent, the European People’s Party is likely to stay the dominant faction in Parliament after 2019. Without it, that might change.
Still, moderates within the EPP have long regarded the actions of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government as anathema to European values and incompatible with membership of their group. Up to now, they have not had the numbers to get rid of the party, but they hope to use the momentum of the impending vote among all MEPs to trigger a motion to oust Fidesz from the EPP.
While those behind the move are confident they can rally enough support, that is still far from clear. The EPP’s leader in the Parliament, Manfred Weber, whoannounced his bid earlier this week to run as the group’s candidate to be the next European Commission president, is in favor of keeping Fidesz within the fold.
He argues that it is a way to keep Orbán in check and moderate his actions, while preventing him from joining more marginal Euroskeptic forces. In an interview carried by a group of European newspapers Friday, the German politician went further, saying he would reach out to Orbán and far-right Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini ahead of next year’s European election in a bid to “listen to each other” and “find compromises.”
“If Orbán makes a scene, we are going to tell him to f**k off” — EPP official
Although several EPP delegations, mainly from Northern European countries, have previously expressed disquiet or outright hostility at having Orbán’s party in their midst, only two would confirm to POLITICO that they would back the current expulsion efforts. Most are adopting a wait-and-see approach.
Orbán has requested to speak in person to MEPs during a plenary debate in Strasbourg Tuesday about a report drafted by Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini into the conduct of his government. That report raises numerous concerns about freedom of association and expression in Hungary; the functioning of the constitutional system; and the rights of refugees, Roma and Jews.
Parliamentarians will then vote Wednesday on whether to request the Council to trigger an Article 7 process due to the “clear risk of a serious breach by Hungary of the values on which the Union is founded.” If passed by a two-thirds majority, it could, eventually, result in Hungary losing its voting rights in the Council — though such a move would require unanimity among the other 27 member countries, something that would likely be very hard to achieve.
The Article 7 vote and moves to expel Fidesz from the EPP are a key test for Weber. Critics have often accused the EPP leader of putting an effort to maximize the number of MEPs under his control above European values. Weber has not issued guidance on how his group should vote next week on the Sargentini report, and MEPs are expected to have a free vote.
But when the EPP leader spoke with Orbán on the phone recently, according to an EPP official, he put forward clear demands. “[Weber] told him: ‘we won’t help you if you don’t help us,’” the official said.
The Sargentini report has caused a backlash in Hungary, with the government portraying the Parliament’s rule of law probe as “revenge” against the Hungarian people. But some in the EPP view Orbán’s crackdown on independent civil society groups and the Central European University (CEU) as already sufficient to justify expelling Fidesz.
“We have several national parties currently working on a proposal to expel Fidesz,” said an EPP member who spoke on condition of anonymity, without specifying the number of parties. “We will get the numbers required.”
Another EPP member said “the parties in Sweden and the Netherlands have been in the forefront in this all along.”
But while conservative politicians from Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands have previously stated publicly that they believe Orbán does not belong in their group, they appear not to be fully on board with the move yet.
“I don’t know of any concrete motion on the table,” said MEP Esther de Lange, a member of the Dutch Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party who also serves as vice president of the EPP group. In June, the CDA passed a resolution formally calling for Fidesz to be expelled from the EPP.
Swedish MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, also a member of the EPP, wrote in an opinion piece for POLITICO that “Hungary is clearly drifting away from the EPP’s statutes.” In an interview, she said that she is “sure” her Swedish colleagues are “speaking about” an expulsion from the group, but did not confirm her party would back it.
Most parties under the EPP umbrella say they will wait to hear what Orbán says next week and how Weber responds.
Finland’s Kokoomus (the party of Alexander Stubb, another potential candidate for the European Commission presidency) is backing the effort to kick Fidesz out. An official familiar with the party’s position said the leadership “is taking part in the expulsion proposal.”
But most parties under the EPP umbrella say they will wait to hear what Orbán says next week and how Weber responds.
Seán Kelly, an Irish MEP and Fine Gael leader in the European Parliament, said his delegation would adopt a “wait-and-see” approach. “Both myself and my delegation have expressed concern,” he said, adding that some developments in Hungary are “not in keeping with the ethos and standards [of the EPP].”
Kelly said he wants to hear what Orbán has to say before making up his mind. “Members should be granted due process,” he said.