Conflict between Orban and the EPP: What is at stake for the European elections

, by Eric Drevon-Mollard, Translated by Maria Mantzakidi

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Conflict between Orban and the EPP: What is at stake for the European elections
Manfred Weber is the lead candidate for the European People’s Party, for the European elections of May 2019. Photo: Flickr - European People’s Party - CC BY 2.0

The latent conflict between a part of the European People’s Party (EPP) and Viktor Orban had worsened since the Hungarian Prime Minister led a poster campaign denouncing “Brussels” and the links between George Soros and the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, who is also a member of the EPP. The party’s Spitzenkandidat, Manfred Weber, therefore straightened the dissident out, and the party’s political assembly finally took its decision on 20 March.

Viktor Orban backed into a corner

Even though some parties, particularly from Northern European countries, the most centrist ones, were in favour of an exclusion, a transitional sanction was decided by the party’s assembly: a suspension of Fidesz for an indeterminate period. The party of the Hungarian Prime Minister remains a member of the EPP, after it apologised for its anti-Juncker campaign, but will no longer be able to participate in meetings, to take part in internal votes, or to submit candidates for internal positions.

Up until now, despite the protests of some of its members and an important divergence concerning the relationship to the European Union and to immigration, the EPP had never resorted to punishing the “terrible child”. The governing bodies thought that it was easier to control Viktor Orban by keeping him fully integrated into the party, rather than pushing him to join the far-right parties. But this poster campaign, which denigrated the Commission President, was the final straw and forced the EPP’s leader to be firmer. The risk was also to lose votes in the next European elections, as in Finland and in the Netherlands.

Excluding the Fidesz, on the other hand, would have been detrimental not only because of the loss of the 12 Fidesz MEPs out of the 218 EPP elected representatives, but also because in other countries – like France or Italy – where the centre-right’s sympathisers are less moderate, there was a risk of electoral erosion. An electoral period requires a median or compromise solution, which is actually faithful to the functioning of the European institutions. This solution was found with this suspension, which could be lifted after the elections. Providing that, by then, the Fidesz does not choose to ally with more sovereignist or radical parties...

Viktor Orban will not join the populists

Would Viktor Orban join the populist parties’ group? This option is unlikely, despite converging views on the questions of immigration and identity. Indeed, when taking a look at the Hungarian Prime Minister’s discourse, one realises that his project is to change Europe within the current party system: staying in the EPP is a priority for him.

Let’s dare to draw an analogy with the other side of the political spectrum: the European Spring’s line, led by Yanis Varoufakis, is as radical as Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s in France for example, but considers that the socialist ideology can be imposed within the European institutions, while the latter wants to turn things around. The same goes for Viktor Orban: to establish a very conservative policy, he thinks that it is better to change the European Union from the inside, by behaving as the defender of the true Christian democracy, rather than by destroying it – such as the AfD or the Finns Party want to do for example.

Orban’s reproaches towards the EPP

The Hungarian Prime Minister frequently targets Jean-Claude Juncker in his communication campaigns, but he is not the one he fundamentally disagrees the most with. Angela Merkel particularly triggered Orban’s anger when she unilaterally opened her country’s doors to refugees, without consulting her partners, but then asking them to accommodate part of these refugees in their countries.

However, given the economic links between Germany and Hungary, the latter being a “subcontracting platform” for the German industry, it is impossible for Orban to openly criticise Merkel: her anger could mean his country’s ruin if German companies stopped developing activities there. Instead, he is contenting himself with praising Helmut Kohl, who disagreed with the current Chancellor, and closer to his political line, to discreetly express his discontent.

More inherently, Orban criticises the EPP for allowing to be dominated by the liberals’ cultural hegemony, following social-democrats discredited by their failures. The right has abandoned its conservative criticism of liberalism. Viktor Orban summarises it as follows:

"The Liberals fought and won the battle of words. First, the left has admitted that democracy must always be liberal. Every time the liberal parties do not win elections, they immediately proclaim the end of democracy. This forces Christian democracy and social democracy to give up. Then, social democracy dies, we are currently attending its agony in Europe. If Christian democracy does not defend itself against the adoption of liberal terms and concepts, it will also perish.”

This is why Viktor Orban defines himself as illiberal: in order to target the school of thought that he considers as an existential threat to conservatism.

His criticism is relevant even for a liberal: the members of this political family are by definition opposed to a one-party system and uniformising of thought. They favour the alternation of political parties in power, and that the opposition can sometimes win the elections. Otherwise, the regime would cease to be democratic.

The left is widely discredited in the eyes of the electorate, with the socialists being in freefall and an extreme left that does not progress. The Conservatives, whatever one can think of their ideas, are then the only credible alternation for democracy to breathe and for the people to have the opportunity to overthrow the ruling camp. In the United States, the two major parties also define themselves around this opposition between liberalism and conservatism, even if both sides tend to be radicalised since Trump came to power. The EPP is the big right-wing party of the European institutions, so it is well positioned to ensure that this conservatism does not drift towards a reactionary and anti-democratic ideology, on the model of Erdogan in Turkey for example. In order to do this, it must moderate Orban’s excessive speech, refuse his anti-Brussels diatribes, but also rethink Juncker’s discourse, too close to ALDE’s.

Orban sums up what is at stake for his party as follows:

"My dear friends, over the last four years, we have led Europe. We must assume it. We must take responsibility for not having been able to keep the Brits in and the migrants out. Why, in 2011, had we sixteen countries with EPP leaders and today only six? There is no way to embellish this record. The facts are the facts.”

These challenges are relevant. It is up to the EPP to respond to them, at the European level, in a way that does not display European institutions as scapegoats. It is relevant to seek to improve these institutions and to stop some abuses, but the solution is actually to give more power to the European Parliament and Commission, instead of leaving so much power to the Council and the intergovernmental level.

The dysfunctions that Viktor Orban deplores won’t be answered by giving more power to the member states, but rather by bringing to the European level his concern to enhance our continent’s particular identity. This would be done, indeed, with the aim of drawing better its external borders, but also to ensure dialogue between the different identities that compose it, and to remain benevolent towards foreign cultures.

What is at stake for the EPP: reducing the fracture between the Eastern and Western parties

Like ALDE and the PES, the EPP is crossed by a fault line between its Eastern and Western member parties. The former are less vigilant on corruption and have a more identity-based line, unlike the latter, which follow a more open and multicultural line.

If the EPP wants to avoid a haemorrhage towards the populists, which would force it to rule with a grand coalition with ALDE and the PES, which would further undermine the citizens’ confidence, it has no choice: it must regain control so that the right’s worldview is not made around Viktor Orban, his conspiracy ideas, his clientelism and his contempt for the rule of law.

It is a tough task for Manfred Weber to lead the right’s electoral campaign during the European elections: he must keep the line between national parties having very different sensibilities, not offend any of the national sections, while satisfying distant electorates. The EPP candidate must at the same time be very vigilant about Orban’s excesses, and not hesitate to publicly criticise him when he undermines the freedom of expression and the rule of law. It is about the party’s credibility, which must be irreproachable to be able to criticise the same excesses that are present among the populists, but also among some ALDE members in France or in Romania.

To win the European elections, the right must unite

What would be the lines of this compromise? The rule of law is constitutive of the European Union, it is not negotiable. Neither are the politicians’ honesty and their separation from the economic world. Market economy is a consensus everywhere, fortunately. However, the East and the West are divided over the migratory issue and the attitude towards Russia, and this feeds Orban’s popularity as well as the populists’.

The reasonable compromise, which seems to be emerging, would be to adopt a more protective line over the European Union’s external borders, and to put more emphasis on the traditional roots and values of our common civilisation. The position against Russia must also be the subject of a compromise: we must resolutely defend Ukraine and demand the application of the Minsk agreements, but not align with the United States. The lifting of sanctions which penalise everyone must be seriously considered, under the condition that Ukraine’s accession process to the European Union can continue.

The EPP must moderate Orban’s radicalism, while building a political narrative that integrates shared identity and roots, but simultaneously assert itself as a great party in favour of European integration: an ever closer union, thanks to markets and institutions, but also thanks to a common culture. If it succeeds in the rights’ blending and union, inspired by Sebastian Kurz in Austria, the EPP can hope to increase its number of MEPs compared to Juncker’s mandate, and above all to reduce the populist anti-European wave which threatens us all.

This article was originally published on our French sister edition Le Taurillon on 14 April.

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