Europe’s powerful centre-right alliance, the European People’s Party, has been accused of providing political cover for the autocratic rule of Viktor Orbán on the eve of Hungary’s elections.
The EPP, a bloc that includes the parties of Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker, is accused of sheltering Fidesz despite Hungary’s democratic backsliding, hostile stance on “There was a massive shift to the right in the European council [of EU leaders] in 2010-11 and that helped Orbán to get away with these actions,” he said.
These observations are not unusual in Brussels. “If Orbán would not have been in the EPP, he would have had 10 slaps on his face,” one senior official has said, adding that the Hungarian leader always knew when to back down.
Orbán has described the EPP as a big tent with a place for Hungary’s governing rightwing parties. “It is true that we do not belong to the mainstream of the European People’s Party, but are rather positioned to the right of that mainstream,” he said during Weber’s visit.
But his strident anti-migrant and anti-EU rhetoric is causing alarm inside EPP ranks. Last April he was summoned to meet EU leaders to explain his “Stop Brussels” campaign, which included false claims about the EU in questionnaires sent to 8 million Hungarians.
Frank Engel, a Luxembourgish EPP MEP, has been leading a lonely public campaign to have Orbán expelled from the group. “Everyone in private would agree that this is a situation that should not continue,” he said in a recent interview. “But when it comes to the serious moments they still have their protectors, many of them sitting in Germany, many of them sitting in Bavaria.”
Luxembourg’s Christian Democrats were now contemplating quitting the EPP over the issue, he said. “It is no longer a totally outrageous and outlandish idea that we could also at some point decide enough is enough.”
Other EPP insiders contend they have more influence over Orbán from the inside. “Every time that Orbán has tried to cross a red line he has been stopped by the EPP. If Orbán was not in the EPP, the CEU [Central European University] would have already been closed,” said an EPP spokesman in the European parliament, Pedro López de Pablo.
“There has always been a small minority complaining about what Orbán says more than what he does,” he added. “It is very easy to criticise and then do nothing,”
Jávor Benedek, an MEP from the Dialogue for Hungary opposition party, said EPP membership allowed Fidesz to be one thing at home and another abroad. “Orbán’s rhetoric and programme is completely aligned with European extreme-right movements, but they profit a lot from their membership in EPP, which positions them into the moderate conservative family, disguising the real nature of their political standpoint.”
Orbán’s Fidesz has moved into far-right territory since 2015, and has run a campaign ahead of Sunday’s elections almost entirely centred on migration. Advertising around the country suggests opposition parties will collude with the American financier and philanthropist George Soros to destroy Hungary’s anti-migrant fence and dilute the country’s national identity. At times, Orbán has used antisemitic tropes in his tirades against Soros, who is of Hungarian Jewish origin.
“Appeasement politics was never a successful exercise in the long run, and it is the responsibility of Manfred Weber, Joseph Daul and other EPP leaders if they bring back the unfortunate shadows of the past because of party political considerations,” said Benedek.
Fidesz and its Christian Democratic ally in Hungary, KDNP, are members of the EPP, which boasts nine heads of EU governments and the largest number of MEPs in the European parliament.
Hungary’s former European commissioner László Andor said the EPP had provided “absolutely essential” cover for Orbán, and he highlighted the role of Bavaria’s powerful CSU, the sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.
“The German CSU has played a pivotal role in whitewashing the autocratic rule of Orbán, and only pushed him back in cases when he was going to the wildest extremes like discussing the need to reintroduce the death penalty.”
The CSU’s former minister president of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, hosted Orbán at a party conference in January, and his colleague Manfred Weber, the EPP leader in the European parliament, praised aspects of the Hungarian prime minister’s migration policy on a recent visit to Budapest.
Joseph Daul, the Frenchman who is EPP president, recently tweeted “all the best” to Fidesz and KDNP, adding that Orbán and parties of the right would “continue to bring stability and prosperity to Hungarian citizens”.
Critics argue such well-wishing has blunted EU attempts to protect the rule of law in Hungary – unlike in Poland, where the governing rightwing party is not part of the EPP. Andor, affiliated to Hungary’s Socialist party, said the EU institutions would have taken stronger action, such as triggering the article 7 processthreatening sanctions, had Fidesz not been part of the EPP.