Withdrawal from the EPP group: can Orbán no longer be held?

Updated March 12, 2021, 5:53 p.m.

  • Last week, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán prevented his Fidesz party from being kicked out of the conservative EPP group in the EU Parliament and left it on his own.
  • As a party member in the European People’s Party (EPP), Fidesz was suspended in advance.
  • Expert Kai-Olaf Lang speaks in an interview about the dangers that are now looming.

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He threatened, he took it seriously: The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán left the group of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament with his Fidesz party last Wednesday. The faction of the conservative party family, the largest in the EU Parliament, also includes the CDU and CSU.

By changing the rules of procedure, she wanted to clear the way for the expulsion of the right-wing populist Fidesz party. Orbán came before that – and must now try to deal with the new situation. “The exit was not the desired scenario. But Fidesz is now freer, Orbán can now go his own way completely independently of the EPP”, suspects Hungary expert Kai-Olaf Lang.

Building a European right

Orbán has already announced that he wants to help build a democratic and European right with Fidesz – who is considered to be nationally conservative and right-wing populist. “Overall, Orbán will be able to present his Christian-conservative ideological profile more clearly in the future,” said the political scientist.

However, Orbán’s withdrawal from the EPP was not entirely painless. “The seal of approval that represents membership in the EPP and its parliamentary group will definitely be missing. A kind of protective shield that one has through the solidarity of parties from within one’s own network could also be lost,” estimates Lang.

Elimination of communication channels

The fact that the tablecloth between EPP and Fidesz has now been cut is the result of years of development. Questions about the rule of law in particular led to growing differences. When the European Parliament initiated Article 7 proceedings against Hungary in autumn 2018, numerous MPs from the EPP had already voted against Fidesz, the expert recalls. If one thinks about the consequences for Fidesz, one should not forget that “Fidesz will initially lose some resources in the European Parliament – at least as long as one does not belong to any other group, one can no longer fall back on the infrastructure of the group”, adds Lang .

Other possible disadvantages were, however, limited: Although communication channels could be eliminated, Fidesz representatives would of course know the other members of the EPP Group. “You will continue to use your existing personal contacts,” says Lang.

Looking for new partners

Still, Orbán is looking for new alliances. On the Hungarian state radio, he said that there had to be a political home “for people like us who protect the family, defend their homeland,” wanted cooperation between nation states, but not a “European empire”. He named the national conservative Polish PiS as well as the heads of the right-wing Italian parties Lega and Fratelli d’Italia, Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni as interlocutors.

Lang says: “You have to wait and see who or which group Fidesz will ultimately team up with. Fidesz would of course upgrade another group numerically if it worked with it.” One possibility are the moderately Eurosceptic forces that united in the European Conservatives and Reformers (EKR) – also the home of the Polish PiS.

Three variants for Orbán

“The other variant would be the Identity and Democracy (ID) faction – there are members of the Italian Lega, the French Front National and the German AfD,” says Lang. It is possible that efforts are also being made to separate the Lega from the ID in order to found a new parliamentary group with it and the PiS.

Fidesz is attractive to potential partners – because the Hungarian Citizens’ Union can certainly throw political weight into the ring: “In the European Parliament you have a dozen members, at national level Fidesz has a strong majority in the legislature and of course provides the prime minister the party has a place at the table of heads of state and government, in other words in the European Council, “explains expert Lang.

Big group on the right of the EPP?

The expert believes that it is unlikely that the more moderate and radical forces to the right of the EPP will work together in a large group and that Fidesz will act as a hinge between them.

“The differences between some of these parties on this spectrum are considerable,” he said. “I don’t think Fidesz is building anything of its own either,” Lang continued. The big upswing or the comprehensive new beginning of the European right – in Lang’s eyes it will not materialize. “There will be more of a limited reorganization,” estimates the expert.

Dismissed the sorry question

The exit also has consequences for the EPP – even if it remains the largest group. “Without Fidesz, the EPP, with its national-conservative profile, will move more into the middle and also be a little more coherent,” says Lang. With the departure of Fidesz, the EPP got rid of a tiresome question: “After all, for many years it was an egg dance, as it should be done with Fidesz,” recalls the expert. Although he does not think it is ruled out that other parties will take Orbán’s step as a model, there is little to suggest that this could happen in the near future.

One candidate to think of would be the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, who is considered a close ally of Orbán. If Janša and his Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) were to resign, this would be clearly visible from the point of view of expert Lang. “Even if the SDS only has two MEPs in the European Parliament: Then the EPP would lose another Prime Minister,” he recalls.

The EPP would not disintegrate, but it would become clear that its consolidation process was not yet complete, according to the expert. However, in view of the approaching Slovenian EU Council Presidency, Janez Janša will hardly want to take this step in the second half of 2021.

More criticism of Brussels in the future

Lang does not believe that Orbán’s exit is a decisive domestic political factor for Hungary. “Due to the majority in Hungary, Orbán already has a qualified majority with which he was able to amend the constitution and take many other measures,” he recalls. Fidesz has been pushing the policy of far-reaching internal reforms for a decade and has never been slowed down by the outside or partner parties.

“Certainly there were decisions here and there in which membership in the EPP had a certain moderating effect,” admits Lang. He expects even more criticism of Brussels in the future – because the Hungarian parliamentary elections in spring 2022 are already casting their shadows.

About the expert: Dr. Kai-Olaf Lang is a political scientist and Senior Fellow at the German Institute for International Politics and Security of the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) in Berlin. His main research interests include transformation, political developments and the foreign and security policy of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

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