The Departure of FIDESZ from the EPP
Article written by Feliks Shepel, member of the Editorial Team of Libertas
After years of escalating tensions, it finally happened: on 3rd of March 2021 the main Hungarian party, FIDESZ, left the European People`s Party. The move came after a majority of EPP MEPs voted in favour of new internal rules which would have allowed them to suspend Orban’s party. Although dramatic, FIDESZ’s departure was not surprising: almost every European politician understood that it was a matter of time. So how could such a significant event take place: what was the reason and what does it mean for the European Union?
Conflicts between FIDESZ and other EPP members had been brewing for some time. Migration policy has been a particular source of conflict between the European Commission and the Orban government, with Orban even going so far as to stage an internal referendum on the issue of migration quotas in 2016. Before the elections in European Parliament in 2019, billboards featuring European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and billionaire George Soros appeared across Hungary, captioned with the words: “You also have a right to know what Brussels is preparing for you”, leading to a further deterioration of relations between Hungary and the Commission.
Orban has always shown a general disregard for the thoughts of the EU’s leaders, in part because such disregard raises his popularity among conservative electorate. In early 2019, following expulsion threats from Manfred Weber, the EPP’s leader in the European Parliament, Orban agreed to scale down his anti-EU rhetoric and apologise for certain offensive statements: however, he declined to withdraw legal challenges to the Central European University, in spite of strong pressure from both the EU and the US. Ultimately, in March 2019, the EPP voted to suspend FIDESZ’s membership of the EPP party, but not from the Parliamentary group, a move which stopped short of total expulsion, but which meant that FIDESZ lost voting and candidacy rights. The decision not to expel Fidesz permanently was undoubtedly partly motivated by a desire not to weaken the EPP’s dominant position ahead of the European elections, but it also revealed the scope of the ideological divides within the centre-right group. Some EPP members were eager to condemn FIDESZ’s illiberal attitudes towards migration and the rule of law, but the party had its share of ideological allies too, and there was a clear reluctance from major EPP players such as Germany’s CDU/CSU to take drastic action.
Of course, the Hungarian government has had frequent clashes with the EU as a whole. In recent years, there has been growing concern among Member States about the state of the rule of law, human rights, and press freedom in Hungary and fellow Member State Poland. Orban has been dismissive of such concern, rejecting any perceived interference by the EU in Hungary’s internal affairs. Tensions escalated in late 2020 when Hungary and Poland vetoed a proposed EU recovery budget in protest at the rule of law clause contained within it. Eventually, an interpretative declaration was reached which persuaded Hungary and Poland to withdraw their vetoes, but the political skirmish was seen by many in Europe as crossing a line.
In February 2021, the EPP began moves to introduce a new set of suspension rules within the group, which would allow for the expulsion of the FIDESZ delegation from the parliamentary group as well as the party – under the previous rules, only individual MEPs could be suspended from the parliamentary group. As the scope of support for the rule changes became clear, Orban warned Weber that the delegation would quit immediately if the changes were adopted, and ultimately the FIDESZ delegation left the parliamentary group on the 3rd March.
Two weeks later, FIDESZ’s Vice President Katalina Novak published an official letter to the EPP party, writing that FIDESZ “no longer wishes to maintain its membership”. The EPP’s President, former President of the European Council Donald Tusk, responded that “In truth, it left Christian Democracy many years ago”.
So, what lessons can be drawn from the FIDESZ/EPP split? It is clear that Hungary will continue to be a thorn in the side of all those who believe in the EU’s fundamental principles of liberal democracy and respect for the rule of law. Just days after leaving the EPP, Orban began to call for the creation of a new right-wing European political force, and suggested that he was already in talks with Poland’s governing party, PiS, as well as Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni. This should be of concern to the EPP: if Orban can produce a credible and united grouping within the European Parliament, there is a credible risk that other delegations will begin to defect, drastically shifting the balance of ideological power within the Parliament.
In the European Council, Orban has continued to behave destructively, most recently blocking an EU statement on the Middle East conflict. Increasingly, the principle of unanimity on foreign affairs issues looks unsustainable in the face of Hungarian opposition, and calls for a shift to a qualified majority voting system are growing louder.
Most seriously of all, however, is that the Hungarian government’s animosity towards its European partners damages the EU’s credibility on the world stage at a time when a strong global presence matters more than ever. As the EU works to tackle some of the major challenges posed by the 21st century, from climate change to human rights abuses and pandemics, it is imperative that the Union speaks with one voice. A successful coalition between FIDESZ, PiS, Italy’s Lega and other populist parties in the Parliament would significantly undermine this voice and damage the EU’s ability to advocate for progress in the world. European liberals must therefore be ready to defend this progress and to continue to fight for and defend liberal democracy both within and outside the Union.
About the Author:
Feliks Shepel (UA) is a policymaker from the European Youth of Ukraine and a 4-year student at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv (Political Science) and 3-year student at the Drahomanov National Pedagogical University (Law). He is fond of politics, history, social sciences, international relations and law.
- Hungary’s Fidesz quits European conservative group: ‘Time to say goodbye’ | Reuters