On March 20, 2019, the largest voting bloc in the European Parliament (“EP”), the European People’s Party (“EPP”), voted to suspend Fidesz, the Hungarian political party, from its ranks. Fidesz, which has a two-thirds supermajority in Hungary’s parliament, the National Assembly, is led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. As a youth, Orbán was a critic of the Soviet Union and advocated for democratic values. In the 1990s, however, Orbán abandoned the liberal bloc after being enticed by the center-right European People’s Party. Since taking power for a second time in 2010, Orbán’s government has implemented a series of measures eroding the rule of law, such as undermining the independence of the judiciary, curbing religious freedom, and attacking freedom of expression in the media. His authoritarian actions have drawn comparison to the communist rule that he worked to overthrow in the 1990s.
In September of 2018, the EP voted to trigger Article 7 proceedings against Hungary, which could end in a suspension of its voting rights within the EU (though that is highly unlikely to occur as such a measure would require unanimity). Some academics point to the fact that Article 7 was first triggered against Poland, whose populist party took power five years after Orbán’s in 2015, as evidence that Fidesz’s membership in the EPP was protecting Hungary (Poland’s populist ruling Law and Justice Party is not a member of the EPP). In any case, the fact that Article 7 was triggered could be considered a sign that Fidesz’s support within the EPP is eroding. The Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and one faction of the German conservatives in the EPP, have traditionally been sympathetic to Orbán despite his anti-EU and anti-immigrant rhetoric, perhaps due to his relationship with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. However, Orbán’s latest provocations seem to have finally alienated him from even the German conservative bloc. His presence in the EPP was likely deemed a liability ahead of elections in May, during which the EPP will try to maintain its strong position in the EP.
The vote to suspend Fidesz was the culmination of a recent back-and-forth battle over Orbán’s criticism of Brussels and, in particular, the outgoing European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker. In a series of posters plastered throughout Hungary and posted on the Hungarian government’s social media websites, Orbán accused Juncker of plotting with Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros to undermine Christianity and Europe by encouraging illegal immigration. Soros has been a frequent target of Orbán, and his attacks on Soros are seen by many to be anti-Semitic. The Central European University (“CEU”), which Soros founded, was effectively forced out of Hungary last year due to education legislation aimed at it.
The legal status of the CEU and the ad campaigns against Juncker formed the crux of the EPP’s ultimatum given to Fidesz in early March. Only by ending its attacks on the CEU, apologizing for the ad campaigns, and refraining from similar anti-EU rhetoric in the future, the EPP warned, could Fidesz avoid trouble. Orbán stated in response that he wanted to remain in the EPP but also threatened to withdraw entirely if suspended. When the suspension was announced, he framed it as a mutually agreed resolution, claiming victory when the EPP announced its vote. The effect of the resolution is to prevent Fidesz from attending meetings of the party’s leaders, voting in its assemblies, or presenting candidates for posts within the party. The EPP will also set up a committee to determine whether Fidesz has breached the party’s values, which it states include “a clear commitment to the European Union.”
But while Fidesz is suspended from internal EPP procedures, Fidesz’s EP representatives continue to be members of its parliamentary group, sitting and voting with it during sessions, and the EPP has no intention of preventing them from doing so. The continued presence of Fidesz in the EPP’s parliamentary group certainly seems to dilute the message that the EPP is serious about disciplining members that denigrate its values. Human Rights Watch called the decision to suspend Fidesz an “admission that something is deeply wrong with its rule of law accord,” but criticized it as a “window-dressing compromise.” The decision was also criticized by French President Emmanuel Macron, whose En Marche party is not part of the EPP. He criticized the resolution for its lack of clarity and said that it “gives priority to the clan mentality instead of the strength of ideas,” noting its lack of genuine force or effectiveness and sympathizing with those, including Juncker, who “felt insulted and had asked for something clear.”
These criticisms underline the fact that the EPP’s actions seem to be another half-hearted European response to the rule of law crisis. By delaying triggering Article 7 proceedings against Hungary and reluctantly suspending it from the EPP, Europe’s ruling cohort is showing weakness in the face of blatant disrespect for its values. In light of the complete mess that Brexit has become and China’s increasingly successful attempts to gain a foothold in Europe, it is high time that Europe’s leaders in Brussels take a stronger stance against Orbán and other anti-EU autocrats within their ranks.