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Orbán pulls support for Weber as EC presidential candidate

Hungarian governing party Fidesz no longer supports Manfred Weber of the European Peopleʼs Party (EPP) as its Spitzenkandidat, or candidate for president of the European Commission, in the upcoming European parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced on Monday.   

Weber (left) pictured at an earlier meeting with Orbán (photo: Károly Árvai/kormany.hu)

Orbán was cited by state news agency MTI as saying that the Hungarian government and its leader cannot be put in the position of supporting a person to head the European Commission who has said he does not wish to become EC president with Hungarian votes, which the prime minister described as a violation of the principle of respect for voters.

Orbán added that it appears, on the basis of the campaign, that the present candidates for the post of EC president are “unsuitable.”

“Weʼll look for a proper candidate,” he said, speaking at a press conference together with Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the far-right Freedom Party.

In March, Fidesz was suspended from the center-right EPP, the biggest political grouping in the European Parliament, pending a report by a three-member committee, which will decide whether it is in breach of the blocʼs values. The suspension bars Fidesz from party meetings, as well as rescinding its voting rights and the right to propose candidates for posts. The suspension will last beyond the European elections at the end of May - after which many observers believe Fidesz may depart the EPP to join a new right-wing bloc.

“We cannot compromise on democracy, rule of law, freedom of the press, academic freedom, or minoritiesʼ rights. And anti-EU rhetoric is unacceptable. The divergences between the EPP and Fidesz must cease,” EPP President Joseph Daul had said after the suspension of Fidesz was announced.

Moving further to the right?

The move to snub Weber comes immediately after Orbán welcomed Matteo Salvini, leader of Italyʼs far-right populist Lega party, who currently serves as the countryʼs deputy prime minister and minister of the interior, in Budapest last Thursday.

In their talks, Orbán and Salvini agreed on “the importance of strong nation states, on the need to give priority in Europe to European culture based on Christian values, and on border defence,” according to Hungarian government website kormany.hu.

“Europe’s borders must be defended against the migrant invasion,” Orbán was cited as saying, asserting that “the citizens of Europe will benefit from listening to Italy and Hungary rather than [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron.”

The prime minister also stated that powers related to migration should be taken away from the European Commission and delegated to a new body comprising the interior ministers of the Schengen Area countries, as proposed by Hungary.

On the question of whether Fidesz will remain a member of the EPP, Orbán said that this depends on the grouping’s future direction: if the EPP “ties itself” to the Left – which has a vision for Europe which he described as harmful, and which he claimed is continuously losing people’s support – then it will be difficult for Fidesz to find a place in such cooperation. He urged the EPP to be open to cooperation with parties to the right of it, including Salviniʼs Lega.

A report on the website of Deutsche Welle, Germanyʼs public international broadcaster, observed that Orbánʼs meeting with Salvini could signal a break with the EPP following European elections, which polls suggest could see a surge in support for anti-immigrant, nationalist parties.

At the same time, the report notes that the EPP is projected to keep its place as the European Parliamentʼs biggest group following the elections, putting it in pole position to install Weber as the next European Commission president.

Deutsche Welle cited Weber as saying that Orbán “has no impact any more on EPP policies,” in response to a question about the Hungarian leaderʼs proposal for the EPP to cooperate with the putative far-right bloc proposed by Salvini.

The report notes that Germanyʼs Alternative for Germany (AfD), Marine Le Penʼs National Rally in France, Austriaʼs Freedom Party and right-wing parties in Finland and Denmark have expressed interest in Salviniʼs proposal for a new nationalist bloc.