Hungaryʼs governing populist party Fidesz has been suspended by the center-right European Peopleʼs Party (EPP), the biggest political grouping in the European Parliament, after a vote triggered by what many member parties see as Fideszʼs defiance of EU policies and EPP values, according to breaking reports Wednesday evening.
In an almost unanimous vote, the EPP agreed to withdraw Fideszʼs voting rights, according to a report by the BBC, which noted that the decision - although short of complete expulsion - comes as a blow for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the eve of an EU summit.
At the same time, many observers note that the Fidesz suspension is also potentially bad news for the center-right bloc, which faces European Parliament elections at the end of May, and will lose a dozen MEPs of Fidesz if the latter decides - as party officials had threatened prior to the vote - to eventually exit the EPP.
“Fidesz will be suspended with immediate effect and until further notice,” EPP President Joseph Daul announced on Twitter, saying that 190 members had voted in favor and only three against.
The final straw for many center-right parties in Europe, the BBC recalled, was the recent poster campaign that implied a conspiracy to flood Europe with migrants, featuring posters with a photo of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (whose party is also an EPP member) alongside billionaire Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist George Soros, long the target of Hungarian government propaganda.
With respect to the posters, U.K. daily newspaper The Guardian cited an internal EPP document as saying: “Fidesz must understand that this campaign has caused considerable political damage. The EPP expects Fidesz to fully recognise this and refrain from these attacks in the future.”
Orbán also angered many within the EPP by describing the 13 parties who had called for the vote as “useful idiots” for the left, a comment for which he subsequently apologized - though this now appears to have had little effect on the outcome of the EPP vote.
A week ago, EPP parliamentary group leader Manfred Weber met with Orbán in Budapest, indicating afterwards that much remained to be done to avoid the expulsion or suspension of Fidesz from the grouping as disputed issues remained unresolved.
Weber had issued a three-point ultimatum to Orbán ahead of their talks, requiring the Hungarian government to publicly apologize for its latest anti-Juncker campaign ads, to halt its anti-Brussels campaigns altogether, and to ensure the continued operation of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. He stressed that basic rights, such as the freedom of academia and education, are “not subject to bargaining,” and that Orbán must observe such rights or find himself and his party outside the EPP.
The Hungarian government reacted defiantly, claiming that the move to suspend Fidesz had been a “joint decision,” with Orbán attempting to spin the vote by saying that he had agreed “voluntarily” to pause Fidesz’s participation in the EPP in order to prevent a forced suspension, as news agency Reuters reported.
“What happened today was that we took a joint decision, we ourselves also voted for it,” tweeted Zoltán Kovács, the Fidesz governmentʼs international spokesman. “The EPP remains a broad party where there is place for liberals and for Christian Democrats,” he insisted despite the vote.
The BBC noted that the immediate penalties for Hungaryʼs leader are clear, as he will not be allowed to take part in a meeting on Thursday with other EPP leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz ahead of the summit.
“Practically it means that Fidesz cannot any more present candidates for posts in the party, they cannot vote any more for any kind of EPP assembly, and they are even not any more allowed to participate in any meeting,” Weber was cited as saying.
As reported earlier in the day prior to the vote, Fidesz will now be assessed by a committee of three “wise men,” headed by former European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, who will decide whether it is in breach of the blocʼs values. The length of the suspension is unclear, but it will last beyond the European elections, noted the BBC report.
For his part, Orbán reiterated his governmentʼs firm stance on immigration and other issues on which Hungary is “unwilling to compromise,” as Gergely Gulyás, the Hungarian cabinet minister heading the Prime Minister’s Office, put it last week.
“We can only be part of a parliamentary group that is clearly opposed to immigration and stands completely obligated to the defense of Christianity,” Orbán said after the vote.
Orbán revealed to reporters after the announcement that Fidesz has assembled its own committee of wise heads, who he said will negotiate with the EPPʼs three “wise men,” Hungarian news portal Index.hu reported. He added that the EPP and Fidesz will be able “to decide freely on our relationship” following the European parliamentary elections, and stressed that it remains “an open question” whether Fidesz MEPs will later take up their seats within the EPP group.