Despite what he described as “constructive” dialogue with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in their meeting Tuesday, Manfred Weber, the leader of the European Peopleʼs Party (EPP) in the European Parliament, indicated afterwards that much remains to be done if Fideszʼs expulsion from the EPP is to be avoided.
The head of the EU’s largest political group said the EPP membership of Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party remains under threat after direct talks in Budapest failed to resolve disputed issues, according to various reports in the local and international media.
As reported yesterday, Weber issued a three-point ultimatum to Orbán ahead of their Tuesday talks, requiring the Hungarian government to publicly apologize for its recent political campaign ads, implying a conspiracy to boost immigration between European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (whose party is also an EPP member) and Hungarian-born investor George Soros; to halt its anti-Brussels campaigns altogether; and to ensure the continued operation of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest.
In an interview on the Heute Journal news magazine of German public service television channel ZDF, cited by independent Hungarian news site merce.hu, Weber reiterated that “patience has run out” within the EPP towards Orbán and Fidesz following the Soros-Juncker ad campaign. He also 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 EPP is due to meet on March 20 for a vote on the possible suspension or expulsion of Fidesz, after 13 member parties from nine countries requested action. EPP member parties were widely reported to be infuriated not only by the anti-Juncker, anti-Brussels campaign, but also by Orbánʼs deriding of the EPP parties that called for the vote as “useful idiots” for the European left.
“Today in my talks with Prime Minister Orbán we had a constructive atmosphere, but the problems are not yet solved,” Weber told reporters after meeting Orbán on Tuesday, according to a report in the Financial Times. “We as [the] EPP have clear fundamental values and these values are not negotiable for us, so they have to be respected from all our EPP member parties.”
Regarding CEU, the FT cited Weber as saying he had told Orbán that the Technical University of Munich and BMW, the German carmaker, have offered to endow some professorships at CEU if it would encourage a conciliatory stance from the Hungarian side.
In an official response following Orbánʼs talks with Weber, Gergely Gulyás, the Hungarian cabinet minister heading the Prime Minister’s Office, repeated the oft-heard mantra - when criticism of Hungary arrives from the outside - that the dispute over Fidesz’s membership of the EPP is, in fact, all about the Hungarian stance on immigration, according to official government website kormany.hu.
Gulyás stressed that the Hungarian prime minister made it clear that on the issues of protection of the external borders, rejection of migration, and the protection of Christian culture, Hungary is unable and “unwilling to compromise.”
At the same time, he conceded that Orbán “did not mean to insult anyone” with the term “useful idiots,” and said the premier was “ready to apologise” and wanted to remain in the EPP. He added that the Juncker poster campaign is over and that the government considers the operation of the (Hungarian-accredited) Közép-európai Egyetem (as CEU is named in Hungarian) as “guaranteed.”
Gulyás declined to address CEUʼs repeated assertion that the government has forced the institution - or at least the U.S.-accredited programs that form the greater part of its offering - out of Hungary, nor its declaration that “Hungarian government claims to the contrary are false and misleading.”
While retaining Hungarian accreditation, CEU insists that due to amendments to Hungaryʼs law on higher education, and to the governmentʼs refusal to sign an agreement despite CEUʼs insistence that it conforms to the new rules, it can no longer operate as a U.S.-accredited institution, resulting in moving all of its U.S. degree operations to Vienna from September 2019.
In conclusion, Gulyás said that it is important that in the next five years “we should have a European Commission which is able to concentrate on the most important matters.” In the past few years, he noted, the Commission has not addressed demographic issues at all, has been unable to halt migration, and has been unable to keep the United Kingdom, the country which has the continent’s second strongest economy, in the European Union.