Hungary and democracy: Viktor Orbán’s smart and cynical EU strategy

26 June 2018 – HVG (Budapest)

Many ask for the ruling Fidesz party to be expelled from the EPP group at the European Parliament for not respecting core European values. Something not likely to happen, as both have a common interest in the status quo, says analyst Dániel Bartha.

Recently, there has been ongoing coverage, in both the domestic and international press, over how the EU should deal with the political situation unfolding in Hungary. Some reports are calling for the European People’s Party (EPP) to expel or at least to suspend Fidesz’s membership from the group.

The support for such an action has broad appeal; one of the latest examples was a newly-launched international campaign by the Human Rights Watch.

A similar solution has already been on the agenda for many years and would not be without precedent. Back in 2006, the Party of European Socialists suspended the membership of the Slovak governing party Smer after they entered into a coalition with the far-right SNS.

However, the winds blowing from Brussels have changed direction, and although many people believe that the EU is still following the idealistic, federalist footsteps of its founding fathers, in reality Realpolitik is dominating the Belgian capital.

The Janus Effect

Hungarian readers could be easily confused during the election campaign when Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP Group in EU Parliament, one day threatened Orbán to keep the party line in the negotiations on resolving the immigration crisis and then, a few days later, provided support and praised Fidesz and certain aspects of Orbán’s migration policy. The picture has only become more muddied after the landslide victory of Fidesz earlier this year.

In May, Weber repeatedly stated in an interview that if the Hungarian government does not respect the rule of law, it should not be a member of the European People’s Party. Less than a week later, Weber joined Orbán and the two campaigned together to support the Slovenian People’s Party candidate for prime minister, Janez Jansa.

Of course, this two-faced approach is not an aberration in politics, but even the duplicitous Weber could learn from Orbán’s mastery. Issues that often ring alarm bells for democrats in Budapest are orchestrated in much softer tones by Fidesz politicians in Brussels.

That being said, the EPP has had plenty of time to realise that their Hungary member is playing a double game. Orbán’s closest ally is the Law and Justice (PiS) party ruling Poland, and they are fierce opponents of Donald Tusk and his party, the EPP member Civic Platform (PO).

The enemy of my enemy

Kaczyński is not the only (previously ideologically-opposed) partner whom Orbán has wooed. Clearly sensing the upcoming radical changes in the composition and factions of the next European Parliament, Orbán started to build new alliances already years ago, and not necessarily only from his own camp.

He is on friendly terms with Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party (keeping in mind that Fidesz recently severed relations with its Dutch sister party CDA as its MEPs would like to expel Fidesz from the EPP, this relation might have a special importance in the future). Similarly, Orbán has fostered a rapport with the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), and even the leaders of Alternative for Germany (AfD) praise his policies on a regular basis.

Orbán has been planning a European engagement for a long time, not only because Hungarian politics don’t provide him with much of a challenge these days. For years, he has emphasized on every international forum he is invited to the lack of strong leadership in the European Union, nor has he been cagey about his own ambitions for a more prominent European position. It is clear that these ambitions will not be able to be realised in the current framework, even with EPP’s potential support.

Of course, there won’t be an immediate change, especially before the 2019 European Parliamentary election. It is rather obvious that the Hungarian Prime Minister is formulating options, and he has the capacity to potential blackmail.

Fidesz is currently interested in maintaining a strong People’s Party, one which respects them. Seeking any alternative setup before the European Parliament elections would risk the strongest faction turning against them. If this were to occur and with the support of the Party of European Socialists and most likely the ALDE, infringement procedures could be launched against Hungary along with potentially strong financial and legal penalties.

Orbán has evaluated correctly that implications of Brexit as well as the budding new political platform of Macron’s En Marche movement will bring significant changes to the EU and protecting Hungarian interests in a whole new European Parliament will be practically impossible. Almost every opinion poll forecasts a significant decline for the EPP and Socialists and a resurgence of support of liberal and eurosceptic parties. Obviously, these studies have not calculated the potential of Macron’s pro-EU platform to attract further members of the major parties, including the EPP.

Regardless, the parties of the coalition are exhausted with internal disagreements, euro-scepticism and political deadlock. In other words, the EPP’s ability to effectively block potential procedures against Hungary will diminish.

Playing crocodile

For Orbán, its worth waiting for the results of the European parliamentary elections and calculate accordingly as the decision is solely in his hands. Either he can create a fraction of nationalist, EU critical parties that could easily dominant in Europe. In this faction, he could play a leading role, but he would also have a great chance to stigmatise and isolate other major parties, or he could remain in the EPP.

The People’s Party has fewer cards in it hands as the departure of Fidesz would be a serious blood loss for an already weakened fraction. Weber understands this threat; at the same time, he has to keep those in the party who would want to leave because of politicians like Orbán. This dichotomy illustrates why the EPP is so powerless. Currently, one of the key political necessities for Weber is to prevent an Article 7 procedure to be launched against Hungary.

Therefore, it is worth noting for the Hungarian opposition – those waiting for a Messiah coming from the West – that they need to provide an alternative to Orbán in the European arena. Perhaps a strong pro-integration program, which, according to opinion polls, could still be popular in Hungary. This platform could be part of the Macron’s new pro-European group, and then the Hungarian people might sit up to listen.

The article is published as part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was originally published in Hungarian on HVG.hu and can be found here.

Translated from the Hungarian by Visegrád Insight

This article is published in association with Visegrad Insight.

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