Manfred Weber, the group leader of the European People's Party (EPP), tried to smooth out differences with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest on March 12 just a week before EPP parties could vote to expel the Hungarian right-wing party from its ranks.
The EPP fraction leader called talks constructive, but not all problems were resolved, he was cited by local media.
The nationalist leader of the ruling Fidesz party has found himself at the centre of a debate concerning the future of EPP, the largest block in the European Parliament (EP).
The latest taxpayer-funded campaign targeting European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has stirred outrage and smaller parties in the centre-right group have called to expel Fidesz.
After Orban's latest anti-Brussels campaign, Weber set three conditions for him to remain in the EPP. He called on Orban to take down billboards and permanently end campaigning against Brussels, apologise to smaller parties (whom Orban called useful idiots) and allow the Central European University (CEU) to remain in Hungary.
With 13 MEPs, Fidesz one of the largest parliamentary groups in the EPP, not counting ethnic Hungarian parties from neighbouring countries, who also firmly stand by with Fidesz.
Polls forecast the EPP to lose seats in the upcoming EP election and Weber, who is aspiring to take over the helm at the Commission, would certainly need the votes of the Hungarian ruling party and its allies from ethnic Hungarian parties, which could total some 18-19 candidates.
The fact that Weber came to Hungary shows that Weber is keen on keeping Orban on board and trying to avert further splits within the EPP in the election, which could shake up the EU establishments.
Hungary says the debate within the EPP is solely about migration, whereas Weber and other conservative leaders are of the view that is about fundamental European values.
Orban and Hungarian government officials made it clear that Hungary does not want to make concessions in terms of defending its external borders, ejecting migration and protecting Christian culture, no matter what internal conflicts this approach generates within the EPP.
“The EPP has clear fundamental values which have to be respected by all member parties, including Fidesz,” Weber told journalists during his visit to the Great Synagogue in Budapest.
"As a dialogue between the two sides is still underway, I cannot tell you what concrete steps the EPP is going to take in the near future," he said.
Weber identified three major problems concerning Hungary, namely the EU's Article 7 proceedings launched against the country, the infringement procedures underway in the European courts and the issue of the CEU.
Weber welcomed the Hungarian government's decision to end the advertising campaign criticising the European Union's migration policies. It is essential for Fidesz to promise not to mount such campaigns in future, he said.
Independent Hungarian media showed pictures of the contested billboards showing Juncker and Soros being covered on the road between the city and airport, whereas TV and radio ads continued.
On one photo, a double billboard with one side facing the street was removed, while the other half visible by pedestrians only was left intact. Critics say this perfectly illustrates the cynical stance of the government on the whole issue.
Weber proposes German funding for CEU
The CSU politician's first stop in Budapest was at the Central European University, where he held talks with rector Micheal Ingatieff. The university founded by liberal philanthropist George Soros in 1991 had come under orchestrated attacks after 2015 as the government named the Hungarian born billionaire as a scapegoat for the migration crises.
The Orban government accuses Soros of undermining Hungary's and Europe's security by promoting illegal immigration. Parliament passed the contested Stop Soros law packages, which criminalises support for illegal migration, after a supermajority win in the 2018 elections.
Weber said after the talks that academic freedom is a fundamental value and he insisted that the CEU should stay in Budapest and continue to issue US accredited diplomas. The Hungarian government claims that the operation of the university n Budapest is guaranteed and cynically added that CEU moved voluntarily, which Ignatieff said was untrue.
The CEU, ranked the highest among local universities, was forced to relocate its American accredited masters and doctoral programmes from Budapest to Vienna after the government failed to ratify an agreement, which would have guaranteed the lawful operation of the university in Hungary. The EU has launched an infringement procedure against Budapest on the related legislation in higher education, which paved the way for the CEU's expulsion.
The CEU, known also as the Kozep-Europai Egyetem in Hungarian, will continue to operate a campus in Budapest, but it will lose its appeal for foreign students who would like to get a US diploma as well.
Instead of calling on Orban to amend the controversial higher education act, Weber came to Budapest with proposals of financing the CEU, local media reported.
Bavaria, a key political and economic ally of Hungary, would take part in financing departments at the CEU, Weber told a German newspaper on Wednesday. The Technical University of Munich (TUM) would sign a cooperation agreement with the Budapest-based institution, according to the plans. Weber did not disclose details, but TUM's press chief confirmed to local media that Ingatieff is due in Munich for talks on the cooperation.
The Munich-based university is planning international study programmes that can award Hungarian, German and American diplomas, Ulrich March wrote.
Bavaria would finance two departments at the CEU and BMW one. There would be a top-class but unnamed American university involved in the cooperation, he added.
Cabinet minister Gergely Gulyas said after the talks that the poster campaign is over and Orban didn't want to insult anyone with the term "useful idiots", but he's ready to apologise. He said Weber and Orban shared the intention that Fidesz should remain an EPP member, with the two sides having an interest in an agreement.
The European Commission had failed to address the demographic decline and to stop migration and keep Great Britain within the EU, Gulyas said.