Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told European People's Party (EPP) chairman Manfred Weber on March 3 that his Fidesz party's12 MEPs were resigning their membership in the largest faction of the European Parliament, though Fidesz would still remain within the Europe-wide party for the time being.
The radical rightwing party's membership of the EPP had already been suspended for two years because of its constant attacks on the EU and EPP leaders, leaving it without much influence within the group.
The move came as the EPP was preparing to throw Fidesz out. On Wednesday the EPP fraction passed a new rule with 148 votes in favour and 28 against that allows the suspension of the membership of a whole group, not just individual MEPs, with a simple majority.
"The amendments to the rules of the EPP Group are clearly a hostile move against Fidesz and our voters," Orban said in the letter addressed to Weber.
Fidesz's withdrawal from the important EPP group will leave it in a no-man's land and significantly reduce its influence. Fidesz loses voting rights, the ability to speak in EPP meetings, and access to important positions held by the EPP in the parliament. This could also make it easier for the EU to punish Orban for his dismantling of Hungary's democracy, as the EPP group, which includes Germany's ruling CDU-CSU, had often blocked measures against him.
With 12 MEPs, Fidesz was one of the largest parties within the EPP in the European Parliament. An MP delegated by a junior coalition partner delegated by the Christian Democrat KDNP will remain in the group.
The Hungarian government's staunch opposition to the EU's new focus on rule of law issues has tainted relations between Fidesz and the EPP. Orban's Hungary has long been at odds with the European Union over its infringements of judicial, academic and media independence, and its dismantling of Hungarian democracy and violations of human rights. Orban's behaviour was an embarrassment to the EPP and its failure to discipline him had led to fierce criticism,
The new ruling on suspensions originate from EPP sanctions on Fidesz EP group leader Tamas Deutsch, after he compared the budget rule of law mechanism supported by Weber to the slogans of the Gestapo and that of Hungary’s communist regime. Deutsch later apologised but his comments sent shockwaves even among allies of Orban’s rightwing party.
There has long been growing pressure within the EPP to expel the Hungarian ruling party from their ranks. These calls escalated after Orban threatened to veto the EU’s next seven-year budget and the recovery fund in December over the mechanism to link payments from them to respect for rule of law.
Among other things, "it was about the rule of law mechanism, which we discussed last year at the European level, where Viktor Orban opposed this concept", Weber said. He added that it had been a game-changer because that is deeply rooted in the heart of a lot of MEPs from the EPP group.
Austrian MEP Othmar Karas, one of the staunch critics of Fidesz, said the party's withdrawal from the EPP is the result of Orban’s failed blackmail attempt over the weekend, when he wrote a letter threatening to pull out. "Exclusion from the party family is just a formality now," he said.
It is likely that the Hungary's ruling party has little interest in remaining in the party. Fidesz could end up in the Eurosceptic and anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists Group led by Orban’s allies the Law and Justice (PiS) of Poland or set up its own parliamentary group.
According to Hungary's pro-government media, the decision of Fidesz to leave the group not only impacts its own influence in Europe, but also the influence and stability of the EPP Group.
The narrative is that Weber wanted to punish Orban for not supporting his candidacy for president of the European Commission in 2019. Another recurring theme is that EPP has lost its Christian-conservative character and was shifting to the left.
Opposition parties gloated upon the developments, but they warned that Fidesz leaving the EPP would eventually lead to further drifting away from Europe.
After years of paralysis the EPP eventually threw the rotten orange out, the centrist-liberal Momentum party said, referring to the colour of Fidesz’s party logo. They said that Orban was driftng further away from Europe and closer to his true ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. "We don’t care if they go to Moscow, just don’t take the country with them", Andras Fekete-Gyor, the party’s prime minister candidate, wrote.
The rightwing Jobbik sees the pre-emptive move by Fidesz to leave the EPP group before a possible expulsion as the first step and that the ruling party would soon want to exit the European Union.
Ferenc Gyurcsany, leader of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Coalition (DK), spoke of a clear fiasco for Orban, no matter how he is trying to sell it. He is not the strong man of Europe, but a real loser, he added.