The European People’s Party (EPP) may finally be ready to part ways with its pet autocrat, Viktor Orbán. For years, leaders of the EPP defended Orbán and Fidesz, his EPP member party, even as he built the first hybrid authoritarian regime inside the European Union, ironically using a massive influx of EU funds to bankroll a regime that made a mockery of the EU’s core democratic values. But following Orbán’s latest provocations, the EPP has scheduled a discussion on the future of Fidesz’s membership in the party for its upcoming meeting on 20 March.
Advocates of democracy in Europe should welcome the potential expulsion of Orbán’s party from the EPP and praise the dozen EPP member parties from ten countries that are demanding his ousting. At the same time, we should pause to consider just how it was that the leading centre-right Europarty became the protector of Europe’s leading populist autocrat, why it is so vital that he be shunned, and why his longtime champion, the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber, must never become Commission President.
For years, the EPP turned a blind eye to Orbán’s construction of an autocratic government in Hungary and protected him from EU censure. EPP leaders, such as Weber and party president Joseph Daul, actively supported Orbán’s reelection in 2014 and 2018 – even though both elections were criticized as unfair by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). A wide variety of international organizations have criticized the Orbán regime’s attacks on democratic institutions in Hungary. In supporting Orbán, EPP leaders clearly ignored their party’s own statutes which require it to promote free and pluralistic democracy.
The EPP betrayed the EU’s democratic values above all for one reason: partisan advantage. Quite simply, the EPP protected Orbán because he delivered votes that helped the EPP maintain its status as the dominant party in EU politics. Daul admitted as much in a 2015 interview when he explained that, while Orbán was the enfant terrible of the EPP family, “his party, Fidesz, has always voted in line with the EPP in the European Parliament.”
For years, the EU’s party system was trapped in what has been referred to as an “authoritarian equilibrium.” Europarties like the EPP had political incentives to protect autocratic member parties while they suffered no costs for doing so, because voter awareness of Europarties was so low. In short, very few voters recognized that moderate, democratic parties like Angela Merkel’s CDU played a key role in protecting autocrats like Orbán through the EPP.
Finally, it appears that the “authoritarian equilibrium” may be breaking down. Two developments tipped the balance. Firstly, Orbán bit the hand that fed him. By running a propaganda campaign that essentially accused the EPP’s European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, of conspiring with George Soros to flood Hungary with immigrants, Orbán betrayed the very party that has defended him for years. It is striking that the final straw that prompted a cascade of calls for Orbán’s ouster from the EPP was not his attacks on judicial independence, media freedom or civil society organizations, nor the fact that under his rule Hungary became the first EU Member State to be downgraded to the status of only “partly free.” Instead, it was the fact that he attacked an EPP leader.
Secondly, it seems that the attention generated by the Spitzenkandidat race for the Commission Presidency is increasing public awareness of the fact that the EPP has been protecting Orbán. With the EPP’s dirty family secret out in the open, moderate member parties have become more uncomfortable being associated with Orbán and worry that it may prove domestically costly for them to remain silent.
For years, some in the EPP convinced themselves that it was better to keep him in the party so as to maintain “dialogue” and to restrain his worst impulses. This refrain was constantly repeated despite the lack of any evidence that EPP membership had any restraining effect on Orbán. Quite to the contrary, EPP membership legitimized Orbán even as he crossed all supposed red lines the EPP set for him with impunity.
One such transgression concerned the EPP’s red line on academic freedom; essentially an ultimatum that Orbán must not expel the Central European University (CEU) from Budapest. The party first proclaimed this stance in April 2017 and Weber promised to enforce it “at any cost.” However, when Orbán defied the EPP and forced the CEU to announce its relocation to Vienna in December 2018, Weber merely expressed his “disappointment.” To assuage critics, he did call on the European Court of Justice to expedite the case involving the CEU – a meaningless move given that the European Commission had already asked the Court to do that months earlier.
By not enforcing its own red lines, EPP leadership has not only emboldened Orbán, it has also become complicit in Hungary’s descent into authoritarianism. As the leading force in EU politics, the EPP finally needs to state emphatically that autocratic member governments will no longer be tolerated. If the EU is ever to stand up to the Orbán autocracy, it is imperative that the EPP expel Orbán, and that it do so for the right reasons. It must make clear that Orbán has no place in the EPP; not because of his attacks on Juncker or even because of his migration policies, but because he has systematically dismantled democracy and the rule of law in Hungary.
Expelling Fidesz from the EPP will not solve Europe’s autocracy problem, but it is a necessary first step. No meaningful pressure on the Orbán regime – such as the suspension of the EU funds that sustain it – will be imposed so long as he enjoys the protection of the EPP. If Orbán is expelled, he will likely form a new far-right Europarty with Poland’s PiS party, Italy’s Lega and others. Indeed, government-controlled media in Hungary suggested as much this week. While such a Europarty could provide Orbán with some political protection, it would be nowhere near as powerful as the EPP and it will not be able to ‘normalize’ Orbán’s actions the way EPP membership has.
While the EPP can vindicate itself as a party by belatedly expelling Orbán, there can be no absolution for Manfred Weber, the group’s Spitzenkandidat (or, perhaps more aptly, Autokratenkandidat). Weber has been one of Orbán’s main defenders for years and his actions in recent days indicate that he still fails to grasp the threat Orbán regime poses to the EU.
In a letter sent to EPP President Joseph Daul on 5 March, Weber set out new red lines for Orbán that are largely meaningless, namely: the removal of the anti-Juncker posters, a promise to refrain from such attacks in the future, and the “clarification” of legal issues surrounding the CEU. As a response to the emergence of the EU’s first autocratic government, these demands are less than feeble.
A leader who defended Orbán for years and who won’t stand up for the values on which the EPP itself is founded - even when a dozen of his member parties demand that he do so - cannot be trusted to defend democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights as Commission President.