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The European People’s Party has tolerated the Hungarian leader’s authoritarianism for too long
ON JUNE 16TH 1989 Hungarians gathered to rebury Imre Nagy. The liberalising prime minister’s overthrow had prompted the uprising against Soviet rule 33 years before. In Heroes’ Square in Budapest they placed flowers and wreaths around his coffin as Viktor Orban, a 26-year-old leader of the Young Democrats (known as Fidesz), proclaimed that the Soviet Union had forced Hungary into a “dead-end Asian street” and that communism and democracy were incompatible. Fidesz would later become a political party and help lead Hungary’s post-communist modernisation. So impressed was the European People’s Party (EPP), the grouping of European centre-right parties, that it wooed Mr Orban away from the liberal bloc—sending representatives to Budapest to persuade him to switch, which he did in 2000.
That feels like a long time ago. In his second spell as prime minister, since 2010, Mr Orban has battered Hungary’s young democracy: changing the constitution to cow judges, taking over the press, clamping down on civil society, manipulating elections and propagating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros, a Hungarian-born billionaire whom he accuses of plotting to flood the country with migrants. He has routinely trampled over red lines laid down by the EPP, yet still the group has coddled him, cheering his election victories and dismissing calls to expel Fidesz. The EPP warned Mr Orban not to pass a law curbing NGOs’ independence and not to force the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU), founded by Mr Soros, out of the country. He did both last year. No sanction followed.
Why not? The EPP, the largest European party group, sees itself as the ultimate big tent, a family spanning the continent in all its diversity. And the bigger the tent, the more the EPP can get its way in Brussels. Its affection for the sunny Fidesz of 1989 clouds its judgment of the dark Fidesz of 2019. Better to keep the party on the inside, where its authoritarianism can be curbed, argue leaders like Manfred Weber, the EPP’s candidate for the presidency of the European Commission at the European elections in May. Some point to corruption-tainted outfits in other alliances, like Slovakia’s Smer, which sits in the social-democratic group. Expelling them all would, the argument goes, reduce the mainstream party groups to western and northern European rumps, and further fracture the EU. Thus, even when he voted for Article 7 disciplinary procedures against Hungary in September, Mr Weber insisted that he was voting “not against Fidesz, not against Viktor Orban”.
Now, however, Mr Orban may finally have gone too far. Last month he launched a publicly funded poster campaign showing a cackling Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission president and an EPP veteran, next to George Soros, with the slogan “You have a right to know what Brussels is planning to do” (force migrants on Hungary, apparently). The vitriol and scale of the campaign shocked the EPP. It heightened concerns that Mr Weber’s association with Mr Orban might deny him the votes of social democrats and liberals in the European Parliament, which he would need to secure the commission’s presidency. So far 12 member parties of the EPP, mostly from the Benelux and Scandinavian countries, have called for Fidesz’s expulsion. The EPP’s assembly will settle the matter on March 20th. It will probably be decided by German parties, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union, its Bavarian sister party and Mr Weber’s political home.
At a meeting between Mr Orban’s representatives and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU’s new general secretary, old Fidesz excuses (leftists are trying to divide the EPP, the attacks on Mr Soros are merely domestic politics) did not fly. Mr Weber has sharpened his language, on March 5th threatening Fidesz with expulsion unless it stops the posters, apologises and lets the CEU remain in Budapest. None of these is likely to happen. Meanwhile the CSU, traditionally sympathetic to Mr Orban, is turning against him and is unwilling to split from the CDU amid today’s climate of reconciliation between the two parties. As a compromise, the two might back the temporary suspension of Fidesz.
That would be grossly inadequate. The case for expelling Fidesz is overwhelming. Far from restraining him, cosseting Mr Orban in the EPP has legitimised his illiberal abuses. Andras Lederer of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights campaign in Budapest, is withering about the EPP’s “utter failure”. Letting Mr Orban go unscathed, he says, “encouraged him to continue dismantling the rule of law and checks and balances.” For Mr Weber to back a mere suspension, leaving the door open to readmission after the European elections, would confirm a pattern of spinelessness that worries even colleagues sympathetic to his bid for the commission presidency. Ponders one EPP insider: “Where’s his backbone?”
1989 and all that
Expulsion, it is true, might prompt Fidesz to set up a new group of hard-right European parties, or more probably to join one of the two existing ones. But it would pay a price in influence and domestic credibility. Moreover, the EPP could then admit a more moderate Hungarian party in its place: the liberal-conservative Modern Hungary Movement, for example.
The case against expelling Fidesz rests on the claim that the EPP encompasses different sorts of European parties: from liberal western ones to more conservative post-communist ones, including those in countries where democratic and pluralist norms are not as firmly rooted. This is a worthy ambition. But Hungary is not Fidesz. And just as the bright modernity of the party in 1989 obscured some of the darker traits of Hungarian society (which Mr Orban has since harnessed and indulged), so the party today obscures the better traits. The job of a big-tent, supposedly moderate party family is to nurture those better traits, not to give up on them in the name of inclusivity. History did not end in 1989.