Hungary's Fidesz party to leave European parliament centre-right group

Move by Viktor Orbán’s party comes after European People’s party moved towards excluding it

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has pulled his rightwing Fidesz party out of the main centre-right political group in the European parliament after the European People’s party (EPP) moved towards excluding it by changing its rules.

The EPP’s 180 MEPs, some of whom have campaigned for years for the expulsion of Fidesz, which they accuse of weakening the judiciary and curbing media, academic and other freedoms, backed the change by 148 votes to 28 with four abstentions.

Orbán, the party’s chairman, said in a letter posted on Twitter soon after the vote that it was “disappointing” that in the midst of a pandemic the EPP was busying itself with curtailing the rights of its own representatives.

He accused the EPP of “trying to mute and disable our democratically elected MEPs”. The vote was “a hostile move against Fidesz and our voters”, he said, as well as “anti-democratic, unjust and unacceptable … Therefore, the governing body of Fidesz has decided to leave the EPP Group immediately.”

A spokesman for the EPP parliamentary group, Pedro Lopez de Pablo, said the Hungarian prime minister’s response to the vote on Wednesday was “his own personal decision” and that the group would not comment.

Dacian Ciolos, president of the centrist Renew Europe Group in the parliament, welcomed what he described as the “long overdue departure of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán from mainstream European politics”.

Under Orbán, Fidesz had “eroded democracy in Hungary and vandalised European values”, Ciolos said. “It is regrettable that the EPP have harboured the slide to authoritarianism in Hungary for so long. There is no space for the toxic populism of Fidesz in European politics.”

Orbán’s decision to walk away from the biggest single voting bloc in the parliament ends years of wrangling between EPP parties over whether or not to kick his rightwing, populist party out of the group or keep its MEPs onboard.

In a letter to the EPP’s leader, Manfred Weber, on Sunday, Orbán had threatened to leave the group, saying the proposed rule changes – to allow entire member parties, rather than just individual MEPs, to be expelled with a simple majority – were “tailor-made to punish Fidesz”.

The EPP suspended Fidesz’s membership in 2019 over growing concerns that the rule of law was being eroded in Hungary and that the party was engaging in anti-Brussels rhetoric and attacking the EPP leadership. The party currently has 12 MEPs.

A Hungarian government poster campaign in 2019 accused the then European commission head, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the liberal US billionaire George Soros – Orbán’s bête noire – of plotting to flood Europe with migrants.

The EPP subsequently sent a delegation to produce an internal report assessing the future membership of Fidesz – a move that drew a highly critical response from Orbán who said the party would make its own decision on its future.

More recently, the EPP suspended Tamás Deutsch, the head of the Fidesz delegation in the European parliament, stripping him of his rights to speaking time in plenary sessions and removing him from his positions in the group, after he compared comments by Weber to the slogans of the Gestapo and Hungary’s communist-era secret police.

Many of the more moderate national delegations in the EPP, which welcomed Orbán’s party in the early 2000s, have pushed for Fidesz to be expelled, arguing that it no longer represents the group’s values.

National delegations from Scandinavia, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands have long campaigned for Orbán’s exclusion, while the Christian Democrat CDU/CSU of Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has consistently been reluctant.

Othmar Karas, an Austrian EPP member and vice president of the European parliament, said the vote was “a clear sign of our ability to act and our credibility”, as well as “a rejection of a blackmail attempt by Viktor Orbán.”

Petri Sarvamaa, a Finnish EPP MEP, called Fidesz’s departure “a great relief and a historic day”, saying that the party had “trampled on democratic values” ​​and built a system in which “EU funds have been channelled into the leadership’s pockets”.

Orbán’s decision to take Fidesz out of his own volition represents a welcome resolution of a long-standing and increasingly damaging problem for the EPP, as tensions with Hungary and Poland over the rule of law are likely to build further in months to come.

Fidesz’s MEPs could now join either the socially conservative and Eurosceptic European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR) group dominated by Poland’s Law & Justice (PiS) party, or the far-right, nationalist Identity & Democracy group founded in 2019 by France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini.

Beside Merkel’s CDU, the EPP faction includes Poland’s opposition Civic Platform, Belgian Christian Democrats, France’s Les Republicains and others. It will remain the largest group in the 705-strong chamber even after the Fidesz MEPs’ departure.


Jon Henley Europe correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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