Belgian EPP member initiating the expulsion of Fidesz: “Are we the idiots? We are the majority!”

·2019.04.17

“It was strange to see someone vote for sanctions against themselves,” Benoît Lutgen, president of Belgian cdH, one of the parties requesting Fidesz’s expulsion from the EPP. Válasz followed the events live in Brussels as those demanding the penalisation of the Hungarian governing party were pitted against Viktor Orbán in the European People’s Party. There is something for everyone to present as a success in the suspension of Fidesz, and the future depends upon whether there will be a “spring of the people,” whether anti-establishment forces will manage to achieve a breakthrough at the European Elections in May. Analysis and exclusive interview following the political battle on 20 March 2019.

Visitors on their way to the Political Assembly of the European People’s Party had a chance to run into an unexpected friend: a bust of József Antall stands with a somewhat gloomy look in his eyes on the corridor leading to the chamber in the European Parliament’s wing that was – by the proposal of no other than Fidesz MEPs – named after the late former prime minister of Hungary in 2008. It’s a question if the assembly’s choice of venue was based purely on practical reasons, or if there was an ulterior motive at work. Nevertheless, the world has changed a lot since József Antall took the first steps towards the moderate right-wing political group that had members like Helmut Kohl in its ranks. These days, the focus is mostly on the battle between Fidesz, citing the heritage of the first freely elected Hungarian prime minister, and the European People’s Party, that mentions the former German chancellor just as many times.

Thirteen member-parties from ten EU member-states initiated the expulsion of Fidesz. This was bad news for Manfred Weber, the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ of the European People’s Party who is campaigning to be the president of the European Commission, but it’s bad news for Viktor Orbán as well, who is trying to build his domestic campaign on well-worn-in issues. Weber seemed to become more and more annoyed by constant questions concerning the Hungarian prime minister. As the president of the European Commission is elected by the European Parliament, Weber will need left-wing, liberal, and green votes as well – and being the protector of Viktor Orbán would not earn those votes for him.

Manfred Weber Photo: EP/Vincent Van Doornick

The feud within the political group was no help for Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán either; in an interview in Die Welt, Orbán admitted that he did not expect such a storm around him in Europe. After that, both sides tried to manage the situation and steer it in a direction that serves their interests. Weber, with uncharacteristic toughness, set conditions for Viktor Orbán, who answered by leading the EPP into a mind-boggling merry dance. He bowed by immediately stopping the government’s poster campaign, and apologised for calling members of the EPP requesting Fidesz’s expulsion “useful idiots,” and even took a step back with regards to CEU – he accepted the Munich University’s proposal for funding three departments at the Budapest campus of the private university (details are still hazy though). While Orbán was making grand gestures, the pro-government media spared no efforts to broadcast the message that Fidesz needs to leave the EPP as it has fallen prey to the influence of Sorosist liberals. They tried to frame an eventual expulsion as a question of principle. The small logical discrepancy of why Viktor Orbán would try his best previously to submit to the demands of a Manfred Weber commandeered by George Soros seemed to bother no one.

With these precedents, the in-fight of the People’s Party became the central story of the ongoing, quite boring campaign for the European Elections. Rows of journalists flocked to the door of the conference chamber accommodating the Political Assembly’s 20 March meeting. Inexperienced delegates arriving at the Assembly stumbled around seeing the unusual amount of media attention, livelier ones used the opportunity to get their 15 minutes of fame from the journalists eagerly waiting for as much as a crumb of information. The big dogs sped along towards the chamber shooting a routine smile at the reporters that were fruitlessly yelling questions – this is how CDU’s president Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Manfred Weber, and Viktor Orbán made their entrances.

Following hours of debates, we could get a taste of how decisions are made in Europe: we were handed a document that all sides could claim as their victory while keeping their mouths shut about the parts disadvantageous to them.

The bottom line is that the EPP membership of Fidesz was suspended, therefore, the Hungarian governing party can no longer name candidates for certain positions, they are no longer allowed to participate in EPP’s decision-making, for instance, Viktor Orbán was barred from entering the meeting the next day coordinating the positions of the EPP’s heads of governments in preparation for the EU summit held the same week. The People’s Party is commissioning a report from three former politicians (former head of the European Council, Belgian Herman van Rompuy, Austria’s former chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, and Hans-Gert Pöttering, the former leader of EPP’s parliamentary group) to establish whether or not Fidesz abides by the values and serves the interests of the political group. But the decision also contains that Fidesz “jointly agrees” to the decision so much that they even voted in favour of it. At the international press conference held after the vote, Viktor Orbán told journalists that this was a good decision and said that Fidesz voluntarily suspended its membership until the investigation carried out by the “three wise men” concludes. That is unlikely to happen before the European Elections in May.

And why is this good for everyone?

  • The member-parties that most oppose Fidesz, mostly from the Scandinavian and Benelux countries, can proudly say that after years of pointless arguments, the political group is finally sanctioning Fidesz (as evidenced by our interview with Benoît Lutgen). They are not talking about how their initiative to expel Fidesz did not come to fruition.
  • CDU, the most influential force in the EPP and Manfred Weber can finally pass this hot potato on to others. The Spitzenkandidat was visibly relieved when he said that the debate finally concluded, and he can now concentrate on his own campaign. Weber knows exactly well that the problem has not yet been solved, only postponed, but he might think that gaining time is gaining everything. There is still more than a month left until the European Elections and having the “three wise men” to point towards when Fidesz is brought up is something that could come in handy at any time.
  • Not having his party expelled is a major success for Viktor Orbán, and so is the fact that Fidesz was not put in a position either where their only choice would have been to leave on their own; siding with the majority decision has certainly helped in keeping up appearances. But here is a question that one needs to consider if they have even the slightest belief in the George Soros world conspiracy: Is it the oncoming traffic that is driving on the wrong side of the road, or could it be us?

By today, the worldviews of Viktor Orbán and the mainstream of the European People’s Party are vastly different. But the Hungarian prime minister is a pragmatist. He is perfectly aware of the influence granted by the fact that his party belongs to the largest group in the European Parliament, but he cannot yet see anything that could replace that, which is why he had not voluntarily quit the EPP yet. Orbán will wait and see the results of the European Elections. Will there be a “spring of the people,” will there be an emergence of anti-establishment right-wing political powers, an alliance with whom could create the foundation for a pan-European political formation? The three wise men can bide their time writing their report until we find out.

We do not yet know if Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party, known for its jovial hatred of Eastern-European workers, is compatible with the Visegrád rebels, we don’t yet see how France’s pro-Russian Marine Le Pen would get along with Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the anti-Russian leader of the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS). Regardless, the decision suspending Fidesz’s membership in the EPP foreshadows that whatever ‘grew together’ once ‘belongs together’ less and less.

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Benoît Lutgen is a former minister and mayor of Bastogne. He presided over the Belgian party Democrat and Humanist Centre (cdH) for eight years, and now he leads the party’s EP list, and cdH was amongst the first EPP members to suggest the expulsion of Fidesz. We’ve managed to talk to Lutgen in Brussels after the EPP’s decision on 20 March 2019.

Are you satisfied?

– Absolutely. Cutting Fidesz out of the decision-making process is a great move. This is the least what could be done after all the promises we’ve heard from Viktor Orbán that he consistently failed to keep. This is a nice victory; it demonstrates that the basic values of the European Union and the European People’s Party cannot be subject to negotiation. I know that the prime minister is requesting fairness citing the Austrian example. But in 2000, when we suspended the Austrian People’s Party’s membership for the party’s cooperation with the far-right Freedom Party, our Austrian partners never attacked their own political family in the way Fidesz attacked Jean-Claude Juncker. Not to mention that Austrian rule-of-law remained intact.

-According to Fidesz, they are being attacked by liberal members of the EPP because of their anti-immigration policies and Christian principles. Fact: Your party used to be called “Christian Socialists,” and has been a member of the European party’s left-wing.

– The European continent is indeed based on Christian civilisation, but we should not confuse that with the political instrumentalization of faith and religion. Viktor Orbán is not Pope Francis, and fortunately enough he is not in charge of baptising children or hearing confessions. The cdH is a founding member of the European People’s Party and we have always been strongly representing what follows from Christianity’s teachings about society: justice, equality, and the struggle against racism. It is not our party that deviated from the values of our political family, but Mr Orbán. We have already practised the Christian virtue of patience for long enough as it is, we have turned the other cheek for Fidesz more than enough times. We are of course open to accepting a difference in opinions and we are aware that we need to pay special attention to the particular historical experiences of Central and Eastern-Europe. I still maintain that Viktor Orbán and Fidesz have accomplished a lot in the fight against communism, and for that, we must be grateful. But I simply cannot understand how someone who used to signify hope can become such a menacing personality.

Belga Photo/Bruno Fahy

– If the “three wise men” come up with a positive report, will Fidesz once again have a complete membership?

I do not have a crystal ball, I cannot tell the future. Our trust is in Hermann van Rompuy and his colleagues to do their work with due diligence, which, by the way, would not even be necessary if the policies of the Hungarian government were different.

– A former president of your party has said that if Fidesz does not get expelled, then cdH has to quit the EPP. The Hungarian party was only suspended, will cdH now terminate its membership?

– Of course not. What matters is what Maxime Prévot, the current president of cdH said: it is us or them. That matter was decided. Viktor Orbán previously said that parties initiating their expulsion are useful idiots. We can only answer that by saying we might be idiots, but we are the majority.

– Did it surprise you that Fidesz voted in favour of the decision suspending their membership?

– I thought they would leave on their own. Their decision proves that Viktor Orbán needs the legitimacy granted to him by the European People’s Party, so he will not leave voluntarily. I must admit that it was strange to see someone voting to sanction themselves.

– At the same time, Fidesz is important for the EPP too, as an alliance with Matteo Salvini could become a major headache.

– I do not wish for an anti-European bloc to assemble after the elections, but let’s not forget: Viktor Orbán voted against Jean-Claude Juncker as the president of the Commission five years ago as well. I am delighted to see that Manfred Weber, our current Spitzenkandidat had a role in conducting the political group’s interior negotiations concerning Fidesz. That is a good foundation for a campaign.

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