EPP lead candidate Manfred Weber has recently told Welt that political parties aiming to dissolve the European Union should not receive funding from the EU. He mentioned France’s National Rally and Germany’s AfD as examples.
Weber would ban parties from accepting financial support from third-country actors, a reference to Marine Le Pen’s party having received a large loan from a Russian bank. Weber did not mention the Hungarian ruling party as an example, which has been campaigning against the European Commission uninterruptedly, including since its suspension from the EPP, claiming that the former threatens the sovereignty of nation-states and wants to flood the continent with migrants from third countries. In this regard, Fiesz’s communication is eerily similar to the messages disseminated by Putin’s disinformation machine, which is striving to destabilise the EU. Meanwhile, the Orbán government is becoming entangled with Russia in affairs that can hardly be explained away by Hungarian interests. The Paks nuclear power plant’s non-transparent expansion and the Russia-led International Investment Bank’s concerning move to Budapest, which offers beneficial financial opportunities to the Fidesz-friendly elite but rarely to Hungary proper, are good examples.
However, despite the fact that the Hungarian ruling party can increasingly be considered part of the pro-Putin European far right, Orbán does not want to leave the EPP. Fidesz does not want to leave the EPP, the strongest parliamentary group in the European Parliament, and find itself in a Eurosceptic, anti-EU bloc that is very hard to permanently unite. This would be a step backwards in terms of the Hungarian party’s international standing and – despite Fidesz politicians regularly mentioning the possibility of leaving the EPP – it would not look good on the domestic political level either. Orbán’s main goal is transforming the EU, weakening integration in order to cement his positions in Hungary without outside interference. He wants to exaggerate his own role, maximise his blackmailing potential, and make himself an unavoidable actor to achieve this goal. This is why he wanted to transform the EPP in his own image. When he failed, he started trying to weaken it. It was not the politicians described by Orbán as “useful idiots” who offered the campaign topic to EPP opponents on a plate, it was Orbán himself who wanted to spark an internal crisis two months before the election. The “Soros-controlled international liberal and leftist hidden hand” is not dividing the EPP with the help of the parties demanding Fidesz’s expulsion, rather, it is Orbán who is trying to weaken his own party family from the inside in order to increase his own party’s representatives’ weight in the group. Fidesz could become the third-largest national delegation in the EPP with 14-15 MEPs, and Orbán can count on the support of EPP member parties loyal to him. At the same time, he is inching closer and closer to Eurosceptic, far-right parties so as to block decisions with their help and still have somewhere to sit in the EP if that becomes necessary. In any case, the latter is just treated as option B, which will only happen if Orbán believes a potential expulsion must be pre-empted by Fidesz leaving the EPP voluntarily.
Thus, it is not surprising that Fidesz wanted to avoid even suspension until the last moment, but it failed. Orbán miscalculated the effect of his campaign attacking Jean-Claude Juncker, because his domestic experiences made him believe he could get away with anything. In the end, Fidesz was suspended and the party could only minimise the impact of that decision. When the suspension happened, the government and the media controlled by it communicated domestically not that Fidesz was suspended, but that the party itself had decided to suspend its own participation in the work of the EPP. In the current media environment, Fidesz voters might find the explanation believable, especially since it was also revealed that the decision does not affect the EPP’s parliamentary group in the European Parliament. This interpretation was made even more believable by the fact that the EPP lead candidate was the one visiting Budapest before the decision, which suggested that he was the one seeking rapport with Orbán. Fidesz also benefited from Weber making the CEU issue the focus of the debate and getting tangled up in Fidesz’s playacting concerning the CEU by offering the party an escape route, while the Hungarian government’s most recent authoritarian measures go far beyond the “CEU law”. The Orbán government is currently working on restricting the autonomy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA). After the centralisation of the country’s economic-financial resources and after emptying the democratic institutional system of autonomy and placing it under Fidesz’s control, Orbán’s power-politics logic now dictates that he just needs to ensure his hegemony over cultural and intellectual life.
The Orbán government’s domestic narratives describe the Fidesz-EPP conflict as a fight between pro-immigration and anti-immigration forces. On 24 March, after Fidesz’s suspension, Orbán said in a radio interview that “this is a pro-immigration platform that exists across parties and has thus set foot in the EPP as well, and these parties have been attacking Hungary jointly in the past few years, and the consequence of this is that the entire EPP is being pushed gradually to the left. And this pro-immigration wing does not make it a secret that they want a pro-immigration grand coalition after the election […] I will not give up on the important things Hungarian people made a decision on, for the sake of holding to the party lines: the protection of Christian culture and stopping migration […] The Hungarian government told people in an information campaign what plans the EU Commission has on its table concerning the most important issue, migration. And after we revealed their plans, they became angry – as usual. […] We cannot retreat, we cannot be afraid because the opponent gets upset and attacks with the fury of an unmasked enemy. We have to be clear on what Brussels is preparing.”
This is a good indication that the Orbán government will not comply with Weber’s request to put an end to its anti-Brussels campaigns. Orbán could not do so under any circumstances, because all his political messages have been framed by the “migration threat” debate ever since 2015. He has no other topic or views on Europe, his only message is that “Soros-controlled Brussels” wants to destroy nation-states and Christianity by increasing migration to the continent, and that the Orbán government is fighting against these plans.
The only thing Fidesz did for the EPP was remove the billboards depicting Juncker - the message remained the same. The government-controlled organs dominating the Hungarian media market (except for online portals), Fidesz’s press conferences, and the government’s “information” websites on Brussels’s “secret plans” are constantly attacking the EU, and this will only intensify in the EP campaign. A publicist very close to Orbán, Zsolt Bayer – one of the Fidesz camp’s main organisers and opinion-leaders – indicated the direction in which these communicative efforts are now heading when he called Weber a “cowardly turd,” and then wrote that “Weber is a miserable man in the sense that a person becomes miserable if he can never honestly say what he thinks. The reason for this is the so-called ‘soft power’ of actors ranging from civil society to the press, which in the West – and especially in Germany – is simply defining freedom of expression and freedom of thought for politicians, and now even for ordinary citizens.”
The Orbán government will not be restrained from continuing its efforts to change Hungarians’ persistently strong pro-EU attitudes, neither by the suspension of its EPP membership, nor by the next EU investigation into the state of the rule of law in Hungary. This will not make Fidesz’s politics easier to handle either internally or internationally. It seems like the EPP’s decision has helped both sides gain time to re-evaluate their strategies once the results of the EP elections will be known. However, more efficient solutions against Fidesz’s politics would benefit the EU’s community as a whole, because they would make it clear that attempts to dissolve the EU with its own money will not go unanswered and that there is a limit to what Daniel Kelemen has called “authoritarian balance,” where larger Member States in democratic and interstate alliances tolerate the authoritarian system-building efforts of some states on the periphery for their own financial and political reasons.