22 March 2019

Is the appeasement of Viktor Orban finally coming to an end?

By

This week’s decision from the European People’s Party’s political assembly to suspend Viktor Orban’s Fidesz came a bit late was more timid than it needed to be. Without any doubt, however, it is a step in the right direction.

Just to be clear, the EPP has not expelled Fidesz from its ranks. Instead, a statement said “the EPP Presidency and Fidesz jointly [agreed] that Fidesz suspends its membership”. That means that party representatives will not be allowed to attend EPP meetings, vote at those meetings, or nominate candidates for EPP posts. The restrictions will remain in place until the party-appointed Evaluation Committee concludes that Fidesz have met the EPP’s demands.

Those include most prominently the end of “the fake news campaign against President Jean-Claude Juncker” and a “clarification” of “pending legal issues regarding the Central European University”.

Disappointingly, the decision contains no mention of the politically controlled administrative court system that Orbán created last year, the skewed electoral rules that have produced Fidesz’s parliamentary supermajorities, nor the monopolisation of Hungary’s media market, where there is not a single daily newspaper critical of the government. The decision addresses neither the grotesque corruption surrounding the EU funds, nor the openly pro-Russian decisions that the government has taken in recent months, including returning Russian arms dealers the Lyubishins to their homeland and the agreement with the Kremlin-run International Investment Bank.

There are also question marks about the Evaluation Committee. Chaired by the former President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, it features two other EPP grandees: Hans-Gert Pöttering, former President of the European Parliament, and Wolfgang Schüssel, the ex-Chancellor of Austria. It is a safe bet that Schüssel, himself a reliable pro-Russian voice who formed an alliance with the extreme right long before “populism” became a thing, will not be inclined to scrutinise Orbán too harshly.

Since its election victory in 2010 Fidesz has embarked on a concerted drive towards authoritarianism. It started with a heavy-handed response to the financial crisis and has continued throughout the last decade with a gradual tightening of the rules surrounding political competition, media, non-governmental organisations, as well as universities. At every juncture, the power grabs were met mostly with silence or equivocation in Brussels.

That has emboldened Orbán, who has become a massive political liability not only to the EPP but to the EU and the Western alliance as a whole. What does he offer in exchange? A total of eleven members of European Parliament for the EPP group.

For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that keeping Fidesz within EPP had a moderating effect, especially in comparison to a counterfactual in which Orbán would join a more radical parliamentary group. It’s hard to see any justification for that viewpoint now. His behaviour at home and internationally has been increasingly unhinged and reckless, all while under EPP umbrella.

Like most bullies, Orbán responds only to force. When he wanted, in 2014, to open a new holocaust museum aiming at whitewashing Hungarian involvement, he blinked under pressure from the US administration, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Jewish community. Alas, a similar degree of pressure, either from Brussels or Washington, has been mostly absent in recent years. The current US administration has indulged him excessively, even though Fidesz has acted against US interests on questions ranging from the CEU’s expulsion, through the Lyubishins’ extradition, to investment projects in energy – not to mention the abysmal failure of the Hungarian government to invest in its military.

One piece of good news is that Fidesz is weaker than what meets the eye. While it is hard to predict the political landscape after the European election, an expulsion from the EPP would leave Orbán with few places to go. The future of the Tory-led European Conservatives and Reformists is uncertain. Were Fidesz to join Marine Le Pen’s Europe of Nations and Freedom it would destroy any remaining veneer of the party’s respectability, as would joining the deeply unserious Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, currently led by Nigel Farage.

Given how slow-moving and risk-averse the EPP is, the effort to keep all options open is understandable. However it is also ultimately unsustainable. Sooner or later, a final decision will have to be made. After this week’s move, the odds that the continuing appeasement of Viktor Orbán will come to an end soon have gone up – and that is not a small feat.

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Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC.