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The Great Debate: Did the EPP Suspend Fidesz or Did Fidesz Suspend Itself?

Fanni Kaszás 2019.03.22.

Wednesday, “after a decision of the European People’s Party Presidency (EPP) together with Fidesz,” the Political Assembly of the EPP voted to immediately suspend Fidesz’s membership. A three-member evaluation committee has been appointed to monitor whether Fidesz meets the conditions of the joint proposal. As a result, a great debate has erupted in Hungary regarding whether Fidesz’s suspension was orchestrated by the EPP or whether the party “unilaterally” chose to temporarily stop “exercising its rights.”

Each party has used the opportunity to spread its own narrative. While the EPP claims it suspended Fidesz’s membership and withdrew its rights, Fidesz insists it solved the problem by recommending its own suspension.

Was it possible to please everyone?

Prior to the Political Assembly, it was difficult to determine the vote’s outcome as the political interests of the various parties and political figures were dizzyingly diverse.

For those who called for Fidesz’s expulsion – a total of 13 parties from ten, primarily liberal, nations – demanded Fidesz be punished for its actions.

Several member parties waited for the German Christian Democrats to make a decision before voicing their support in either direction. Additionally, Fidesz’s expulsion could have split the EPP just months before the EP elections, seeing as several member parties were against the act. Slovenian Democratic Party member Janez Jansa, for example, said he would follow Fidesz out of the EPP. The exclusion would also alienate parties that receive votes in line with Orbán’s anti-migrant message, such as those from Bavaria, Austria and France.

PMO Head: Fidesz Wants Strong, United, Anti-migration EPP

Before the vote, several Fidesz politicians made statements demonstrating the party’s desire to remain in the EPP. PMO Head Gergely Gulyás confirmed that the party wants to remain in the center-right bloc, under certain conditions: “We want to see a strong, united, Christian democratic EPP which opposes illegal immigration, and as long as there is a chance this could happen, we want to be a part of the EPP.” At the same time, Fidesz-friendly Hungarian media repeatedly called on the party to leave the EPP of its own accord.

You cannot have your cake and eat it too

The process leading up to the decision was tedious and rife with indecision. Both the EPP and Fidesz tried to play it safe, often attempting to ‘have their cake and eat it too.’ The EPP walked a fine line in its mission to satisfy every party involved. Such an early compromise was an attempt at placating both those threatening to follow Fidesz out of the EPP and those calling for its expulsion in the first place. Other European party families – the Socialists and greens – believe Fidesz is merely testing the EPP’s boundaries. Meanwhile, the press has spent so much time focused on Fidesz’s EPP predicament that it has barely breathed a word about the European Parliament Elections, two short months away.

For EPP Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber, it is vital the party family has access to as many votes as possible. Therefore, the importance of Fidesz’s 11 votes is undeniable. However, maintaining a close relationship with the liberal parties from Northern Europe is also essential.

Fidesz’s EPP Fate to Be Decided Wednesday: What Are the Chances of Expulsion?

Although several Fidesz politicians – including Gergely Gulyás, MEP József Szájer and even the Prime Minister himself – have stated that Fidesz “cannot be ejected or suspended” due to its popularity with Hungarian citizens, it still needs the backing of the family party. For instance, when it comes to allocating resources, it is highly important which family Fidesz belongs to. Currently, to this end, the EPP has the German CDU, the strongest EU and EPP member.

A masterful compromise?

The aim of Wednesday’s vote was to arrive at a solution that satisfies all. The EPP wished to keep both sides of the spectrum to secure as many votes as possible for the party family. While the German parties did not want to see Fidesz expelled, the 13 parties who initiated the proposal expected Fidesz to be ousted, or at the very least, hit hard by sanctions.

From Friends to Foes: European Politicians React to Fidesz’s EPP Suspension

The vote on Fidesz’s membership was inevitable and punishment was highly likely. However, the result is something of a masterful compromise since it enables both parties to ‘have their cake and eat it too.’ The “decision of the EPP Presidency together with Fidesz” states that

the EPP Presidency and FIDESZ jointly agree that FIDESZ suspends its membership in the EPP until the report of the evaluation committee is ready.

The decision’s wording alludes to the possibility that Fidesz had a word in its own suspension. The EPP can now keep both its liberal members and its more radical members, including Fidesz. Also, Orbán and his party have been given a way out of the situation that leaves them relatively unscathed by the whole ordeal.

Different political interests, different communication

Weber argues that “his proposal” was “necessary” because the EPP’s “values are not negotiable” and Fidesz needs to understand that and begin to “rebuild trust.”

Fidesz Suspended in EPP after Vote on Joint Proposal

Although Gergely Gulyás, the Head of the Prime Minister’s Office, previously claimed that Fidesz would rather terminate its membership than see it suspended, this obviously has not turned out to be the case. Orbán insists that Fidesz has decided to suspend its rights as long as

the three wise men complete their report, then we will have talks again with the EPP.

EPP leader Joseph Daul declared that “internal democracy has spoken,” and tweeted the following after the announcement of the verdict:

We cannot compromise on democracy, rule of law, freedom of press, academic freedom or minorities’ rights. And anti-EU rhetoric is unacceptable. The divergences between EPP and Fidesz must cease.

EPP liberals have welcomed the decision as they consider it a step closer to their ultimate goal: Fidesz’s expulsion.

What is next?

The suspension has kept the party family intact while also giving each party a chance to sing the tales of its “victory.” “The European People’s Party made the right decision because it kept its unity. The EPP also made the right decision in the sense that the grouping will now be able to tackle the EP election campaign as a cohesive unit and because Fidesz can continue to support Manfred Weber as the EPP’s spitzenkandidat,” Orbán stated.

It is important to keep in mind that the final decision has only been postponed. Orbán confirmed that Fidesz’s place within the EPP is still in question:

We have made an adequate, temporary decision, but we have not settled anything. After the elections, we can freely decide on the terms of our relationship.

As of now, it is unclear how long it will take for the EPP’s “three wise men” to produce a report. As many have rightfully pointed out, the committee is comprised of politicians from three countries (Belgium, Germany and Austria) of which two (Hans-Gert Pöttering and Wolfgang Schüssel) are known for being lenient towards Fidesz.

‘Three Wise Men’ to Monitor Whether Fidesz Meets EPP’s Conditions

However, the May 23-26 EP elections will determine the votes cast for each party and with that, Weber’s future and Fidesz’s place in the European People’s Party will be decided.