Viktor Orbán and risks of suspension from European Parliament

Viktor Orbán and risks of suspension from European Parliament

The EPP centre-right bloc in the European Parliament suspended Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party. Brussels is taking a stand, but what are the risks to relations between the EU and newer member states like Hungary, perceived as more prone to authoritarianism?

Viktor Orbán – Controversial leader

The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has consistently clashed with the EU on a multitude of issues. From his stance against the Brussels-directed migrant policy to media restriction laws and recent protests against his government’s lack of academic independence in the country, Orbán is one of the EU’s most controversial leaders.

The decision by the European Parliament to suspend the Fidesz was near unanimous, with 190 members voting in favour and only 3 against the measure. The Fidesz party’s membership rights have also been stripped by the European People’s Party (EPP) as of March 21st, and former European Council President Van Rompuy will chair an ‘Evaluation Committee’ as a means of verifying Hungary’s compliance.

The move raises queries about how the EU should respond to challenges over the rule of law and media freedom in member states. Hungary is not an isolated case. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia are also drawing the ire of Brussels. Similar to Hungary, these states have faced questions from the EU over judicial independence, the rule of law and media freedom.

The European Commission has issued warnings to Poland over the rule of law and has singled out the ruling PiS or Law and Justice Party for issues such as packing the courts and targeting independent media outlets. There is a growing problem of state control of information, resources and judicial independence, which has led to a drop in trust and confidence in the region’s governments. This trend is likely to continue and also reflects upon a broader anti-government, anti-institutional move across the continent, from the Brexit debate in the UK to the Yellow Vests movement in France.

Implications for the upcoming European Parliament Elections

At a time when France and Germany seem to epitomize the liberal platform of opening the doors to refugees, Central European states like Hungary, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán is, keen to maintain homogeneity within Europe’s borders. This is a fundamental divide that is unlikely to go away with Fidesz’ removal from the EPP. Populists from France, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy and Spain are aligning with Orbán in their desire to apparently protect ‘European civilisation’. They take a hard-line stance on immigration and threats to identity, namely religion. With the exception of the coalition government in Italy, few member states are being led by figures like Orbán. However, the centre-right in many nations is being pushed further to the right to accommodate more hard-line views and syphon off support from the populists.

Immigration is front and centre for Viktor Orbán in the May European Parliament elections. The Fidesz party has placed billboards that campaign against the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker and billionaire George Soros, who they accuse of arranging for Muslims to come to Europe en masse. Viktor Orbán has used anti-Semitic tropes throughout the immigration debate with Brussels, and his hostility to immigration stems from a desire to maintain a common European identity. In this way, Orbán is continuing the trend of populist leaders gaining ground in Europe. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, and Italy’s Five Star Movement have relied on xenophobic and nativist language to safeguard the ‘true’ version of Europe.

The Fidesz party’s suspension will likely to weaken the EPP. They have lost a major voice and will likely have to readjust their positions and criteria for membership. This risks a more divided European Parliament overall and the potential of more Eurosceptic parties gaining seats and challenging the mainstream left-right groupings.

What does removal solve?

While the EPP and EU leaders can feel confident that they have done their bit to remove a populist and xenophobic party from their ranks, there are significant challenges that remain. The move risks being seen as a win for Viktor Orbán. He has crafted an image of himself as an anti-Brussels politician keen to develop an independent set of policies from the EU.

Fidesz is a popular party in Hungary that wields significant support and influence over the country’s institutions. If Viktor Orbán is pushed away from the EU and its institutions, there might be fewer checks on his autocratic tendencies. The EU-based system of checks and balances might be more effective in curbing his populist policies. The media networks in Hungary are being controlled by Orbán loyalists, so he will be able to craft a narrative that paints him as the victor against a European Union that is scrambling to contain the populists and opposing viewpoints that go against the Brussels orthodoxy.

Orbán’s stature in Europe and abroad amongst illiberal and authoritarian leaders will also likely continue to grow. So long as he wears his party’s removal as a badge of honour, he might be able to persuade other right-wing populist parties that the European Parliament may no longer best serve their interests. It remains to be seen whether this produces an exodus or a reevaluation of what the EPP stands for. It will likely lead to a closer examination of how parties can enter the various left-right groupings in the European Parliament. In May’s election, with Orbán in high spirits, the challenges of populist and Euroskeptic parties trying to find their place within the EU’s political groupings is unlikely to go away. This is a challenge that mainstream political parties and EU leadership will have to face as much as their counterparts on the far left and right.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.