Tomorrow the leadership of the European People’s Party will meet with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to discuss the increasingly rocky relations between EPP and Fidesz-KDNP. The Hungarian delegation, especially considering the size of the country, is rather large. Although the 216-member EPP could easily remain the dominant political group in the European Parliament without its 12 Fidesz-KDNP members, the EPP leadership is loath to lose them. Lately, however, a growing number of EPP delegates consider the presence of Fidesz in their group an embarrassment.
Although Fidesz claims to be a Christian democratic party, over the years Viktor Orbán’s party has become a full-fledged far-right party which has more to do with Austria’s Freedom Party, France’s National Front, the UK Independence Party, or Alternative for Germany than with, for instance, Angela Merkel’s CDU. It was no coincidence that only far-right party politicians spoke in support of Viktor Orbán’s position at the plenary session of the European Parliament on April 26. Even Manfred Weber, EPP’s leader, was critical of Viktor Orbán’s latest attack against Central European University and the NGOs.
A fair number of EPP members have had enough of the Hungarian prime minister’s peacock dance and the Fidesz members’ arrogance when it comes to differences of opinion within the caucus. It was widely reported in the international press that the Fidesz delegation didn’t exactly handle criticism of the anti-CEU legislation diplomatically when they sent an e-mail to their EPP colleagues accusing them of being “gravely mislead (sic) by the propaganda and private agenda of the American billionaire Soros” and saying they are fighting with a “virtual reality.” The e-mail added that “as in the world of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there are the equals and there are some more equals (sic) than others.” It was this e-mail that prompted Frank Engel, an EPP member from Luxembourg, to write: “Forget the crap. We know what is happening and why. Why don’t you leave both the EPP and the EU on your own terms? … So go. Please go.”
Viktor Orbán likes to remind people that foreigners simply cannot understand Hungary and the mentality of its people. They also misunderstand his own intentions. We, the critics of Orbán and his political system, are also apt to assume that naïve westerners can’t comprehend the depth of Orbán’s corruption and duplicity. That assumption isn’t always borne out. For instance, yesterday Frank Engel gave an interview to Die Zeit in which he said that he fully realizes that Orbán’s modus operandi is constantly trying to test how far he can go. One can rely on his creating a scandal of some sort at least twice a year. Engel suspects that this warlike attitude is not just a personal trait; it is the very essence of Orbán’s government, without which it wouldn’t survive. These repeated attacks on the EU will not stop until “his regime collapses,” says Engel. Within EPP Engel is the most outspoken critic of Viktor Orbán and therefore he may be exaggerating EPP’s dissatisfaction with the prime minister, but Engel claims that “with the exception of his own people, he has no more support in EPP.”
Frank Engel, no friend of Viktor Orbán
Engel may not be the voice of EPP, but he is certainly not alone. His colleague from the Netherlands, Lambert van Nistelrooij, who is a great promoter of civic organizations, wrote an opinion piece in euractiv.com a couple of days ago. He called attention to legislation, in addition to the current law on higher education and the NGO bill, adopted by the Hungarian government which is incompatible with EU laws and which affect the very principle of a single market. van Nistelrooij wrote: “Orbán has become the Attila of European integration and values, leaving nothing behind him and his horde but missed opportunities for socioeconomic prosperity.” He pointed out that 66 infringement procedures against Hungary are currently pending. If the European Commission initiates another infringement procedure against Hungary in response to the CEU law, that will be the sixty-seventh. It’s no wonder that Fidesz’s reaction to the threat was a simple one-liner: “parturient montes, nasciture ridiculus mus” (Mountains labored: what’s born? A ridiculous mouse!).
Euobserver.com learned that at an EPP group meeting before the plenary debate regarding the situation in Hungary there was “merciless criticism” of Viktor Orbán’s policies. Apparently, an unprecedented number of MEPs spoke up in a “heated atmosphere.” EPP politicians accused Fidesz members of misleading the EPP group, of being disloyal, of ruining its reputation. Not surprisingly, the Polish Civic Platform deputies were particularly incensed because, after all, Jarosław Kaczyński, head of the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS), is busily working to dismantle democracy in Poland, taking his cues largely from Viktor Orbán. Engel, as usual, was blunt. The Fidesz members “have to understand that this circus—where every other month or twice a year at least, the whole EPP does nothing but defend Fidesz—is over. We will not do it anymore.”
Some people argue that if Fidesz is forced to leave the EPP, the Christian Democrats will have even less opportunity to influence the course of events in Hungary than they do now. Moreover, expelling Fidesz from the party “will have zero impact on the situation in Hungary.” They point to the fact that the PiS EP contingent, part of ACRE (Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe), is outside the mainstream, and therefore EPP is unable to have a dialogue with the current ruling party of Poland. (At the moment British conservatives (20) and Polish PiS delegates (18) are the mainstay of ACRE. When U.K. members finally leave the European Parliament, PiS will have only a few Bulgarians, Finns, and Italians as caucus colleagues. Unless, of course, Fidesz joins its Polish friends in ACRE, an unlikely event.)
Critics are not convinced by this argument. They look upon it as a moral issue. As Engel put it, “I wonder how easy it’s going to be, for instance, for Angela Merkel to run a general election campaign against the AfD when in your own European political party you have something that is very comparable to the AfD.”
The Fidesz members of the EPP are well aware of the delegation’s growing impatience with them and Viktor Orbán. Refraining from their usual arrogance and hectoring, they sent a letter to their colleagues in the EPP caucus in which they promised to “correct” their mistakes. I am appending the letter to this post.
Bruxinfo.hu, a Hungarian-language site dealing with European affairs, was told by Siegfried Mureşan, a Romanian member of EPP and its spokesman, that tomorrow morning the EPP leadership will ask Viktor Orbán to change the law on higher education in accordance with the opinion of EPP’s legal team within 30 days. Apparently, the legal scholars found the Hungarian law to be incompatible with four separate Union and/or international laws. Their findings would mandate fundamental changes in the law. A few cosmetic touch-ups won’t do. The last time Viktor Orbán said anything on the subject he didn’t sound as if he were ready for substantive changes in the legislation. So, we will see what happens tomorrow.
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Please find below a letter from the Members of the Hungarian EPP Delegation.
In recent days we have all experienced an increasing pressure on the European People’s Party on behalf of the European public media, the liberal and left wings of the political spectrum, universities, etc… This is not the first time that this is happening. We also understand, that many of your constituents are also asking you about what is going on in Hungary, or asking you to exercise pressure on your Hungarian colleagues.
We are writing this letter to give you first-hand background information and explanation to help you to answer these inquiries, and to understand the situation without the disturbance of the firm and steady political bias the European mainstream press has exercised constantly against Hungary and our prime minister.
Viktor Orbán, our prime minister, we in Fidesz, in your sister party, and Hungary have been always in the vanguard of political innovation since 1988. Since then, Fidesz was one of the major forces which transformed our country into a European democracy. Maybe the fact that we won two consecutive elections and presently we are way ahead in the opinion polls for the next year’s elections, is due to the fact that several times we tried uncharted waters and found bold new ways, and we were in constant consultation with the people, not only at the general elections in every four years.
In 2007 Hungary has started from a position worse than Greece. She was the first country, under the socialist government then that asked the IMF for help. Since 2010 with Orbán in government our country changed completely. At the moment we have zero inflation, our unemployment rate – including the youth unemployment ranks among the five lowest in the union. Our deficit has been within the limits of Maastricht in the last six years. We have had a steady growth rate between 2 and 4 percent in recent years. We created a work-based economy, with our next goal at close to reach full employment, namely everybody who wants to work will be able to. We also changed our social system considerably: instead of subsidies we provide work opportunities for people. We solved the huge Swiss franc-based mortgage crisis, and the disastrous semiprivate pension fund crisis, all which are now serving examples for other countries. We replaced our 1949 (communist) constitution with the first Hungarian democratic Charta ever. Not to speak about the successful protection of our external Schengen borders, which task some other member states failed?
We also admit that in all these activities and achievements we and particularly Viktor Orbán were under constant attacks for our bold and sometimes unorthodox solutions.
We are not perfect, not every experiment succeeded, but we are also flexible and ready to engage to substantial discussions about the future of our country and our common Europe. This is why PM Viktor Orbán decided to join us tomorrow again in the European Parliament to discuss questions of major importance for us. We always thought that discussions are much better ways of handling conflicts than unilateral declarations or double standard labelling, or spreading rumours without real foundations, or accepting the opposition criticism of our government at face value without further verification. We would also like to confirm that our party, Fidesz and our prime minister are committed Europeans. When we criticize certain measures of the Institutions, we do it for the sake of making it better, to help it to survive the blows. We are far away from the camp of those, nowadays emerging parties in Europe who fight Europe with the aim of destroying it. We are convinced, that the Union should change, considerably to conquer the challenges which lay ahead. And in the spirit of the Rome Declaration, we are keen to participate in the lively debate and in the action to re-launch Europe, as candidate Macron proposes as well from one of the great founding member states of the Union. We have ideas; we have experiences of renewal and innovation to contribute to this historic task.
We would like to remind you also, that in the recent debates around our country our government always played according to the rules. We are members of the club; we accepted not only the benefits but the burdens of membership. This is how we solved and closed the debates of the past on our press-law, on our new constitution, on our legislation on the judiciary with mutual satisfaction and declarations of acceptance with the European Commission. (According to the newest Judicial scoreboard, Hungary ranks among the best in terms of judicial independence.) We changed the adopted rules if it was necessary, we reversed regulations which did not meet the common standards. This attitude of our government has not changed. We fight for what we presume important for ourselves and for the common goals, even if the majority thinks otherwise, but we have always believed that in politics arguments and determination in fair debate can change majorities, minorities can become mainstream, and we are always ready to debate.
Many of you expressed to us, that you have found the tone and the language of our recent national consultation on state fixed utility prices, taxation, stopping migration and on NGO’s too offensive. What is true that in the lively pluralistic national political debate we use a straight political language in Hungary? Our opposition in Hungary does the same. Just read their recent mails directed to you by them in the last few weeks to verify. It is a Hungarian way of politics. Hungarian citizens are among the most pro-Europeans in the EU, largely due to the honest and open debates on key European issues we have carried out through national consultations in recent years.
We, on the other hand, find the Western straightjacketed, dull political language sometimes appalling and meaningless, unable to express the existing differences. Listening to that we understand why is the gap widening between the political class and the people. But we accept that, it is your country, you know it better. But please do not try to make us speak to the public in the bureaucratic, scientific language like bankers or technocrats do, because we will lose our political support. Take it as a style question, if you don’t like it and cut through please to the essence. But please do not compare us to the anti-European parties whose goal is to destroy our common Union, everything which was built in the last 70 years.
The national consultation raises the issues of present political debates; it tries to increase our public backing when we debate these issues in the EU Institutions. We presume that it is a normal way of involving the public to the debates which direction the Union should go. We do not want massive immigration; we want to keep the setting – in the name of subsidiarity – of the utility prices and taxation in national hands. We also want that if NGO’s take part in the political life, they should declare who is financing them, these rules are already applied in other participants: parties, politicians and the press in several countries. It is a matter of transparency. This is the same what we are trying to do here in the European Parliament with the Pieper-report, for instance.
In a previous mail we explained you already the situation around the university of George Soros in Budapest, so we can be short. From the new law on this it is crystal clear that no one wants to close down the CEU. In a calmer moment the rector of the university, the Canadian liberal professor Michael Ignatieff also admitted this, as he had done in the letter addressed recently to its staff and students, in which he states: nothing is threatening our university. The new regulation applies to 28 universities in Hungary and it only requires common standards to be fulfilled, and stop the situation that some non-EU universities enjoy greater business advantages than the European ones. The claim that Orbán closed the CEU is absurd. Even more absurd that this allegedly closed university is accusing the government that it was closed. We have been through of such evident false claims of the past. Some of you still may recall that the Hungarian opposition and the European press shouted in choir, together with Nellie Kroes, that the „only remaining voice of opposition” the Klub Rádió was shut down. In reality the radio never stopped even for a minute broadcasting, it is still on for the benefit of a lively, competitive media life in Hungary.
Dear Friend, much is on the table. Hungary, Fidesz and the EPP is attacked and put under pressure by several directions nowadays. We shared these thoughts and explanations with you by asking to be critical about the accusations. Again, we make mistakes, we are not perfect, but we are also ready to correct them. For that we need sincere and straight further conversations, in which we have been always ready to engage.
April 28, 2017