The Hungarian ruling Fidesz party’s delegation to the European Parliament announced on 3 March that they would leave the EPP parliamentary group after the latter approved changes to its internal rules, allowing the caucus to suspend or expel entire national delegations instead of individual MEPs only. Later, Fidesz left the EPP party family as well. It is, therefore, crucial to assess how the end of the Fidesz-EPP relationship will influence the Hungarian cabinet’s ability to represent national interests in the EU and the future of PM Orbán on the European political scene. In short: the decision constitutes a blow to Hungary, but not necessarily to Fidesz.
MEPs affiliated with Fidesz remained full-fledged members of the EPP’s parliamentary group after the party’s suspension from the EPP party family in spring 2019. Based on the data collected by Votewatch and Political Capital’s own research, they also continued to be mostly loyal to the EPP Group’s stances in their votes. After leaving the largest parliamentary caucus in the European Parliament, the 12 Fidesz MEPs have lost access to the resources and network of the EPP Group, their seats in parliamentary committees, and opportunities to become rapporteurs and to speak during plenaries. Importantly, the European representatives of the larger Hungarian ruling party might have a much harder time garnering broad support for legislative amendments they propose.
These developments will lead to the further deterioration of Fidesz’s (and, by extension, Hungary’s) lobbying potential on the European scene, constituting an additional blow in this regard after the party’s suspension from the EPP party family restricted its opportunity to formulate the policies of the European People’s Party via, among other opportunities, the meetings of EPP-affiliated cabinet members.
The Hungarian ruling party, pro-government think tanks and the government’s media empire say that the EPP has merged into the leftist-liberal block in Europe, that leaving the EPP will allow Fidesz to truly represent Christian values, and that the EPP only “held Fidesz back” in order to justify why leaving was the right decision to make. However, they held different views on the matter until quite recently: in late 2019, pro-government media reported that first the European People’s Party and then the EP approved MEP Tamás Deutsch’s proposal on increasing the cohesion funds by EUR 3 billion, which was hailed as a “huge breakthrough” at the time. Pro-government organs also happily highlighted in December 2020 that the EPP Group “condemned Ukrainian threats against MEP Andrea Bocskor.”
The Hungarian ruling party never intended to leave the EPP until 3 March. Up until then, they did everything in their power to remain connected to the largest EP caucus. For instance, PM Viktor Orbán proposed in December that the EPP and Fidesz should continue as a parliamentary group alliance based on the pre-2009 EPP-ED model. This would have ensured that the ruling party would not face the above-mentioned disadvantages in the European Parliament. Late last year, Tamás Deutsch apologized for his comments comparing parliamentary group leader Manfred Weber’s style to the Gestapo in order to avoid expulsion from the group. After he was “only” suspended by EPP Group members, he accepted their decision. Fidesz has also written regular letters to EPP leaders to explain that the Hungarian government, in fact, never breaches the principles of the rule of law.
Therefore, the larger Hungarian ruling party, up until it saw that its fate was sealed, seemed to have been well aware that being an EPP Group member is crucial for successfully representing Hungarian interests in the EU, even after Fidesz lost its political protection in the caucus when 58% of that caucus approved the Sargentini Report condemning the Orbán government for its democratic record. However, the math changed once the entire Fidesz delegation faced suspension: Fidesz’s party political interests dictated that they must strike first by leaving the EPP, and sell it as a victory to voters at home.
Party politics thus came before national interests. Fidesz’s influence stands diminished on the European level, which harms Hungary as well, since the ruling party will have less opportunities to push for Hungarian interests on issues that are rarely mentioned in the public discourse but affect the lives of the vast majority of Hungarians, such as the Digital Services Act. The next question is: where does Fidesz go now?
The ruling party has three main options to choose from. First, they will most likely try to negotiate an agreement about a parliamentary group alliance with the EPP, as proposed by PM Orbán in December 2020. However, due to the increasing animosity between the two sides, this scenario is highly unlikely. The second option for the Hungarian ruling party is joining the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which is dominated by the Polish ruling PiS party, a key Fidesz ally. One advantage of the ECR group over the far-right Identity and Democracy Group (ID) is that it is closer to the center of the political spectrum, so it does not face the same cordon sanitaire as ID. Thus, the ECR would allow for better representation of Hungarian interests than ID would.
The third widely-discussed option, and the one regularly promoted in pro-government circles, is building a “new European right,” which would presumably involve cooperation between the ECR, ID, and some unaffiliated MEPs. However, this plan faces some obstacles. First, there are considerable political differences between members of the ECR and ID; for instance, many in the former group do not oppose European integration outright, while many in the latter do. Second, if the Hungarian ruling party wants to maintain at least some form of cooperation with the German ruling CDU-CSU, they would have to avoid a high-level partnership with the AfD (in the ID group).
Nevertheless, the “new European right” plan is used by Hungarian pro-government media to depict PM Viktor Orbán to Fidesz’s electorate as a key politician on the European level. Should this plan materialize, it would constitute a considerable victory for the Hungarian premier domestically, at least in the eyes of his supporters, but the EU-level utility of this group would be questionable, as the caucus, albeit the second or third-largest in the EP, would most likely be highly fragmented and unable to vote in a unified manner. It is entirely possible that Fidesz will once again end up choosing its future European allies based on party interests instead of what would serve Hungary best.
Whatever Fidesz decides, the ruling party will join a parliamentary force smaller than the EPP and certainly more on the fringes of European decision-making. It will, therefore, be unable to completely recoup the losses of leaving the EPP Group. However, there are a few notable saving graces for Fidesz as well. First, the smaller Hungarian ruling force, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), remains a member of the EPP, albeit the influence of its one MEP in the 175-strong caucus is minimal. Nevertheless, this offers a chance for continued information exchange between the EPP and Fidesz. Second, the Hungarian ruling party could still cooperate with the German center-right ruling parties to some extent, as long as Fidesz avoids working closely with the AfD, although the potential for working with the CDU-CSU will partly depend on who ends up as its candidate for chancellor: based on their previous statements on Fidesz, CDU head Armin Laschet looks to be less of a hardliner on the Hungarian ruling party than Markus Söder would be. Third, the break-up is not without advantages for Fidesz. After leaving the EPP, the ruling party will be free of any “mainstream” pressure on the European level, so it might be able to represent increasingly obstructive stances, especially on topics decided by unanimity in the Council, which would then be sold domestically as proof of Viktor Orbán’s crucial role in the EU.
As far as the EPP is concerned, losing 12 MEPs is a considerable blow, even for the largest EP caucus. However, its lead over the second-largest force in Parliament remains substantial, so nothing is currently threatening its central role in European politics. In the long term, the departure of the Fidesz delegation might even help the EPP, as it can present a more united front to the outside world and can stop defending itself against the allegation that it aids illiberal regimes within the EU – at least temporarily.
Overall, it seems certain that no matter where Fidesz ends up on the European political scene, its influence over European decision-making will diminish in most of the cases where unanimity is not required for EU laws to pass. Just how serious the effect of leaving the EPP is will become clear once the Hungarian ruling party finds its new place on the European scene. Nevertheless, domestically, Fidesz’s decision will have little political effect: the 2022 general election will primarily be a referendum on the Orbán government’s 12 years since 2010, and its outcome will be influenced primarily by the state of the economy, not European party politics. In fact, no longer being a member of the EPP will allow the ruling party to run an even more intensely anti-EU campaign in the months leading up to the election, rhetoric that is widely popular among the Fidesz voter base.