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The Orban Effect: EU Conservatives Have a Hungary Problem

By James Kirchick

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's heavy-handed policies in Budapest are not making life easier for EU conservatives. Zoom
DPA

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's heavy-handed policies in Budapest are not making life easier for EU conservatives.

Much of Europe agrees that Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has trampled on European Union values and infringed on constitutional democracy. His fellow European conservatives have largely kept quiet, but that could soon change.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament's Rapporteur for the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs released a draft report concluding that the most recent amendment to the Hungarian constitution violates fundamental European Union values. Specifically, the report criticized measures that restrict the scope of the country's Constitutional Court and preventing it from striking down laws passed with the support of two-thirds of parliament.

The contents of the report were not a surprise. When the Hungarian parliament passed the amendment in March, they did so despite concerns voiced by the EU and in the face of a request by the secretary general of the Council of Europe to delay the vote until the measure could be analyzed by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's advisory body on international law.

But the draft report's findings are distinctly uncomfortable for Europe's leading center-right political group, the European People's Party, to which Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union belongs. As the European Union decides whether to penalize Hungary for disregarding European values, pressure is mounting on the center-right political group, the largest bloc in European Parliament, to censure or expel its Hungarian member, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's ruling Fidesz party.

Of particular concern is that the new amendment enshrines a series of measures previously deemed unconstitutional by the country's Constitutional Court, leading many critics to accuse the Orbán government of bypassing the court to get its way.

European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has warned that if Hungary does not heed the warnings of the Justice Committee report, it risks being subject to an "infringement procedure," or penalty. Also possible, though unlikely, is that the EU could take the unprecedented step of invoking Article 7 of the EU Treaty, the "nuclear option" in Reding's words, which would revoke Hungary's voting rights in the European Council.

How to React?

This month's report is only the latest element in a flood of international criticism aimed at Hungary since Fidesz swept into power three years ago with a large majority. Awkwardly for Europe's center-right parties, the loudest criticism has come from the center-left. With EU action seemingly imminent, however, the European People's Party (EPP), the center-right's home on the European political stage, must determine how to react.

The EPP is the dominant political grouping in the European Parliament and it counts Fidesz as a loyal member. Orbán himself is a vice president of the party. And publicly, the EPP has stood by Fidesz, with Chairman Joseph Daul stating: "You can't expel people or parties just because you disagree with them." But the relationship is now coming under increasing scrutiny.

Guy Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium and leader of the European Parliamentary group Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that there are a "number of people inside the EPP who came to me individually who are absolutely not pleased by the fact that the EPP is backing all these stupidities of Orbán and they want it to have a more critical view."

Verhofstadt says that the EPP should follow the example that his coalition set over a decade ago when it expelled the Austrian Freedom Party, which had drifted to the nationalist right. "But the official line is to say Orbán is vice president of the party and so we are behind him. Which is not a very courageous way to handle it."

Verhoftstadt has been joined in his criticism by the leaders of the European Green and Socialist blocs, both of whom have called for the enforcement of Article 7 against Hungary.

Fidesz, for its part, has sought to portray the draft report from the parliamentary Justice Committee as cynical politics-as-usual. "The document is nothing but the opening of the left wing's European Parliament election campaign," said Fidesz members of European Parliament in a statement. "This unprecedented process does nothing other than set its sights on the constitutional colonisation of Hungary, which runs counter to European Union legal principles and values."

'Must Be Taken Seriously'

But it is not just the European left which has criticized the Hungarian government. Justice Commissioner Reding has been one of the most outspoken critics of Orbán's policies -- and she herself is a member of the EPP. As is European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, whose warning to the Hungarian government to delay passage of the most recent amendment went unheeded by Budapest. This has led to some uncomfortable rumblings within both the EPP and in Hungary. In March, Budapest accused Reding of "waging private war against Hungary."

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had long resisted calls to publicly criticize her fellow Hungarian conservatives, issued a rare rebuke in March. Following a meeting with Hungarian president János Áder, her government issued a statement noting that Merkel had "spoken critically about the Hungarian parliament's further amendments to the constitution" and that she had urged "a responsible use of the two-thirds majority the Hungarian government has at its disposal in the parliament." The statement noted that "the concerns of Hungary's European partners and friends about the curtailing of the powers of the constitutional court, among other issues, must be taken seriously."

Following an EPP summit in Croatia last month, a Hungarian-language newspaper in Romania reported that the pan-European party was considering expelling Fidesz, whose leaders were simultaneously exploring the possibility of joining the euro-skeptic Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, an EU political bloc comprised primarily of the British Conservatives, the Polish Law and Justice party and the Czech Civic Democrats. The EPP immediately denied the report, with a spokeswoman telling the BBC that "nobody there ever asked for the expulsion of Fidesz from the EPP."

If the European Commission -- led by EPP figures like Barroso and Reding -- does call for penalties to be imposed on the Hungarian government, the EPP will have little choice but to change its tune. But with Fidesz accounting for 17 lawmakers in the EPP bloc, the sixth-largest group within the party, it seems unlikely that the EPP will make a move on its own. Even Orbán's controversial statement earlier this month, in which he likened German criticism of his policies to the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944, did not provoke a serious rebuke from Merkel's CDU.

"We are in a situation where the Socialists and Liberals and Greens are instrumentalizing this," one Brussels-based, German source close to the EPP told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The more they tell us to condemn Fidsez openly, the less likely it is that we will. That's party politics, that's how it works. It's a fortress mentality."

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