(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Ever-crafty Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is doing his best to make sure authoritarianism and an implacable stance on Muslim immigration are no obstacles to being considered a mainstream, center-right politician. Facing expulsion from the venerable Europe-wide party of which his political force, Fidesz, is a member, he has issued a rare apology — but not for the things that really make him toxic.
Whether the apology — or, more likely, a yet-to-come improved version of it — will be accepted is a litmus test for the European center-right, and for the man who would be president of the European Commission, Manfred Weber.
Fidesz, which started out as an anti-Communist liberal party while Hungary was still a Soviet satellite, joined the European People’s Party in 1996. In recent years, it has been a consistent winner for the EPP in European Parliament elections. Hungary accounts for less than 2 percent of the European Union’s total population, but the 11 Fidesz mandates in the current European Parliament make up 5 percent of the EPP’s total. In an election year when EPP representation is projected to drop, Orban’s track record as a proven election winner would be more than a little helpful — if it weren’t for Orban’s actions and views.
In power in Hungary since 2010, Orban has acted as a conventional center-right leader (in the vein of, say, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar or German Chancellor Angela Merkel) in one respect only: He’s been consistently fiscally conservative. In other ways, his admittedly illiberal approach to governing differed from the mainstream. He’s brought the country’s highest courts under government influence. He’s moved against independent news media, getting allies to buy up media outlets and doling out government advertising contracts to support them. He’s attacked nonprofit organizations as undesirable agents of foreign influence, and waged a vendetta against Hungarian-born financier George Soros, whom he accuses of trying to undermine his rule and flood Hungary and the rest of Europe with Muslim immigrants. He attacked the Soros-founded Central European University and forced it to more some operations from Budapest to Vienna. And he’s made one tub-thumping speech after another extolling Hungary’s sovereignty and denigrating the European Union as only far-right politicians had dared to do before him.
Some of these actions and speeches have long irritated other EPP member parties, which have called for the expulsion of Fidesz; after all, on a national level, these center-right forces have to fight off populists with views similar to Orban’s. But the EPP leadership resisted the calls, arguing that a centrist umbrella party should reflect a relatively broad spectrum of opinion. Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, the party of Weber, who leads the EPP group in the European Parliament, has been especially supportive of Orban: What he was saying, especially about immigration, many CSU members would like to say as loudly but didn’t quite dare.
This changed last month when Orban finally crossed a real red line as far as the EPP leaders were concerned: He broke the party discipline.
In February, the Hungarian government launched a poster campaign in which Soros stands behind the current European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, an EPP member. “You too have the right to know what Brussels is preparing!” the posters read: to weaken national border protections and introduce mandatory immigrant resettlement quotas.
Juncker knew before that Orban wasn’t a fan: Fidesz hadn’t supported his candidacy for the top commission post in 2014. But the posters made him and other EPP dignitaries madder than anything Orban had done before. “Enough is enough,” Juncker declared. The commission even issued an official rebuttal of the poster campaign — a move as unusual as the campaign itself.
Weber, too, could no longer cover up for Orban. Campaigning against one’s own party is unacceptable, he said.
On March 4, EPP leader Joseph Daul said 12 member parties from nine countries had requested that Fidesz be expelled or suspended from the broader group, and so the EPP Political Assembly would vote on it March 20. Orban was unapologetic in response: Although Fidesz has always clung to the EPP for the legitimacy and EU-level power it confers on its members, he said he wouldn’t compromise on key issues such as “the protection of Christian culture and migration.” If forced to leave the center-right party, he said he would seek an alliance with Poland’s governing nationalists, the Law and Justice party.
A compromise on migration, however, wasn’t required. Weber set out a three-point ultimatum: End the anti-EU campaign “immediately and permanently,” apologize to EPP member parties, and make sure the Central European University continues to operate in Budapest. This week, Weber traveled to the Hungarian capital; Juncker posters — but, reportedly, only the ones he could see on the drive from the airport — were covered up. But there was no immediate announcement that fences had been mended.
Instead, it transpired on Thursday that Orban had sent the leaders of other EPP member parties apology letters that touched on a specific point — his earlier reference to the parties that have called for Fidesz’s expulsion as “useful idiots.” “This is in fact a quote from Lenin," the avowed anti-Communist wrote, “with which I intended to criticize a certain policy and not certain politicians. I would hereby like to express my apologies, if you found my quote personally offensive.”
This is a weak — or one might even say insultingly weak — offering. One of the recipients, Belgian politician Wouter Beke, tweeted in response that he accepted the apology but saw no change in Orban’s respect for European values and insisted on Fidesz’s expulsion. Another, Finnish Finance Minister Petteri Orpo, tweeted that letters could change nothing at this point and actions were needed from Orban to stay in the EPP.
This isn’t promising for Orban — or for the EPP leaders who need the Fidesz votes and the support of their own voters who, more or less quietly, share Orban’s views. Orban provides a connection to the east European nationalists, whose cooperation will be important to Weber if he becomes commission president. But the obstinate Hungarian, who is fonder of brinkmanship than almost any other current European leader, can still fix things before Fidesz is kicked out of the EPP: At the very least, he can issue a better apology, lay off what he calls “Soros University” and pull down all the posters, just as Weber demanded.
None of this will force Orban to give up any of his views or reverse any of his domestic policies. If he’s not willing to give up even this little, there’ll be no justification for Fidesz’s continued membership in the EPP. The battle lines will be drawn much clearer both in the next European Parliament and between the center-right and the far right in general. I’d rather think, however, that both parties will actively seek a compromise in the few remaining days: European politics aren’t about clear battle lines but about coalition-building. Orban is testing for the maximum allowable degree of toxicity; it’s a useful, revealing exercise whatever the outcome.
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Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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