Though Viktor Orbán’s narrative of illiberalism as the natural next step in the evolution of Christian-conservatism suffered another major blow on the international stage, the recent departure of Fidesz from the European People’s Party (EPP) will have little to no domestic implications.
The European People Party’s three-year-long soap opera came to an end last week when shortly before a vote on the reformation of expulsion rules which would have likely been used against Fidesz, Viktor Orbán announced his party is leaving the EPP’s parliamentary faction. In his radio interview last week, Orbán also announced that they are likely to leave the EPP altogether soon as well.
A question of when, not if
Fidesz’s departure was more of a question of when not if, but the timing came as a surprise for some.
Though at first glance the timing is indeed somewhat unexpected, it is worth bearing in mind that recently Fidesz lost its Brussels strongman, József Szájer, meaning the party became significantly less able to represent its interest within the EPP. December’s row regarding the allocation of EU funds subject to maintaining the rule of law may also have contributed to the discontent with Fidesz in EPP circles.
Finally, the upcoming elections in Germany, where a Conservative-Green coalition might result in a tougher approach by the German government to rule of law violations in Hungary, may also have been a reason why the CDU-CSU dominated People’s Party deemed it was better to act now than later.
The EPP will not remain without a representative from the Hungarian governing parties. The forgotten man of the hour, KDNP (a party that officially forms a coalition with Fidesz in Hungary but has very little actual significance in practice) MEP György Hölvényi will remain in the group.
A major and perhaps fatal blow?
Fidesz’s departure will likely have more significant implications in Europe than in Hungary. Crucially, given that as the largest party in the European Parliament, the EPP delegates the most committee members and leaders, Fidesz MEPs will have a much smaller say in proposing, developing, and amending EU legislation. This makes it more difficult to shape EU law according to the party’s economic priorities.
Fidesz currently sit with the independents, however given independent MEPs’ widely perceived status as being in no man’s land, that is likely to change soon. As Fidesz invested heavily in its Brussels apparatus recently, it is certain that they are ready to build new alliances. For now, there seem to be three options.
The most likely is that Fidesz will join the ECR group, home of their greatest European ally PiS and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia who also tend to speak warmly of Viktor Orbán. The ECR could do with some increase in numbers since as a result of the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU, British Conservatives are no longer sitting with the group. However, some ECR members such as Flemish nationalist N-VA already expressed their uneasiness with Fidesz joining the group.
Another option mentioned in some media outlets is the openly far-right ID grouping, currently the home of Matteo Salvini’s Lega and German Alternative für Deutschland. An argument supporting this option is that earlier this year, Hungary’s foreign minister Péter Szijjártó flew around Europe visiting the Dutch, Danish, and Finnish members of the group.
However, Fidesz is unlikely to join ID. Firstly, Viktor Orbán is extremely skilled at realpolitik, therefore he will not join a group of parties that are unlikely to gain power anytime soon. And according to rumours in Brussels, the sole member of this group who has a serious chance of doing so eventually, Matteo Salvini, is already eyeing Fidesz’s place in the EPP. Secondly, due to Orbán’s reliance on German capital and therefore to an extent the governing CDU, it would be difficult for him to sit in the same grouping as AfD, a party which CDU-CSU utterly condemn domestically.
Finally, Fidesz could also use its newly built Brussels infrastructure and good relations with parties in both the ECR and ID to form a brand new group with the combination of parties from the two groupings before the mid-term reshuffling of parliamentary positions in 2022.
The last major European implication is that Fidesz’s narrative regarding illiberalism being the natural next stage of mainstream European Christian-Conservatism suffered an important and perhaps fatal blow. By leaving the EPP, Fidesz will be unable to make the claim that they are a mainstream conservative party. This means other conservative forces on the continent might treat them with less significance than they used to.
Little to no damage in Hungary
The reason why the affair is unlikely to affect domestic Hungarian politics in any significant way is that this is something that everyone in Hungary already knows. Conservative voters and intellectuals who are disappointed with Fidesz already flocked to the movement of Hódmezővásárhely mayor Péter Márki-Zay, lent their votes to Jobbik, or chose one of the few independent conservative parties that have sprung up in the last few years and those who are satisfied with the Hungarian government and its policies will not change their minds just because of the EPP.
On the plus side for Fidesz, Orbán supporters might even be mobilised further by last week’s developments as it is being communicated through the narrative of the Prime Minister’s eternal freedom fight against Brussels. However, Viktor Orbán and his party will be fully aware that simply mobilising their most loyal supporters will not be enough in the Battle Royale of 2022. Undecided voters might even be turned off by particularly intense Brussels-bashing rhetorics.
For the opposition, the departure is somewhat valuable because despite jumping before pushed, even some Fidesz voters will acknowledge that last week’s events were a defeat for Viktor Orbán on a European level, a rare sight to behold (even if it seems to be becoming more frequent after last year’s budget spat). This is reinforced by Fidesz’s initially confused communications.
Before Orbán and cabinet member Gergely Gulyás confirmed that Fidesz will also leave the party, not just the parliamentary faction, Fidesz vice-president Katalin Novák had stated that whether Fidesz will leave the EPP altogether is a question for the future. Orbán tends to know exactly how far to go but it seems he miscalculated his room for manoeuvre on this occasion.
Those who fear Fidesz might get radicalised further upon leaving the EPP should bear in mind that the People’s Party, and most importantly its German members, allowed Orbán to be radicalised already. If anything, the EPP even facilitated the process by forming the protecting umbrella of seemingly right-of-centre affiliation around Fidesz in Brussels.
Fidesz’s departure from the EPP is likely to do little to no damage in Hungary, but it inevitably scars Viktor Orbán on a European level at a time when the star of populist illiberalism already seems to be waning on the continent.
By Ábel Bede
Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and has two degrees in History from Durham University. He specialised in Central Europan history and has been contributing to Kafkadesk since 2019. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!