Once again, the European People’s Party (EPP) has been called, for the umpteenth time, to deal with its enfant terrible: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. The Hungarian Prime-Minister’s formation, Fidesz, is a member of the erstwhile centrist family that has dominated European politics for the last 20-odd years. However, that did not stop them from rolling out a poster campaign across the country against the EPP’s very own European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, portraying him, in tandem with (usual Orbán target) George Soros, as enemies of the nation. Both men have been trying to impose liberal migration policies in disregard and at the expense of the will of Hungarians, Fidesz’s propaganda goes.
That brought yet again to the surface the issue of Fidesz’s expulsion from the EPP. It is not for the first time that politicians that belong to the EPP family have voiced their support for exclusion: Alexander Stubb, Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, and President Juncker count themselves among the most vocal proponents of such correction. However, this week, even more leaders came out to the Commission President’s defence, Angela Merkel, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Manfred Weber being among them. “Enough is enough,” President Juncker declared.
Fidesz could be excluded from the party’s parliamentary group as early as this week. However, that move will be of little effect at this point.
For years, the European People’s Party has struggled to redefine its identity and strategy amid dwindling numbers and soaring forces to both their right and left. The choice was between openness and closedness, in very general terms. The party could either stay in the political centre, reinvent it by explaining it and by making it inclusive, thus reinforce it or move to the right, to counter a resurgence there. The latter solution was the easy one. One had only to adopt a more radical discourse to ride the wave of dissatisfaction. Orbán was a proponent of the latter strategy and one of its early adopters.
The EPP decided – for better or for worse – to follow him. Even if Orbán’s party is to be expelled, his legacy within the EPP will live on. It wouldn’t have been a problem had he been the exception; indeed, party bosses thought they were containing him. ‘It is better to keep him inside than let him find refuge among the extremists, risking further radicalisation’, everybody else was told, giving a false sense of control. But by keeping him inside to safeguard a slim parliamentary superiority without acting upon the repeated crossing of self-imposed red lines, an imaginary containment turned into contamination. Bits of Orbán’s protectionism, nativism, and fear of the other have found their way into most of the big parties of the family: Laurent Wauquiez’ Republicains in France, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in Italy, Pablo Casado’s Partido Popular in Spain, Sebastian Kurz’s Peoples Party in Austria have all turned to the right. Even Sweden’s Moderates have flirted with the extremists of the Sweden Democrats, not to mention Fidesz’s satellites in the neighbouring countries. After all, it was the Congress of the party that last autumn in Helsinki rejected Stubb’s openness for Weber’s closedness at 20 to 80 percent for the latter (Weber, a man who – according to his campaign video – feels safe and welcome in his Bavarian hometown, yet is seeking to upgrade his role in Brussels for the next five years, a place, one can imagine, where he feels unsafe and unwelcome by comparison.)
The EPP has been Orbánised and will remain so even were he to be expelled.
Fidesz’s potential exclusion has already been rendered ineffective: it will only serve a short-sighted electoral agenda ahead of the European elections in May. The battle was lost some time ago. Orbán has won, at least for now, and within the EPP. The EPP’s mantra of governing from the centre, a strategy that has brought the party to prominence, has been lost.
Perhaps, Europe too, has been lost in the process.