Two months before the EU elections, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party was suspended from the European People’s Party (EPP), the leading political family in the European Parliament.
After this suspension two contradictory narratives were created. Leader and Spitzenkandidat of the EPP Manfred Weber, and the EPP as a whole, could say that, with this decision, the party was standing up for European Christian democratic values and were united, since almost all delegates voted in favour of the proposal, while Viktor Orbán described it as a joint decision where Fidesz offered to suspend its membership, which was accepted by the EPP, rather than it being pushed out by other EPP members.
However, the situation is not as favourable for either side as it seems at first glance. Although the suspension was done early enough to draw up new campaign strategies and did not appear to harm the EPP’s election chances, in the end the political group has become even more divided than before. Moreover, while the EPP’s dominant role within the European Parliament is not currently at risk, its projected seat total would shrink significantly if Fidesz MEPs would leave the party for good. Ultimately, this could weaken Manfred Weber’s chances of becoming Commission President.
The suspension also had an immediate negative impact on Orbán’s room for manoeuvre. It is an open secret in Hungary that the Prime Minister has ambitions for a greater role in European politics, even if up to now he has been reshaping EU policy by launching an anti-immigration and national sovereignty-oriented movement.
To achieve these goals, Fidesz needs to stay in the biggest party group in the European Parliament, otherwise the chances of influencing European policy will swiftly diminish.
Although there has been a strong rise in nationalist populist parties since the last EU elections, the centre-right is set to remain the biggest group in the EU legislature after the elections. The parties to the right of the EPP have so far been organised into three different groups, so the question is whether this election will be able to unite them into a greater force. In any case, Fidesz would not have a leading role in any new Eurosceptic formation, as the Italian Lega Nord, the French Rassemblement National, and the Polish PiS will almost certainly send more members to the European Parliament than Fidesz.
It is therefore not surprising that after the suspension, Orbán clearly expressed his intention to keep Fidesz in the EPP, but as the EU elections near, a clear change can be felt in the Prime Minister’s communication regarding EPP membership. In his speech opening the European Parliamentary election campaign, he talked about the relationship between his party and the EPP, making Fidesz’s membership in the centre-right bloc dependent on the direction the political group will take after the elections. If it is a “liberal direction towards liberal European empire-building and the Europe of immigrants, you can be sure Fidesz won’t follow it,” he said.
At this point it is not certain that after the election Fidesz will join the EPP faction.
Orbán’s party constantly follows public opinion, and with Fidesz supporters still largely pro-EU, they could see leaving the EPP as a deterioration in the relationship with the EU, so his decision will probably depend on political calculation. If anti-immigration populist parties perform well in the May elections, it would not be surprising if Fidesz leaves the EPP to join them.