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Europe’s largest party finally stood up to Hungary’s autocracy. What took so long?

The European People’s Party moves forward without Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party.

- March 14, 2021

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán caused a stir by taking his far-right Fidesz party out of the center-right European People’s Party, although new rules EPP members passed in late February probably would have led to Fidesz being expelled anyway. Orbán and his party have transformed Hungary from a democratic state to an electoral autocracy, contravening the European Union’s fundamental values on preserving democracy and the rule of law.

So why did the EPP, the European Parliament’s largest political group, tolerate an autocratic party within its ranks for so long? The EPP endured years of criticism and voted down three European Parliament resolutions aimed at sanctioning Hungary. Our research explains why most — but not all — EPP members appeased the far right in the past. Even if Fidesz has left, the EPP will probably still be divided over autocracy.

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Politicians are self-interested — but self-interest can be complicated

The standard argument has been that center-right parties such as the EPP have supported far-right parties such as Fidesz because it is in their collective self-interest. And this argument explains a lot. The EPP was willing to protect Fidesz from censure by the European Parliament in exchange for its political support in passing legislation and securing key political appointments.

But a party grouping like the EPP is made up of individual politicians, and their interests may vary. Some may not want to support Fidesz or other autocratic parties or governments. In a recent paper, we looked at this support, by investigating how all EPP members of the European Parliament (MEPs) had voted on 24 measures involving the fundamental protection of European rights between 2011 and 2019. Four of these measures targeted Hungary directly and seven targeted other E.U. members such as Poland and Slovakia — while the rest were not directed at any particular country.

We found that individual EPP MEPs were 20 percent less likely to vote for a resolution against Hungary, compared with any other vote, supporting the notion of a specific implied deal between the EPP and Fidesz. But that wasn’t the only thing going on — other motivations were also important.

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First of all, we found that center-right parties that play a role in government are 20 percent less likely than those in opposition to confront their radical allies. Our research suggests that national governments may have leaned on their MEPs in the EPP to vote against resolutions on fundamental values, probably to preserve good government-to-government relations with other E.U. members that are drifting toward autocracy.

Second, and unsurprisingly, MEPs from countries that score relatively lower on measures of liberal democracy are far less likely to vote in favor of resolutions on fundamental values. These MEPs may worry that future resolutions might target their own governments, so it would make sense to show solidarity now.

Third, less liberal-leaning MEPs also have ideological reasons to band together. EPP MEPs who belong to national parties closer to the far-right end of the spectrum are 30 percent less likely to vote in favor of the resolutions. It’s likely that these MEPs support the agenda of governments that attack E.U. fundamental values. Those who are Euroskeptic (i.e., they are opposed to European integration) vote similarly — they are more likely to think that the European institutions shouldn’t be meddling in the domestic affairs of member states.

And a final point: Geography is important. MEPs from the “Visegrad” countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) are 27 percent more likely to oppose sanctions against backsliding states. In contrast, center-right partisans from more liberal and rule-of-law abiding countries such as Belgium, Finland and the Netherlands have more consistently voted in favor of resolutions to protect fundamental values.

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Without Fidesz, interests may be shifting

The bright side for E.U. values is that the collective self-interest of right-wing organizations can change. As R. Daniel Kelemen explained here in the Monkey Cage, the EPP’s strategic calculus gradually changed, as the reputational costs of sheltering Fidesz grew, and as Orbán became more belligerent toward the EPP leadership. In September 2018, an EPP majority voted for the first time, together with other groups, to begin legal proceedings against Hungary.

The center-right group is also strongly divided on fundamental values. Dissent is generally rare within the EPP. On average between 2009 and 2019, 92.5 percent of EPP MEPs voted together across all policy issues in the European Parliament. Strikingly, over fundamental values the average voting cohesion in the EPP dropped to 67.3 percent. And the disagreement about Hungary was even starker, with average voting cohesion of just 59 percent. The data suggest not only that fundamental values are contentious within the EPP, but that the level of contentiousness has increased over time.

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Without Fidesz, the EPP no longer has a broad strategic reason to tolerate attacks on fundamental values. Moving forward, this could be an opportunity for the party to change gear and scrutinize the undemocratic practices of its members more thoroughly.

However, even if the EPP’s collective self-interest is shifting, MEPs will continue to have different interests and ideological preferences. Ideological rifts within the party are likely to increase over time. Under electoral pressure from the far right, many of Europe’s center-right parties continue to shift further to the right on some issues and have become increasingly skeptical of European integration. Because tolerance for autocracy grows as parties move further to the right, this trend may diminish the EPP’s capacity to speak with one voice in defense of fundamental values, even if Fidesz is no longer a member.

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Lise Herman (@DrLiseHerman) is a lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter.

Julian Hoerner (@JulianMHoerner) is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.

Joseph Lacey (@JJJLacey) is an assistant professor of political theory at University College Dublin.