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Viktor Orban turned Hungary away from democracy. Now his European allies are turning on him.

Orban’s Fidesz party had to leave the European People’s Party Group to avoid a humiliating expulsion

- March 7, 2021

Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party rules Hungary, and it has long been a member of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) at the European Union level. Now, Orban’s far-right party is leaving the EPP’s grouping in the European Parliament, ahead of a vote that would probably have expelled it. This is a big development, which suggests that the European Union won’t be as comfortable a home for budding autocrats as it has been in recent years.

Orban has effectively turned Hungary into an autocracy

Over the past decade, Orban has dismantled his country’s democracy and replaced it with what ratings bodies label a hybrid electoral-authoritarian regime. But Hungary is a member of the European Union, which claims to be a club of democracies that respect the rule of law. So how did democracy’s decline in Hungary happen?

It was possible only because Orban enjoyed the political protection of the EPP, which is the most powerful force in E.U. politics, forming the biggest bloc in the European Parliament, dominating the European Council of member states and providing the past three presidents of the European Commission. The EPP brings together mostly center-right member parties, including Germany’s Christian Democrats, France’s Republicans, Italy’s Forza Italia and, until now, Orban’s Fidesz.

Orban’s party provided votes for the EPP in the European Parliament and helped the EPP maintain its dominance, helping elect German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s protegee Ursula von der Leyen to the commission presidency last year. In exchange, the EPP’s leaders and its powerful member parties such as Merkel’s Christian Democrats protected Orban and prevented the E.U. from taking more forceful action to resist Hungary’s slide into autocracy.

But the EPP’s cozy bargain with Orban unraveled this week. Why did it break down, and what happens next?

Orban kept crossing red lines

Beginning in 2017, the EPP set out red lines, threatening Orban’s party with expulsion if it crossed them. But the threats were hollow. Fidesz broke E.U. norms on academic freedom, media pluralism, judicial independence, and the treatment of nongovernmental organizations and refugees, without the EPP delivering on its warnings. What finally led to action was when Orban started publicly attacking the EPP leadership.

In 2019, Orban plastered Hungary with billboards promoting a false claim that Jean-Claude Juncker, the EPP-affiliated European Commission president, was working with George Soros to flood Hungary with refugees. That led 14 EPP member parties to call for a vote on his ouster. However, some powerful members — including Merkel’s Christian Democrats — continued to support Orban. EPP leaders avoided a vote on expulsion by declaring that his party would be “suspended” pending the outcome of an inquiry, which they never completed. This was mostly a symbolic measure. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from Fidesz remained part of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, allowing the EPP to benefit from the votes of Orban’s MEPs, while he continued to enjoy tacit protection.

This fell apart last week, in the wake of another attack by Orban’s party on the EPP’s leadership. The final confrontation erupted late last year over a new regulation that allowed the suspension of E.U. funds destined for member states that had violated the bloc’s norms on the rule of law. EPP leaders backed this proposal, but Orban adamantly opposed it, and Fidesz’s leader in the European Parliament compared the leader of the EPP Group to a member of the Gestapo.

That provoked new discussions over the expulsion of Fidesz from the EPP Group. On March 3, EPP MEPs voted overwhelmingly for changes to their rules of procedure that would allow them to expel a national delegation of MEPs. The new rules clearly targeted Orban’s party. Instead of enduring a humiliating expulsion, Orban announced that his party would leave the EPP Group. By week’s end, Markus Söder, the head of Bavaria’s Christian Socialist Union party and a likely candidate to replace Angela Merkel as German chancellor, had announced that the CSU wanted Fidesz to leave the EPP party as well as the group in the Parliament.

Orban’s departure may shake up European politics

Orban is shopping for a new political home. He declared that he wants to build a new right-wing alliance for those “who do not want migrants, who do not want multiculturalism, who have not descended into LGBTQ lunacy.” But it will be hard for him to create a new European grouping quickly. He is more likely to join the right-wing nationalist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) party, which includes Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy (which was founded by admirers of Mussolini).

Now that the powerful EPP is no longer protecting Orban, it will be easier for the E.U. to stand up to democratic backsliding in Hungary and elsewhere — aspiring autocrats in other E.U. member states will see that they can lose protection if they push too far. E.U. measures that require unanimity will remain blocked, as Poland’s authoritarian-populist government will side with Orban. However, the European Commission now will be more likely to use its tools to discipline Orban.

Furthermore, Orban’s ouster from the EPP will hurt him at home, where he has benefited from the understanding that his regime was backed by powerful governments such as Germany’s. Many Hungarians will view his unwilling departure as humiliating, while the domestic opposition, which is preparing to compete in parliamentary elections on a playing field tilted to favor Orban’s party, will take courage from his apparent moment of weakness.

R. Daniel Kelemen (@rdanielkelemen) is a professor of political science and law and the Jean Monnet chair in European Union politics at Rutgers University.