Weber: There is no special treatment for Viktor Orban in EPP

Manfred Weber: "We see the economic problems and political chaos in London. That's what happens when you follow the populists." [EPA-EFE/DAVID HECKER]

For the European People’s Party, it is clear that Europe must stand by its principles and defend the rule of law, Manfred Weber, the head of the EPP group in the European Parliament, told EURACTIV Poland.

He insisted that the EPP is not turning a blind eye on Hungary’s Viktor Orban and giving him a special treatment.  “It is time for leaders to act, talk and be frank with each other”, he said and added he would really want “the Council members to finally talk about” the possible violations of fundamental EU values.

Manfred Weber is a German MEP, the head of the European People’s Party (EPP) group and its Spitzenkandidat for the European Elections 2019.

He spoke to EURACTIV Poland’s Karolina Zbytniewska.

Will Brexit happen?

This is a key question! But I do not think it is predictable, given what is going on in London. Every week, every day we hear breaking news from London – it is a chaotic situation, full of uncertainties. Hopefully, it shows other Europeans that it is better to reform the European Union than to leave or destroy it.

Most British MEPs represent Conservative Party. So, if Brexit happens, how will it influence the balance of power on the European political scene?

Some would say that the UK is traditionally a very liberal country, a very market-oriented one. So, the economic voice of London has always been there. But frankly speaking, I do not see it anymore, because they have decided to leave the biggest open, free trade area in the world. That is why – if they leave – in a lot of future-oriented fields we will not have any more blockades posed by the Brits. That is the major issue for me.

Throughout the last 2 years, in such areas as foreign affairs, security and defence – where they were always reluctant, always careful, and always blocked important initiatives –  we have already seen a lot of successfully implemented policies – for example, PESCO or the European Defence Fund. Such developments were impossible with the Brits present at the negotiation table. Today, it is all possible. Now, we can do more together.

You are talking about the future of the EU. Interestingly, at the recent CDU Congress in Hamburg, not much was said about this issue. Also the figure of Macron – who acts as a leader of the Europe-wide discussion about the shape of Europe’s reforms – was omitted from the discussion like a ‘hot potato’.

I see this as a positive thing. Because in a campaign that is all about the election of the next leader, it is better to debate things that divide you. Therefore, the three candidates for the new CDU leader did not talk about Europe, because they all believe in Europe. That was not a critical issue during this campaign. Everyone sees CDU as a pro-European party of Germany in the spirit of Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.

But I am not asking about being pro-Europe. I am asking about the vision of the European Union’s future.

Absolutely, I only repeat that the reason it was not discussed is that we all share our pro-European stance. And you are right, the debate preceding next year’s European election should not be about ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Europe, because it is our reality. It should be focused on the direction in which we want it to go.

And in which direction you would want Europe to go, if you become the new European Commission president? You are the lead candidate, the Spitzenkandidat, of the EPP, the biggest political group in Europe, so there is a big chance you will be Juncker’s successor.

I want to guarantee the citizens of the EU that we will win back control over our borders, and illegal migration will be stopped. It must be tamed, unconditionally. People who vote for us will get effective solutions, like the ones Boyko Borisov is introducing in Bulgaria with respect to the Turkish border. If the fence is needed, we are ready to build one, because we want to protect the European border.

The second thing for me, to make my political agenda as concrete and precise as possible, is the enlargement question. I think that Turkey cannot become a member of the EU. If I become the president of the Commission, I will stop any talks on that topic. Strong relationship – yes, membership – no. We are neighbours, and so we have to work together closely, there is no doubt about it.

And the third example of what I intend to do. As I said in Helsinki, where I was nominated for the Spitzenkandidat, as many as 40% of Europeans will experience cancer in their life. Therefore, as the EC president I would present an initiative – or a master plan – to fight cancer. It will combine all 27 national expert capacities and research budgets and I hope that it will help us find a solution to conquer cancer. That would be a dream come true for me.

Researchers consider it possible, it is only a matter of research capacity and money. This achievement would make us proud about what we have achieved to make the world better and would let us escape the current trap of a crisis mindset. And Poles, Germans, Austrians or the Spanish will have a tangible proof of how much we can achieve, if only we work together.

I want to run an optimistic, positive campaign to counterbalance all the populists and extremists who just play on people’s fears and concerns.

Sounds optimistic, indeed. And as you mention populists and extremists you say you want to counterbalance, why are you allowing Orban’s Fidesz party to stay in the EPP?

Within our party, there is no special treatment when it comes to the fundamental principles – rule of law, democracy of the freedom of expression.

Is there not, really?

Not at all. One concrete proof for this was the September vote on Article 7, which is a so-called ‘nuclear option’ to be used against a state where the rule of law is damaged. Me and my group in a large majority voted for imposing Article 7 procedure on Budapest. In the same vein, we also supported Article 7 votes against what has been done about the rule of law in Poland. A lot of my EPP colleagues voted in the same manner and that is why we have jumped over a 2/3 majority needed to trigger Article 7. So, we made it real. Not Socialists, not other parties.

We must defend the rule of law in the EU. But what we do with Hungary is a party-neutral mechanism, because it is not a single party that is a problem. That is why in January we will present a new binding mechanism sanctioning breaches of rule of law, for the better future of this continent. We have to stand by our principles, under all circumstances. For the EPP it is crystal clear.

I hear what you are saying. Still, for many, keeping Orban in the EPP undermines your party’s ethical legitimacy. The rule of law and liberal democracy you claim to stand up for is in opposition with what is going on in Hungary: muzzling the press, fighting against NGOs and educational institutions, xenophobia and anti-Semitism channelled in hatred against George Soros. It is all against your fundamentals.

That is why there is no special treatment for Viktor Orban. We activated the Article 7 procedure and…

Yes, but to make it actually work you need 4/5 in the European Council which will not be achieved.

That is why I would really ask the Council members to finally talk about this. Today, Macron is complaining about Viktor Orban publicly but when they sit together at the Council meeting there is no point on our agenda that concerns Article 7 and the rule of law in Hungary. Or in Poland. You know that Poland’s case has not reached the Council level so far? The EU ambassadors talk about it, but heads of states and parliaments at the Council do not. The minimum I can expect from leaders is that they at least talk about such fundamentals.

So EPP does not need any additional lessons on that, now it is time for leaders to act, talk and be frank with each other. Macron should look in the eyes of Orban and Morawiecki and tell them, what is wrong. I believe in talking to each other in the EU instead of just complaining via the media and doing nothing in the end.

Now, we are waiting for the ruling of the CJEU concerning the CEU and Hungarian NGO law. It will give us additional leverage to persuade the Council to eventually put the issue of Budapest on its agenda.

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