EPP divorce looms after Orban rejects Weber as Spitzenkandidat

File photo. Chairman of the European People's Party group of the European Parliament Manfred Weber (L) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) during a joint press conference after their meeting in the Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, 11 September 2015. [Szilard Koszticsak/EPA/EFE]

The leader of Germany’s conservatives said she expected Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party would quit Europe’s main centre-right group after he withdrew support for the bloc’s candidate to head the European Commission.

Orbán, who has long flirted with far-right leaders from across the continent while professing loyalty to the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), said he could no longer support Manfred Weber after he “insulted” Hungarians.

On Monday evening (6 May), Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, signalled that the anti-immigrant, hard-right Orbán had crossed a river.

“With his behaviour in the last few days and the meeting with (Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini), he has given a clear sign that he will leave,” she told Reuters. The EPP had tried to build a bridge to Orbán, she added, but he had chosen another route.

Orban says Salvini is the most important politician in Europe

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has said the European Parliament’s main centre-right group must forge an alliance with populist, nationalist groups after impending EU elections, receiving a swift rebuke from Germany’s conservative leader.

Losing Fidesz, whose grip on Hungarian politics means it delivers a large bloc of legislators to the European Parliament, would weaken the EPP after May’s European Parliament election, potentially costing the bloc its say over who succeeds Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the EU’s Executive Commission.

In March, Weber, a fellow German conservative, brokered a compromise under which Fidesz was suspended but not expelled from the EPP over concerns that it had violated EU principles on the rule of law.

EPP votes to suspend Hungary's Fidesz party membership

The European People’s Party (EPP) suspended Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party over alleged violations of EU rule-of-law principles on Wednesday (20 March), in a compromise solution that allowed the EPP to keep its ‘bad boy’ in and bolster party unity ahead of the European elections.

Orbán did not say who he would back instead of Weber, but many analysts saw in the Salvini meeting a sign that the two anti-immigration populists wanted to set up a far-right group together in the European Parliament.

Orbán gave as his reason for dropping Weber a month-old interview that had been extensively reported in government-friendly Hungarian media at the time, making it plausible that Salvini’s visit last week was the real trigger.

In the 29 March interview, Weber said he would not accept office as commission head if he needed the votes of Orbán’s Fidesz party to do so, telling German ZDF television he wanted votes from across the spectrum to advance a centrist agenda.

Insulting or outstanding?

Orbán cast Weber’s remarks, described by a Hungarian junior minister as an “insult to Hungarian voters” and widely reported in Hungarian media the day they were made, as an insult to the Hungarian people as a whole.

“Weber has said he does not want to be commission president with the votes of the Hungarians,” Orbán said, adding that this meant he could no longer support Weber – even though he was still describing Weber as an “outstanding” candidate five days after the original interview.

Orbán, who has cast the impending election as a choice between pro- and anti-immigration in Europe, has urged mainstream conservatives to forge an alliance with populist, nationalist groups after the vote.

The EPP has 217 lawmakers in the 750-strong EU legislature, 12 of them from Fidesz. Polls suggest it will lose seats but remain the biggest group. Far-right, populist parties are expected to perform well.

“Loyalty is an important political category,” Orbán said. “We would like to stick with the community where we have lived and worked so far. Unless this community tells us that our presence is no longer required.”

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