Hungary plays down the EPP demand for apology as ‘an opinion’

File photo. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives at EPP leaders meeting ahead of an EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium, 18 February 2016. [Stephanie Lecocq/EPA/EFE]

Hungary defied demands to apologise on Wednesday (6 March) for vitriolic criticism of EU leaders, but a senior government aide suggested it was seeking compromise to avoid its ruling party’s ejection from the main conservative group in the European Parliament.

Manfred Weber, a German conservative who leads the European People’s Party (EPP) group, has threatened to expel Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s nationalist Fidesz Party unless it apologises for its anti-EU and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Weber gives Orbán chance to apologise and remain in EPP

The Spitzenkandidat of the main centre-right party for the European elections said on Tuesday (5 March) that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán must apologise for his criticism of the EU or his ruling Fidesz party could be suspended from the grouping.

The EPP is the biggest group in the European Parliament, and Weber is its candidate to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president if it remains the biggest after European elections in May. Twelve national members of EPP have officially requested the exclusion of Fidesz at the political family’s Political Assembly on 20 March in Brussels.

Fidesz exclusion officially on EPP's agenda for 20 March

Twelve national members of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) have officially requested the exclusion of Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party Fidesz, the EPP’s leader said on Monday (4 March).

Hungary’s government has made hostility to immigration the main plank of its campaign, with billboards accusing Juncker and Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros of plotting to destroy European civilisation by bringing in masses of Muslims.

Commission responds to Orbán’s latest anti-immigration campaign

The European Commission reacted strongly on Thursday (28 February) to a new anti-immigration campaign launched by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán earlier this week by saying it “distorts the truth” and refuting most of its points.

Government spokesman Zoltán Kovács suggested in a series of tweets that Orbán was not prepared to back down despite Weber’s ultimatum.

“We listen to other opinions, includ(ing) Weber’s,” Kovacs said. “But more important than party discipline are the defence of European Christian values and stopping migration. On this, we cannot yield.”

But the premier’s chief of staff hinted at a possible compromise, telling Reuters there were open lines to Weber and other EPP leaders to find a way to keep Fidesz in.

“We hope that a strong and united EPP can embark on the next elections, including Fidesz, which has been its strongest member based on the past three elections,” said Gulyás, the most senior Hungarian politician to address the issue publicly to date.

“There are open and operating channels both with Manfred Weber and the most important leaders of the EPP. The parties that initiated and supported Fidesz’ expulsion… in our opinion we need a solution that satisfies them too.”

While Orbán cultivates his image at home as a maverick who defies Brussels, Hungary also benefits from its influence inside the EPP. A possible compromise could see Fidesz tone down its posters and express some regret for rhetorical excesses.

Weber has also demanded that Hungary allow a university founded by Soros to reopen there after being forced to leave the country last year, although Fidesz has shown no sign of backing down over that.

Soros-funded university says it is being forced out of Hungary

Hungary’s Central European University, founded by George Soros, said on Monday  (3 December) it has been forced out of the country in “an arbitrary eviction” that violated academic freedom, and confirmed plans to enrol new students in neighbouring Austria next year.

“Our rules and laws apply to every institution of education in Hungary equally, no exceptions not even for the Soros university,” Kovacs said.

‘Not encouraging’

Weber told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in Germany that the signals from Fidesz and Orbán were “not encouraging”, and that honouring the EPP’s values would be more important than political tactics.

“We have made several attempts at bridge building, but Hungary has not taken any steps or effort towards us,” he said.

Tamas Deutsch, a Fidesz founder and long-serving member of the European parliament, told the private television channel ATV late on Tuesday Fidesz did not want to leave the EPP: “One crosses the bridge when one gets there. We have our political family. It is the EPP.”

Orbán has long been at odds with Brussels over his hard-line stance on immigration and accusations – which he denies – that he is undermining the rule of law by asserting control over the courts, media and other institutions.

The EPP has 217 lawmakers in the 750-strong EU legislature, 12 of them from Fidesz. It is expected to remain the biggest parliamentary group in the May elections, although likely weakened, opinion polls show.

Far-right, populist parties are expected to perform well.

Harald Vilimsky, secretary general of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), said his grouping in the European Parliament, the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group, would welcome Fidesz with “open arms”.

Vilimsky is his group’s lead candidate for May’s European elections. The FPÖ rules Austria in a coalition government.

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