Weber gives Orbán chance to apologise and remain in EPP

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

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.

Orbán, an outspoken nationalist, wants to remain in the EPP, Fidesz said on Tuesday, despite growing pressure within the European Parliament’s biggest grouping to suspend or expel it, a scenario backed by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

The Hungarian leader has long been at loggerheads with Brussels over his hardline stance on immigration and accusations – which he denies – that he is undermining the rule of law. The feud is escalating ahead of European Parliament elections in May.

“Viktor Orbán must immediately and permanently end his government’s anti-Brussels campaigns,” Manfred Weber, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) candidate to be EU Commission President, told Bild newspaper.

On Monday, the EPP said it had received motions from 12 member parties in nine EU countries and would discuss suspending or excluding Fidesz on 20 March.

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).

Some of these parties have warned that if Fidesz remains in the EPP, they would leave the group.

In the meantime, some EPP-affiliated forces voiced support for Fidesz.

The Center-right Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), an EPP member, would vote against the expulsion of Fidesz from EPP.

“It would be a big loss for the EPP. During the elections campaign, many things are said, with different nuances and accents… Without Fidesz votes, the EPP might not have a majority (after the EU elections),” Kelemen Hunor, the party’s chief, told the national television TVR.

EURACTIV Croatia reported that the Slovenian EPP members also opposed Fidesz’s expulsion from the EPP. The largest, the Slovenian Democratic Party and the non-parliamentary People’s Party are strongly against, while Nova Slovenija proposes freezing membership.

Juncker, who in 2014 was the EPP’s candidate for the top EU executive position he now holds, accused Orbán of coming “within a hair’s breadth” of peddling falsehoods and said he would support the exclusion.

Asked about Orbán, Juncker told German broadcaster ZDF: “Whoever lies in European affairs for domestic political reasons has to ask himself whether he still wants to belong to the EPP club. I think, they are not one of them any more.”

“I already said months ago that the EPP’s biggest problem in the European elections has a name, and that is Orbán. I will support this exclusion,” Juncker added.

Speaking to journalists in the Germany town of Rottersdorf Weber said that in recent weeks “Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz have crossed red lines again” and added that all options were on the table, “especially the option of expulsion and going away, going our future way without Fidesz”.

Orbán’s party said in a statement: “Fidesz does not want to leave the (European) People’s Party, our goal is for anti-immigration forces to gain strength within the EPP.”

‘Constructive dialogue’

Orbán has launched a media and billboard campaign that frames the May elections as a choice between forces backing and opposing mass immigration and that attacks Juncker.

Hungary to replace Juncker with Timmermans in poster campaign

Hungary’s government announced Saturday (2 March) that it would end a controversial poster campaign accusing US philanthropist George Soros and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker of supporting illegal migration.

However, on Tuesday he said he welcomed an initiative by French President Emmanuel Macron for reforming the EU.

“In the details, of course, we have differences of views, but far more important than these differing opinions is that this initiative be a good start to a serious and constructive dialogue on the future of Europe,” Orbán said in a statement to Reuters.

Weber told Bild newspaper he expected an apology to EPP member parties, an immediate and permanent end to Orbán’s anti-EU campaigns and renewed government support for Central European University to stay in Budapest.

CEU was forced out of Hungary and plans to relocate to Vienna from September as Orbán wages a bitter campaign against its founder, US billionaire George Soros, accusing him of supporting immigration to undermine Europe’s way of life. Hungarian-born Soros, 87, denies that.

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.

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