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While this week’s vote indicates that Hungary’s strongman is drifting further away from the mainstream European People’s Party, any defection – forced or voluntary – would puncture his political influence on the continent.by Political Capital 14 September 2018 On Wednesday, members of the European Parliament voted by 448 votes to 197 that Hungary was “at risk of breaching the EU´s founding values.” The report, by Judith Sargentini of the Greens/EFA grouping, cited judicial independence, freedom of expression, corruption, rights of minorities, and the situation of migrants and refugees as key concerns. The European Council, where member states' ministers sit and set the EU’s overall political direction and priorities, may address recommendations to Hungary to counter the threat. Budapest-based political think tank Political Capital has contributed this analysis of the vote and its likely consequences.
While Hungary's voting rights are unlikely to be suspended as a result of the Article 7 procedure – which lays out sanctions on member states for “clear risk of a serious breach” of the EU's founding values – the vote on the so-called Sargentini Report indicates an important trend: Viktor Orban's declining support in the EU's largest mainstream party-grouping, the European People's Party (EPP). While an immediate split is unlikely, this might be the beginning of the end of Fidesz's story within the EPP. At the same time, we should not expect an immediate pushback on the policies of Orban in Hungary, and Orban will be able to promote his illiberal, anti-immigrant, euroskeptic agenda even more loudly, both domestically and internationally.
The stakes here are more European than domestic, and it is highly unlikely that Hungary's voting rights will be suspended in the European Council. Rather, the main question is how Orban's and Fidesz's party-political positions will change on the European level as we approach the 2019 election campaign for the European Parliament (EP).
Orban's goal is to become a significant politician in the EU, as this would benefit the long-term sustainability and financeability of his regime and serve his personal ambitions most. Yet Wednesday's vote shows that these goals will be difficult in the EU mainstream.
This vote – which comes after an Article 7 vote on Poland last year – may also send an important message to other EU member states: that not all illiberal adventures remain without political consequences. This might make other member states more cautious.
Orban lost supporters within the EPP itself, and the vote might turn out to be a turning point in the relationship between the EPP and Fidesz, even if we should expect a gradual rather than an immediate breakup.
Of the EPP members voting, 115 members voted for the report, and only 57 voted against it (with 28 abstentions). This indicates a clear shift since the vote in May 2017, when a relative majority of EPP members still supported Orban. Yesterday, 58 percent of EPP members voted for the Sargentini report, 29 percent voted against and 14 percent abstained. In last year's vote on the state of the rule of law in Hungary, these proportions were 34 percent, 47 percent, and 20 percent, respectively. Orban has therefore lost some of his important former supporters and allies.
Most importantly, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz decided to support the resolution, whereas his OVP party abstained from the EP vote last May. Influential leaders within the EPP from Germany and France, such as the EPP's chairman Manfred Weber (Germany) and Daniel Caspary (Germany), voted in favor of the resolution. The former leader of the EPP, Joseph Daul (France), also supported it, though no longer a member of the European Parliament.
Weber, detailing his position on the rule-of-law debate, tried to diminish the importance of the Article 7 procedure by calling it a “dialogue,” creating some room for a future solution.
Apart from the EPP, we do not see big shifts in the voting behavior of other groups (see graph) – except that Italian members of parliament from the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) in the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group voted for the resolution this time; last year, they abstained.
Orban's political agenda and policies will remain unchanged. After his third big (two-thirds majority) victory in a row with April’s parliamentary elections, Orban's willingness to reach a compromise declined significantly. Hungarian domestic politics will not change, and the elimination of the remaining independent media, the independence of the courts, and the autonomy of universities and of civil society, will all continue, unabated.
While the Article 7 vote had some moderating effect on the Polish government, we do not expect it in the case of Hungary. Orban is not expected to withdraw his decisions until European Court of Justice rulings dictate otherwise.
In the upcoming EP election campaign, Fidesz will use a more anti-Brussels tone than ever before, continuing to target George Soros and his “agents.”
The party's messages will revolve around migration, both domestically and on the European level, claiming that everybody who disagrees with Orban or criticizes his increasingly authoritarian and nepotistic political system – even if it is completely unrelated to migration – is “pro-immigration” and commits treason.
Migration is not important to Orban as a topic itself, nor to maintain his popularity domestically, but as a means to allow him to gain more supporters in Europe, and to weaken, stop, and reverse the EU's integration process by blocking decisions and exploiting divisions within the EU.
Orban's main European constituency consists of the populist and far-right players, not the mainstream. It was clear already in the debate preceding the vote in the EP that his main supporters are anti-EU and euroskeptic parties, most of which are far-right movements promoting anti-EU and pro-Putin policies. Some of them, such as the French Front National (recently renamed as National Rally), have even invited Orban to join them as an ally if Fidesz were to leave the EPP.
Orban's real supporters sit in the euroskeptic European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR), and even more so in the anti-EU EFDD grouping (apart from the Five Star Movement) and the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedoms (ENF) group.
It seems highly likely that – even though these groups will be reshuffled as a result of Brexit – Orban's political future lies with one of the successors of these formations, since he is drifting further and further from the EPP.
At the same time, this would considerably diminish his political influence, and it is almost impossible to imagine that a far-right, anti-EU, euroskeptic party family can be united and compete with the EPP in the long term.
Although the European populist right is cooperating with increasing efficiency, it remains heterogeneous, and there are serious policy differences between them, even on migration – see, for example, the widely different situation and interests of Italy and Hungary on the quota issue, and the conflicts between the Italian and Austrian governments.
Key to European Parliament groups:
EPP: European People’s Party
S & D: Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats
ECR: European Conservatives and Reformists
ALDE: Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
GUE-NGL: European United Left/ Nordic Green Left
Greens/EFA: European Greens/ European Free Alliance
EFDD: Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy
ENF: Europe of Nations and Freedom
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