By Robin Vandendriessche
On Wednesday the 8th of March 2021, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán delivered on his promise to quit the European People’s Party group (EPP Group) in the European Parliament after new rules were approved that would allow the center-right block to suspend or exclude members. The motion, clearly intended to deal with the block’s uncomfortable relationship for nearly a decade with Fidesz and its track of democratic backsliding, passed with 148 MEPs in favor and 28 against.
Victor Orbán immediately expressed his disappointment to see the EPP Group “paralyzed by inner administrative issues” and stated “that the EPP has finally become an extension of the European left”. Many EPP members and above all members of the other party groups welcomed this move with the latter criticizing that it had taken long enough when EU values had been clearly disregarded. And although the departure of Fidesz from mainstream European politics was long overdue there is little reason to be optimistic. As long as several member states refuse to stand up to Orbán in the Council, it will be difficult to stop Hungary’s authoritarian turn. At least now the line between the political groups committed to the rule of law and those with a different concept of the European values has become more visible.
It remains to be seen if this departure has set the scene for a potential power-shift in the European Parliament. Firstly, the EPP Group, which is the largest group in the European Parliament, will see its seats reduced from 187 MEPs to 176. Secondly, there is still the question of what Fidesz will do. Will he attempt to create a new political movement or join another party group?
Orbán clearly stated that all types of proposals to renew European politics were being considered. Being outlawed by the mainstream right, he could be looking to create a new political movement that could secure Hungary’s turn to illiberalism, wrapped in a conservative and populist project. After all, EPP membership has been crucial in the past decade to shield Hungary’s process of democratic backsliding from a decisive European response. Talks with Poland’s PiS party and Italy’s Lega Nord and Fratelli d’Italia are already being conducted. But such initiatives are not new. In 2020 Orbán stated his intention to initiate a new political movement if the EPP was not able to change itself. In 2019, before the European elections, the Italian party Lega Nord tried to form a new right-wing alliance but failed to gather all right-wing parties. At that time, Orbán explicitly chose to remain in the EPP Group. And thus, it is highly questionable if such a new political movement would make any difference since it has already been tried a few times before. On top of that, the right-wing parties in the European Parliament are lacking coherence, making it unlikely for them to agree on a common agenda. There is for example considerable disagreement on foreign policy, Baltic parties see Russia as the real danger whereas the Italian or French parties have close ties with Moscow.
The European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR Group), which also consists of Poland’s ruling PiS party, would be a natural choice for Fidesz to join because it has shared a similar opinion in many of the decisions made in the European Parliament. Such a move would of course be enthusiastically welcomed by the ECR Group. As Lega Nord wants to reposition itself as less eurosceptic, since it entered the Draghi government, it could consider a move to the ECR Group too. If Orbán decides to follow this move, it would make ECR the third biggest group in Parliament thereby overtaking Renew Europe. The European liberals are very much aware of the impact of this scenario as one of their MEPs Sophie In’t Veld calls upon the Group to quickly adopt a strategy as this could trigger a reshuffle of the political landscape in the European Parliament.
At the end of the day, a new and coherent alliance gathering all right-wing parties in the European Parliament which could have Orbán’s back seems unlikely for now. Fidesz could also join another party group but such a group can only exert power when united and bound by common goals and values. The former has not always been the case and even the latter are not always shared by all national members of the ECR Group or another group for that matter. However, this clear reinforcement of the eurosceptic right does not mean that the formation of significant majorities in the future will become any more likely.