Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s role as a trailblazer for resurgent nationalist forces in the European Union faces a reckoning as the bloc’s largest political family weighs whether to expel or suspend his illiberal party two months before crucial EU elections.
The verdict by the European People’s Party (EPP) due on Wednesday afternoon was expected to signal whether the EU is ready to start reining in wayward members seen as undermining the rule of law and spreading euroskeptic ideology, which have contributed to watershed decisions including Brexit.
The issue is gaining urgency after populist parties took power in Italy and moves in Hungary, Poland and Romania for greater political control over state institutions sparked fears of a return to authoritarian rule 30 years after the collapse of communism. It also coincides with the campaign for European Parliament elections in May, during which nationalists are angling to win greater legislative clout in the world’s largest trading bloc at the expense of mainstream parties.
Orban, a four-term premier, has become so high-profile because he’s shown the way on how to dismantle liberal democracy without losing his standing in the center-right EPP alongside the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But EPP meeting in Brussels, where delegates were scheduled to vote on whether to eject or suspend Orban’s Fidesz party, shows that patience with a long-held strategy of engagement with renegade leaders is running low.
“The idea that EPP membership has restrained Orban is preposterous,” said R. Daniel Kelemen, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “Quite to the contrary, the political protection the EPP has provided to Orban has helped enable him to construct the first hybrid authoritarian regime inside the EU.”
While 13 member parties have called for Fidesz to be expelled or suspended, the outcome is wide open, according to EPP officials who spoke
on condition they not be named because deliberations are private.
While short of outright ejection, a suspension would still be the boldest move yet by the center-right bloc to call out Orban. At the same time, it would avert a public breakup two months before elections and possibly head off the illiberal leader joining rival nationalists.
With the EPP set to remain the most influential bloc in the EU after May’s elections, the outcome of how the group deals with Orban may signal the fate of other efforts to rein in illiberal governments