Orban and the EPP: A conservative family drama
The relationship between the German dominated European People’s Party and the Hungarian Fidesz couldn’t be worse. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats have gone berserk against Viktor Orban’s party. But Fidesz’s suspension from the EPP could be the beginning of the end of the huge European conservative alliance – and the creation of something new.
The scene is already a familiar one: A conservative leader delivering a speech, warning about mass migration. The words were succinct and clear: “The multicultural society is a not a viable way of co-existing,” conservative leader Angela Merkel announced in 2000.
Back then, Viktor Orban was also Prime Minister of Hungary, because in 1998 he became the second youngest premier at the age of 35, with his term ending in 2002.
The youthful Orban saw Germany and the German Christian Democrats as his role model at the time. He reformed the governance structures in Hungary according to the German model by strengthening the position of the Prime Minister much like that of the German Federal Chancellor.
During Orban’s term, Hungary also joined NATO. Germany was one of the main campaigners for Eastern European countries to join NATO and EU, the two most important defense and economic alliances.
While Merkel was in opposition in Germany against social democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Orban’s government gave Hungary an economic boost – again with Germany’s assistance. When Schröder went to war against Yugoslavia in 1999, Merkel did not object to that at all, and Hungary became one of the main profiteers of the economic sanctions policy against its Yugoslav neighbour.
In 2002, Orban’s Fidesz party lost the elections and the socialists took over again. For three years, from 2002-2005, both Merkel and Orban were regarded as moderate conservative opposition figures criticising their socialist dominated governments. Merkel’s CDU/CSU party only won the German federal elections in 2005, securing her seat as chancellor, while Orban had to wait five more years to become Hungary’s Prime Minister.
Somewhere during those years, Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Orban’s conservatives parted ways. While Merkel steadily weakened the classical conservative positions in her party until finally purging them all together, Orban did the opposite: He strengthened and enforced conservative positions.
CDU MPs rallied for LGBT rights and gay marriage, defended abortion and opened Germany to more and more migration, Orban in 2011 reformed and renewed the Hungarian constitution in a way that upset his former German conservative friends – now liberals.
The country’s official name was changed from “Hungarian Republic” to “Hungary”, with the preamble including references to the Holy Crown, as well as to God, Christianity, the fatherland and traditional family values.
Amnesty International soon denounced Orban’s constitutional project, claiming that it “violates international and European human rights standards”, complaining that the clauses on fetal protection, marriage, life sentences and sexual orientation were incompatible with an anti-discrimination clause.
Werner Hoyer, Germany’s deputy Foreign Minister and member of Merkel’s liberal coalition partner FDP, expressed his “honest concerns” about the new constitution.
The ideological divide between the two sister parties deepened, but both sides tried to avoid open conflict – until autumn 2015, when Merkel opened European borders for mass migration. In response, Orban started erecting border fences to protect his country from precisely those illegal migrants his official European ally Merkel was busy “inviting” into the EU.
Even though the two leaders were increasingly separated by ideology, one important political aspect united them: political success. Merkel and Orban both managed to win elections, to keep their political opponents small and marginal or at least under control.
Thus, the CDU/CSU and Fidesz had been more or less peacefully co-existing in the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament. There is a certain unwritten tradition within those huge diverse, multinational political alliances in Strasbourg – a kind of sacred “truce”. It is the mutual understanding that nobody should meddle in the domestic affairs of the other. That truce keeps the formation together, and secures the existence of the political alliance. But this truce was eventually broken – by Merkel’s CDU/CSU party.
The internal EPP conflict quickly escalated within weeks. The German Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Manfred Weber, and chairman of the EPP group in Strasbourg, started attacking Orban and his Fidesz party literally overnight. Weber had been chairing the EPP group since 2014, as one of Germany’s less known politicians. Weber, too, lacked the spirit to shape his political profile.
The European Parliament has a lousy reputation in Germany where the majority of the electorate is still convinced that real politics happen in Berlin and not in Strasbourg. Not even 50 percent of German voters bother with casting their ballot to elect European Parliament members.
In German politics, the EP has the reputation of a well financed side show, far away from Berlin but very close to countless luxury buffets. German politicians joke about the MEPs: “Hast Du einen Opa, schick’ ihn nach Europa.” [If you have a grandpa, send him to Europe] which means that the EP is a way to shelve older politicians and others so that they do not interfere too much in Berlin’s political business. And Manfred Weber is one of them.
For many years, Weber never cited problems with Fidesz or Orban. Even when his CSU party, the Bavarian regional branch of the German Christian Democrats, invited the Hungarian leader in 2018 as an honorable guest to their annual programmatic conclave, Manfred Weber did not seem bothered by that – or perhaps he was respecting the Strasbourg truce.
Both, Merkel and Orban, undoubtedly shaped their parties in an authoritarian way, as it is unlikely that Manfred Weber in his position as chairman of the EPP group would act in his own right. A source working as an assistant in the EPP head office in Strasbourg and Brussels even stated ironically that Weber “wouldn’t even go to the toilet without the permission of Merkel”.
The use of proxies to solve controversial political tasks has been a trade mark of Merkel’s leadership. Instead of getting involved herself, she dispatches her political “soldiers”. One example: The German chancellor almost never speaks about the right wing AfD party, but makes sure that at the same time harsh attacks come from her party structures.
Her inner party opponents, too, are usually purged by Merkel surrogates and not by her directly. “There is no doubt that Angela Merkel instructed Weber to attack Fidesz openly in public”, says the Strasbourg source.
Weber presented himself as a Merkel loyalist and carried out the attack. In various interviews he criticised Viktor Orban and Fidesz, noting a huge difference in “the questions of democratic order” between Orban and the EPP.
Weber missed no opportunity to stigmatize Orban as an authoritarian and antisemitic leader because of the Fidesz campaign against George Soros, and as someone who should never be given red carpet treatments anywhere.
German mainstream media obediently served as a loudspeaker for Weber’s attacks against the Hungarian Prime Minister and his government, while Merkel kept her “friendly” silence as usual.
For the existence of the EPP, the German violation of the truce is dangerous, however. If Orban’s Fidesz party gets suspended or is eventually thrown out of the group, other conservative Merkel-critics also face an uncertain future.
Pandora’s box has been opened for plenty of future strife: The Austrian member Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) is governing in Vienna together with the right wing “populist” Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Estonian Pro Patria party would be considered as “right wing populist” in Germany, the French Les Républicains is lead by the EU-skeptic and conservative hardliner Laurent Wauquiez. And there is as well the Maltese Nationalist Party which is outspoken against LGBT rights and bans active and former Freemasons from getting into any higher party positions.
In the face of being suspended from EPP, Orban’s Fidesz decided to unilaterally “freeze” their membership in EPP. Merkel’s aim to eventually sack the Hungarians can cause a domino effect, which might end with the dissolution of the whole alliance. During his visit to Stockholm on March 26, Fidesz spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said that the upcoming European elections will decide the future of the EPP.
Weber’s attack against Orban can be seen as an attack against the whole EPP structure itself. But for what reason? Perhaps Angela Merkel has understood very well that today’s division of political camps is no longer between “left” and “right”, but between “globalist” and “anti-globalist multipolarity”.
Several high functionaries of Merkel’s CDU party have stressed in the past that today’s conflict is between those who want an “open society” – the term they use for globalism and also pushed by George Soros – and those who oppose that idea in favor of “closed societies”.
In this context, the whole EPP structure seems like a political dinosaur, ready to die under the impact of Merkel’s “comet” Weber. One of Weber’s most vocal foreign supporters in fighting Fidesz is the French President Emmanuel Macron. He is pushing for the total exclusion of Orban’s conservative party from the EPP – although Macron’s own party La République En Marche! is not even a member of the EPP or of any other political alliance represented in the EP. That is in it self quite remarkable for a party governing one of the most important EU countries.
Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel and their political camps represent the globalist programme of the “open society” which never comes without the “open market”.
Macron’s political movement was even created as a type of “neither left nor right” choice fighting for an “open und progressive Europe”, while his main opponents Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France insoumise) represent economic and political protectionism in defiance of Macron’s ideology.
The recent protests of the so-called “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow vests) against Macron are identified by the liberal mainstream media as “protectionist” and even “nationalist” events against Macron’s globalist agenda.
Currently, Viktor Orban is the most prominent and vocal opponent of such ideas together with the Eastern European Visegrad Group (Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland). They all agree on the principles of the sovereignty of the nation state, family values and object to mass migration especially from Islamic regions.
The recent quarrel inside the EPP group could mean something far more than just a programmatic disagreement between the conservative and Christian Democratic formations in Europe. It could be a well planned destructive process initiated by Merkel and Macron to have the “obedient” partners such as the Swedish Moderates side with them and to isolate the “disobedient” groups.
But will the opponents of the “liberal Open Society European Union” understand the new division and eventually merge into an influential force? That task seems quite daunting since it would include groups from the far right (they defend the ideas of national, cultural and religious identity) and far left (defending economic protectionism and labour rights).
In May, EU citizens will elect members of European Parliament for the next five years. Hungary has a total of 21 seats in Strasbourg, while Fidesz has 11 MEPs. It is likely that the recent conflict with Weber might even boost the election result for Orban’s party. He could – together with Austria’s government coalition of ÖVP and FPÖ and Italy’s governing Lega and 5-Star Movement – take the lead in a real European oppositional force.
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