Orban Fails to Convince EU Party Leader Amid Expulsion Push

Zoltan Simon and Marton Eder
Orban Fails to Convince EU Party Leader Amid Expulsion Push

(Bloomberg) -- A top member of the European Union’s largest political bloc met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and organizations critical of his policies in what may have been one of the premier’s last chances to avoid expulsion from the continent’s political mainstream.

Manfred Weber, the European People’s Party’s candidate to lead the EU executive, said several issues remained outstanding after face-to-face talks with the illiberal Hungarian leader in Budapest on Tuesday. He repeated an earlier ultimatum to Orban to avert his party’s ejection later this month.

"Today my talks with Prime Minister Viktor Orban had a constructive atmosphere but the problems are not yet solved," Weber told reporters.

The conflict between Orban and his political allies in Europe is boiling over just as Europe’s mainstream parties prepare to clash with resurgent nationalist forces in European Parliament elections in May. Orban, a four-term premier, has been a thorn in the side of his political allies for retaining his place in the center-right group while becoming a standard-bearer for nationalists due to his anti-immigrant views and his curtailment of liberal democracy at home.

Time is running out as the group is scheduled to discuss on March 20 a motion to suspend or eject Fidesz, after enough members of the group demanded it.

Weber’s Ultimatum

Weber has called on Orban to end an anti-EU campaign and apologize to members of the political group for skewering their colleague and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on billboards. He has also demanded legal guarantees for the George Soros-founded Central European University, which was forced to move most of its academic programs from Budapest to Vienna after a government crackdown.

Weber visited CEU on Tuesday in Budapest before his meeting with Orban. He told Germany’s Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper that his home German state of Bavaria would offer financial support to the university whose tribulations have come to symbolize the hardships independent institutions endure under Orban. CEU has repeatedly asked the EPP to pressure Orban for legal guarantees for its continued operations.

Orban Waivering?

It’s unclear how committed Orban is to meeting the EPP’s conditions.

The government is ending its billboard campaign and Orban is ready to apologize to the group’s members, whom Orban called “useful idiots” for pushing for Fidesz’s ouster, Gergely Gulyas, the minister in charge of the prime minister’s office, told reporters after the Weber meeting. At the same time, he made no pledges to offer legal guarantees to CEU.

While both Weber and Orban want to keep Fidesz in the EPP, the Hungarian leader has also said that he’s considering alternatives. Over the weekend, he was scheduled to discuss a new nationalist political alliance with Poland’s Law and Justice Party, which has modeled many of its illiberal policies on Orban’s. Both Poland and Hungary are undergoing EU probes for allegedly undermining the rule-of-law.

Sentiment toward Orban is changing in the EPP as Europe’s electoral dynamic is shifting. While nationalists are making gains, the two big centrist parties -- the EPP and the Social Democrats -- look to be on track to form a comfortable majority in the next EU Parliament if they manage an alliance with a third party, according to the latest forecasts. All three potential partners have urged the EPP to get tough on Orban.

(Updates with Hungarian government reaction in ninth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Chris Reiter and Alexander Kell.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zoltan Simon in Budapest at zsimon@bloomberg.net;Marton Eder in Budapest at meder4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net, Andras Gergely, Bill Faries

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