FILE PHOTO: Hungary PM Orban delivers annual state of the nation address
By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has written letters of apology to European politicians who called for the expulsion of his Fidesz party from the main European conservative group, but several of them said it wasn't good enough.
Thirteen conservative parties have demanded Fidesz be expelled from the European People's Party over an anti-immigration and anti-EU campaign that attacked European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a fellow EPP member, and U.S. philanthropist George Soros.
The EPP, made up of the main center-right parties in most European countries, is the European parliament's biggest group. A Hungarian government spokesman said Orban sent letters to leaders of all 13 parties that called for Fidesz to be expelled.
"It is no secret that there are serious disagreements... on the issue of migration, the protection of Christian culture and the future of Europe," Orban wrote to Wouter Beke, the leader of Belgium's Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V) in one of the letters, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters.
"It is also no secret that we do not wish to change our position on these issues. Yet I do not consider it reasonable to solve such disagreements by expelling a party from our political family," he wrote.
Orban apologized for referring to critics as "useful idiots", a phrase he said he had borrowed from Lenin and intended to use to refer to policies not individual politicians.
An apology from Orban to fellow EPP members was one of several conditions for staying in the group set by its parliamentary leader, German politician Manfred Weber.
A source close to Weber said the apology was "a start, but there could have been more. Of course, it is not sufficient to build trust... Many other signals are still needed."
Several other European conservative leaders said their parties would not withdraw calls to expel Fidesz.
"I accept apologies, but this wasn't about offence given to Wouter Beke," tweeted Belgium's Beke. "It was about respect for European values and better cooperation on guarding the EU's external frontiers. I see no change there. The CD&V sticks to its position: no place for Fidesz in the EPP."
Petteri Orpo of Finland's Kokoomus conservative party said: "Letters will not help. Fidesz should show its commitment to the EPP by its actions. This hasn't happened."
Orban's strident nationalism and clashes with Brussels have long made him an awkward fit with the mainstream conservatives in the EPP, but both sides have reasons to bury the dispute. Orban has benefited from having a large group in the European parliament protect him from action there, and the EPP gains from an electorally successful central European party in its ranks.
Weber announced a plan this week to keep a university founded by Soros operating in Hungary, one of the other conditions Weber had set for Fidesz to stay in the EPP.
Central European University says it is being forced out of Hungary by law changes imposed by Fidesz. Weber's plan would keep it there, linked up with a Munich university and automaker BMW, both based in Weber's German home state of Bavaria.
The CEU said it welcomed Weber's help but needed firm legal assurances from Orban before it would cancel a move to Austria.
Two senior EPP members of the European parliament who both want Fidesz expelled told Reuters they now expect it will stay.
"I have lost hope," said one. "It seemed initially Weber's demands were genuine and there was no way Orban would meet them. But now you see Weber is plotting a way out of this for Orban, including engaging Bavarian resources to help the CEU."
Weber's office declined to comment.
The EU has long criticized Fidesz over policies it says threaten the rule of law by imposing party control over the judiciary, media and other institutions. Fidesz rejects this. Some European politicians also condemn Orban's attacks on Soros, who is Jewish, as anti-Semitic, which Fidesz also rejects.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, Andreas Rinke and Thomas Escritt in Berlin; Editing by Peter Graff)