(Bloomberg) -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban sent a letter of apology to the European Union’s largest political group after calling some of its members “useful idiots” for demanding his party’s expulsion.
The letter is a last-ditch attempt by the Hungarian leader to halt growing momentum within the European People’s Party to have his Fidesz party expelled. An expulsion would sharpen battle lines between mainstream parties and nationalists ahead of crucial European Parliament elections in May. The EPP will discuss expelling Fidesz on March 20.
Orban is scrambling after a sufficient number of parties in the center-right bloc, also known as EU Christian Democrats, called for his Fidesz party’s ouster following a billboard campaign in Hungary that skewered European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a fellow EPP member. Orban, a four-term premier, has become a thorn in the group’s side for his anti-immigrant views and his curtailment of liberal democracy that even his allies say ideologically aligns him with rival nationalists.
“I would hereby like to express my apologies, if you found my quote personally offensive,” Orban wrote to party leaders he had called “useful idiots.” A copy of the letter, dated March 13, was obtained by Bloomberg. Orban, who said he had only cited Lenin and didn’t mean to offend, went on to ask them to reconsider their demand for Fidesz’s expulsion.
The letter is dated a day after Manfred Weber, the EPP’s candidate to lead the EU executive, personally delivered an ultimatum. The German politician told Orban to end the anti-Juncker campaign, apologize to EPP members and to offer legal guarantees to the George Soros-founded Central European University; CEU was forced to move most of its academic programs from Budapest to Vienna after a government crackdown.
With the apology, and an earlier pledge to end the anti-Juncker campaign by Friday, Orban is making an effort to meet the ultimatum’s conditions. Some of the billboards were already removed for Weber’s visit.
But Orban has yet to pronounce himself on CEU, a sticking point after the prime minister’s anti-Soros election campaign last year. Weber offered CEU financing from and organizational links to his home state of Bavaria, which he said would allow it to continue to operate in Hungary.
“While CEU welcomes these developments, and the possibility it opens of reversing CEU’s ouster from Budapest, we must be absolutely clear that the parties to a possible collaboration can only proceed if the Hungarian Prime Minister provides an authoritative political commitment to his European partners that CEU will be allowed to remain in Budapestas a free institution,” the university said in a statement on Thursday. The institution also urged that this commitment be “backed up by legislation that provides legally binding authorization for all of CEU’s operations in Budapest.”
Sentiment toward Orban is changing in the EPP as Europe’s electoral dynamic is shifting in the run-up to EU elections in May.
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.
It’s unclear whether Orban’s efforts will be sufficient to salvage Fidesz’s membership among EU Christian Democrats. EPP President Joseph Daul told lawmakers in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday that he will put Fidesz’s ejection to a vote at a March 20 meeting in Brussels.
(Updates with CEU statement in eighth paragraph.)
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