Orban May Win Reprieve as EU Party Divided Over Expulsion

Zoltan Simon, Andra Timu and Ben Sills

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union’s biggest political group is leaning toward delaying an anticipated vote on whether to expel Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s party from its ranks as consensus hasn’t been reached.

The European People’s Party, the largest in the European Parliament, is unlikely to hold an up-or-down on Orban’s Fidesz party at a Brussels meeting that starts on Feb. 3, according to EPP sources who asked not to be identified because no official decision has been taken. The EPP suspended Fidesz’s membership in March over rule-of-law concerns in Hungary.

Playing for time would further drag out the intra-party drama after the EPP endured years of criticism for shielding the Hungarian leader as he eroded democratic checks and balances. The Orban model has since been adopted in Poland and has inspired nationalists in the west, alarming rights advocates about democratic backsliding in the EU.

Being a member of the EU assembly’s biggest group has perks, including the opportunity to confer with fellow leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel before EU summits when key decisions are taken. Leaving it could reduce Orban’s influence over future deliberations, including the distribution of billions of euros in funding.

A push to eject Fidesz gained momentum when Donald Tusk took over the reins of the EPP in November. The group entrusted three “wise men,” including Tusk’s predecessor as EU president and a former Austrian chancellor, to draw up a report on whether Fidesz was still compatible with it. Its conclusions were expected to steer the EPP’s decision.

But the report, originally due by early January, has yet to be filed and concern over Orban’s future moves if he was expelled remain, according to the sources. The “wise men” haven’t been able to reach a consensus, according to one of the sources, highlighting divisions inside the umbrella group.

Tusk met with the trio on Monday, according to his Twitter page. He gave no details on whether the “wise men” had agreed on a recommendation about Fidesz’s membership and didn’t specify if he would would deliver his assessment of it at the EPP meeting in Brussels.

Orban has repeatedly said that he’d preemptively quit the group before being ousted and that he’d then most likely form a new group in the European Parliament with populists. On Friday, he said he was “within a centimeter” of doing so after a majority of EPP members backed a European Parliament resolution calling for redoubling efforts to rein in Hungary and Poland over rights violations.

The Hungarian leader is hedging his bets. He met this month with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the power behind Poland’s ruling Law & Justice party, to discuss cooperation in EU party politics. And just when the EPP was originally due to discuss Fidesz’s status in Brussels next month, Orban is scheduled to speak in Rome at a “national conservatism” forum along the likes of Italian nationalist firebrand Matteo Salvini.

(Updates with EPP leader Tusk in seventh paragraph.)

--With assistance from Irina Vilcu and Marton Eder.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zoltan Simon in Budapest at zsimon@bloomberg.net;Andra Timu in Bucharest at atimu@bloomberg.net;Ben Sills in Madrid at bsills@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net, Michael Winfrey, Andrea Dudik

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