Viktor Orbàn, Hungary’s prime minister, has pulled his party out of the largest political group in the European Parliament before they could be expelled over EU concerns over Budapest’s respect for democracy and the rule of law.
Fidesz's 12 MEPs were withdrawn from the centre-Right European People’s Party (EPP) coalition before it voted on changes to rules on the expulsion of members.
Mr Orbàn has long been at loggerheads with Brussels over his crackdown on media and other freedoms. EPP members have backed EU institutions in their criticism of Fidesz, which they accuse of trampling on “European values”.
But he stopped short of leaving the EPP’s pan-EU political party, which has members including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission.
Fidesz will now have less speaking time and access to less EU funding after leaving the biggest single voting bloc in the Brussels and Strasbourg parliament.
It was suspended from the pan-EU party alliance in March 2019 but until now remained part of the European Parliament group.
The EPP’s 180 members voted by 148 to 28 in favour of the new rules, with four abstentions, in the culmination of years of strained relations after Fidesz resigned.
Mr Orbàn accused the EPP of curtailing the democratic rights of Fidesz MEPs in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic in a letter to group leader Manfred Weber.
He branded the vote on rule changes “anti-democratic, unjust and unacceptable” and a “hostile move”.
“The message is clear and duly noted. If Fidesz is not welcome, we do not feel compelled to stay,” he wrote.
The pressure on the close political relationship between the most influential pan-EU party had increased after Mr Orbàn launched a string of attacks against Brussels, including a poster campaign against then European Commission president, and EPP member, Jean-Claude Juncker.
Mr Orbàn is expected to try and join other political groups in the European Parliament such as the Eurosceptic European Conservatives & Reformists or the hard right Identity & Democracy group.
A spokesman for the EPP Group said it would not comment on Mr Orbàn’s “personal decision”.
David Cameron pulled the Conservatives out of the EPP in 2009, which some in Brussels see as a key moment that eventually contributed to Brexit.