Hungary's Orban Suspended From EU's Biggest Political Family

(Bloomberg) -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was suspended from the European Union’s biggest political family, sharpening a divide between mainstream parties and euroskeptic forces two months before key EU legislative elections.

Europe’s Christian Democrats on Wednesday froze the membership of Orban’s Fidesz party in response to the Hungarian leader’s erosion of democratic standards, opposition to immigration and criticism of EU institutions and personalities.

Hungary's Orban Suspended From EU's Biggest Political Family

The move at a meeting in Brussels signals greater resolve by the EU’s establishment to confront a euroskeptic ideology that has fueled watershed decisions including Brexit amid a campaign for European Parliament elections.

“Suspension is needed,” Manfred Weber, leader of the Christian Democrats in the 28-nation assembly, told reporters after the European party as a whole voted 190 to three for the penalty against Fidesz. “We came to clear and constructive results.”

Nationalist movements including the League party of Italian Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini aim to make enough gains in the May 23-26 ballot to disrupt EU business, raising the stakes for the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The suspension of Fidesz by its EU umbrella group, also known as the European People’s Party, ends years of EPP efforts to paper over differences with Orban as he championed the creation of an “illiberal” state.

“This is quite a strong rebuke of Orban even though it stops short of ejecting his party,” said Andras Biro-Nagy, co-director of Policy Solutions, a Budapest-based think tank. “But it also kicks the can down the road when it comes to a final decision by both sides on Fidesz’s membership.”

The Fidesz divide with the rest of the EPP grew after populist parties took power in Italy and moves in Hungary, Poland and Romania for greater political control over state institutions sparked fears of a return to authoritarian rule 30 years after the collapse of communism.

The suspension will have an immediate impact on Orban by denying him the chance to take part in a meeting of EPP leaders on Thursday in Brussels before an EU summit. Under the penalty decision, the European party will create an “evaluation committee” to monitor Fidesz’s respect for the rule of law and other EU values.

Buying Time

Orban painted the EPP verdict as positive for Europe’s Christian Democrats because they avoided a parting of ways. Orban said he had been prepared to quit the party at the start of the meeting and the suspension marks a compromise that gives both sides time to work out their future ties.

“The EPP made a good decision because it salvaged unity,” he told reporters in Brussels.

The sanction comes at a sensitive time for the EPP, which includes Merkel and members from every other EU country.

The Christian Democrats will see their share of seats in the EU Parliament fall to 26 percent after the upcoming elections from 29 percent at the moment, according to the latest forecasts by the assembly.

While the group is slated to remain the biggest in the EU Parliament, the faction’s projected seat total of 181 would shrink further were a Fidesz contingent of as many as 13 members forced out.

Euroskeptic Forces

Furthermore, such a move could lead the Fidesz members to seek an alliance with other euroskeptic forces such as the League of Salvini. The League’s number of EU Parliament members will more than quadruple to 28, according to the latest projection by the assembly.

Orban praised Salvini’s anti-immigration stance and refused to rule out a post-ballot alliance between Fidesz and like-minded parties in the EU Parliament. This will depend on the election results, he said.

Nonetheless, the suspension of Fidesz may help the EPP in its bid to retain the presidency of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.

Weber, who comes from Germany, is the candidate of the EU Christian Democrats to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker atop the commission when his term ends in October. With the appointment needing the endorsement of the assembly, the suspension of Fidesz keeps the EPP door open to a pro-EU majority coalition with left-of-center groups in the assembly after the elections in late May.

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