Orban’s ‘Useful Idiots’ May Have Last Laugh Amid Expulsion Push

(Bloomberg) -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s taunting of his critics inside the European Union’s biggest political family as “useful idiots” is unlikely to go down well in the group as it mulls whether to expel his Fidesz party from its ranks.

Such an expulsion, Orban told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag in an interview published on Sunday, would only play into the hands of the EU left and weaken the European People’s Party, also known as Christian Democrats, the center-right umbrella group that’s facing growing calls to banish the nationalist leader.

But with a shifting political landscape ahead of elections for the European Parliament in May, the jury is still out on who will win the game of political brinkmanship, and the joke may ultimately be on Orban. In the end, his fate will depend on heavyweights in the EPP such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, which has given political shelter over the past decade to the Hungarian leader as he boasted of building an “illiberal” state that critics say is at odds with EU norms.

Orban’s ‘Useful Idiots’ May Have Last Laugh Amid Expulsion Push

“Orban’s provocations have created a rift within the EPP and the mood there is now swinging toward not having his Fidesz party on board and tainting the group with its rhetoric,” Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, said in a telephone interview on Monday.

Trojan Horse

Critics inside the EPP have argued that the longer Orban stays, the longer he can act as a Trojan horse to undermine the common goal of centrist parties on the right and left, which is to take on resurgent nationalists, such as Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s League. Orban himself has publicly said he’s campaigning to push the EPP toward the far-right on issues such as immigration.

The issue is coming to a head after Orban plastered Hungary with anti-EU billboards showing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a fellow EU Christian Democrat, and the Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire and liberal donor George Soros. In the uproar that followed, enough members of the EPP filed petitions to have a vote on Fidesz’s ejection or suspension.

The EPP has received requests by 12 member parties from nine countries seeking the expulsion and/or suspension of Fidesz and the issue is on the agenda of a March 20 assembly meeting, where Orban is invited to offer a defense, an alliance spokesperson said in Brussels on Monday evening.

Manfred Weber, the EPP’s candidate to succeed Juncker, told Der Spiegel on Friday that “all options” were under consideration in dealing with Fidesz’s membership. Germany’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU, considered to be among the most influential members of the EPP group, have yet to state their position.

Sentiment toward Orban is changing in the EPP as Europe’s electoral dynamic is shifting. 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 the Greens and the Liberals, according to the latest forecasts.

In that scenario, Orban’s vow in the Sunday interview to replace the anti-Juncker posters with ones targeting the Socialists’ candidate to lead the commission look to further complicate Fidesz’s place in the mainstream. The new posters will take aim at Frans Timmermans, a Dutch native who is the principal vice president in Juncker’s commission.

There’s growing realization within the EPP that Orban may cost more votes than the dozen or so lawmakers his Fidesz party is set to deliver in the election, Lehne said.

“Orban’s gamble on changing the EPP’s character into an anti-liberal Christian direction is backfiring,” Lehne said. “Instead, Orban leading the populist right in Europe is gaining more plausibility.”

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