The EU’s Biggest Party Has a Problem With Populists

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union’s biggest political party is preparing to take on populists in legislative elections next year that threaten to derail the bloc. But first it’s papering over differences with one of its own.

The European People’s Party, at a two-day congress that started on Wednesday in Helsinki, endorsed an anti-populist resolution and stressed its support for an independent judiciary, media pluralism and a vibrant civil society. Separately, the EPP meeting will pick the group’s candidate to lead the EU’s executive.

The EU’s Biggest Party Has a Problem With Populists

The resolution is aimed at bridging divisions within the EPP, also known as the Christian Democrats, just two months after the group’s members in the European Parliament backed the assembly’s demand for an EU probe against Hungary for posing a “clear risk” to the bloc’s democratic values.

In a victory for Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose Fidesz party belongs to the EPP, the group on Wednesday agreed to amend the text of the draft resolution to delete one of two references to “liberal democracy,” which the Hungarian leader has vowed to eradicate at home.

“The change is symbolic and shows the EPP is moving in our direction,” said Tamas Deutsch, a Fidesz member. Fidesz decided to approve the resolution, he said.

The EPP initiative also comes before elections to the EU Parliament in May, with the biggest question being whether anti-establishment forces will make enough gains to tilt the balance of power in their favor in the assembly, disrupt European decision-making and create ripple effects on domestic politics across the bloc.

‘Balancing Act’

“This resolution is definitely aimed at Orban and is a balancing act in trying to explain why the EPP accommodates an illiberal party within its ranks while confronting populists elsewhere,” said Julian Rappold, an analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. “But this debate won’t go away as long as Fidesz belongs to the EPP.”

It’s also an issue in the EPP’s selection of its “Spitzenkandidat,” the person vying to lead the European Commission, the EU’s executive, for its next five-year term starting a year from now.

The EPP members will choose between two contenders: Manfred Weber, who backed triggering a sanctions mechanism against Hungary but who nonetheless said he supports dialog over punishment for Orban; and Alexander Stubb, a former Finnish prime minister who has said he would expel Fidesz from the EPP if it violated the group’s values. Orban backs Weber, the EPP’s current chairman, in Thursday’s vote.

Populist Camp

Orban, who has become an icon for populists around Europe after declaring an end to liberal democracy at home and bashing the EU since returning to power in 2010, has ideologically aligned with populists including Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache. He has also vowed to fight to tilt the EPP toward their hard-line anti-immigrant views.

At the same time, Orban has ruled out trading his seat in the most influential group in the EU Parliament for one in the populist camp before the elections, which might help explain why the party plans to sign the anti-populist resolution.

Elmar Brok, an EPP member from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, rejected characterizations that it’s aimed at singling out Orban, citing the spread of populism in Britain and the U.S.

“This is a broad issue; it’s not just a Hungarian issue,” Brok said. “The EPP has nothing to prove.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.