EU Sanction of Hungary Could Backfire

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The European Parliament’s vote on Wednesday on whether to start a disciplinary procedure against Hungary could have the unintended consequence of helping the far right and Steve Bannon’s project of building a nationalist alliance for the 2019 European elections.

There’s no denying that Hungary has veered off the liberal path and that European censure for violations of the rule of law would be justified. Prime Minister Viktor Orban was elected to a third term this year, and he and his friends have consolidated control of much of the country’s media. In addition, the government has cracked down on nonprofit organizations, especially those working to help immigrants. The European Union has long had concerns about the Hungarian government’s efforts to control the Constitutional Court and limit its competence. The European Parliament’s rapporteur, Judith Sargentini, listed many transgressions of European values by Hungary in a report published in April that was hotly contested by officials from the ruling Fidesz party.

Much of the Sargentini report consists of well-documented facts, which provide formal grounds for a so-called Article 7 procedure that theoretically could lead to the removal of Hungary’s EU vote. On Wednesday, European Parliament members get a chance to show their support for the union’s values, and even Orban’s allies in the center-right European People’s Party Group in the European legislature aren’t going to miss this chance to publicly take distance from his government.

It would, for example, be politically difficult for Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose party is part of the EPP, to back Orban. Kurz is often accused of betraying liberal values for building a governing coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, and he’s burnishing his credentials as an enlightened centrist by instructing the European Parliament members from his party to vote for Article 7 and even for suspending Fidesz’s EPP membership. 

It would also be hard for the EPP Group’s chairman, Manfred Weber, who last week announced his candidacy for the European Commission presidency, to protect Orban as he’s often done before. Weber must prove that, if he wins the top Commission post, the closest the EU has to a prime minister’s position, he won’t show favoritism to fellow EPP members. So, despite the widespread sympathy for Orban in his Bavarian Christian Social Union, Weber won’t stand up for Hungary, and the CSU’s bigger ally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, will likely back Article 7.

So the parliament vote will probably go against Orban, but the Hungarian leader and his party wouldn’t lose much in practical terms. To forfeit its voting rights, Hungary must be condemned by a unanimous vote of the EU national leaders in the European Council. That won’t happen because Poland faces a similar procedure and is unlikely to vote against Hungary. A few other leaders sympathize with Orban’s campaign for Hungarian sovereignty. 

The real danger is that Fidesz will be suspended from the EPP voting bloc. Orban’s party wouldn’t be leaving the group voluntarily: It’s important to the Hungarian leader to portray himself as part of the centrist mainstream, an ideologue of respectable Christian democracy’s right wing. But if the EPP pushes out Fidesz, it could add fuel to Bannon’s goal of bringing together nativist, euroskeptic, anti-immigrant parties for the European Parliament elections next year. 

Fidesz already has a standing invitation from Austria’s Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache to join the Europe of Nations and Freedom group, which includes the French nationalists led by Marine Le Pen, the Dutch anti-immigrant party of Geert Wilders and Italy’s Lega, headed by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

On the surface, Fidesz wouldn’t be a huge gain for the nationalist alliance. It only has 12 legislators in the European Parliament and won’t get many more in 2019. But even 12 extra votes would make Europe of Nations and Freedom the biggest group that includes parties with nationalist, anti-immigrant agendas. That could make it a magnet for Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and for Alternative for Germany, both of which are likely to win quite a few seats in 2019 but are members of different groups now.

The European Parliament elections will be closely fought. Mainstream center-right parties are expected to be challenged, as they have been in recent national elections, and perhaps the EPP will need Fidesz to remain the biggest group in parliament and push Weber to the top Commission job, which Germany covets.

The mainstream center-right has plenty of voters who agree with Orban’s uncompromising stand on immigration and his focus on national identity. Pushing away Orban means pushing these voters toward the fringe far-right parties. It’s fine for the European Parliament to launch the Article 7 process and put pressure on Hungary to mend its ways, but it’s important to keep Fidesz in the EPP and avoid boosting the chances of a united nationalist front ahead of the 2019 election.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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