In Brief

Hungary’s Populists Face New European Test

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s party has become the symbol of European populism. How will Europe’s mainstream parties respond?

It’s been a little over six months since the European Parliament’s largest political bloc suspended Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party. How these legislators deal with Orban’s party now has implications for how the European Union will work with populist groups down the line.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives for a meeting of European Union leaders in Romania.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives for a meeting of European Union leaders in Romania. Francois Lenoir/Reuters

What’s happening?

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Orban has done little to reverse course since the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group of political parties within the European Parliament, indefinitely suspended Fidesz back in March. The EPP had condemned Orban’s anti-Brussels campaign and what it sees as creeping authoritarianism in Hungary, and it called on Orban to apologize for disparaging remarks about other EPP members and to reverse his expulsion of a university in Budapest funded by U.S. billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

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With the new leadership of the EU being formed, the EPP must decide whether to let Fidesz remain in its club. That choice will fall to the EPP’s next chair, due to be elected at the party’s annual congress on November 20–21.

Why does it matter?

Orban’s Hungary has faced numerous condemnations in recent years. Last year, the European Parliament voted to censure his government for eroding democracy, including increasing state control over the press and passing a law that the EU says threatens judicial independence. Hungary is the first EU member state to be downgraded to “partly free” by the research and advocacy group Freedom House, and this year it received its lowest ranking ever from the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index.

The EPP, which brings together most of Europe’s mainstream, pro-EU conservative parties, has struggled with how to respond. The EPP leadership, including the bloc’s current chair, Germany’s Manfred Weber, has been critical of Orban, but has so far held off on a permanent expulsion of Fidesz.

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There are several reasons for this. First, seeing Fidesz go would cost the EPP at least thirteen seats in Parliament—possibly more, as other parties have suggested they could follow Orban out the door. In that case, the twenty-eight-seat gap between the EPP and the second most powerful group, the center-left Socialists, would narrow significantly.

On top of that, it could push Fidesz toward the newly formed Identity and Democracy party, which brings together Euroskeptic, populist, and far-right parties such as those led by Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen.

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From Orban’s perspective, too, staying in the EPP may put his party in the best position to be involved in decision-making, at least for now. Populist parties fared worse than expected in the May 2019 European Parliament elections, and local elections in Hungary this week showed Fidesz’s hold on municipalities slipping against opposition parties. Meanwhile, Salvini has been sidelined by a new government in Rome and the French far right has faced increasing internal division. And unlike some other populists, Orban advocates for seeking to reform the EU from within, rather than leaving.

What’s next?

After the suspension, the EPP set up a panel to determine whether Fidesz can get back in line with the bloc’s values and respect EU rules. The panel, which includes former Belgian Prime Minister and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, is due to publish its report by the end of the year. It is likely to be unfavorable.

What happens then is up to the next leader of the EPP, who faces the dilemma of whether to invite back in a party that has undermined democracy and ridiculed the EU, or kick it out permanently at the risk of losing the EPP’s top standing in the European Parliament. The choice could be a litmus test for how European parties take on an intensifying populist threat across the region.

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