BRUSSELS – For years, Hungarian leader Viktor Orban clashed with the European Union as he regularly eroded democracy in his country, but time and again an alliance of conservative European political parties protected him severe penalties.
On Wednesday he lost that shield.
Relations between Mr Orban and the center-right group, the European People’s Party, grew increasingly frayed as he became more authoritarian, and the alliance had signaled it could finally kick him out. But Mr Orban jumped on the first Wednesday, removing his Fidesz party from the group.
Membership of the group has given Mr. Orban and Fidesz weight and a certain legitimacy within Europe. The party includes traditional conservatives like the Christian Democrats in Germany, Republicans in France and Forza Italia in Italy, and is the strongest faction in the European Parliament.
Not having to cover it up could take the strain off the center-right group. Some European conservatives have long complained that accommodating Mr. Orban meant compromising their principles and allowing him and what he called his “illiberal state”.
The isolation of the powerful EU allies who have long protected it from tougher sanctions for its undemocratic pullback could cost Hungary the EU funds it desperately needs. His government hopes to receive billions in EU stimulus funds for the recovery of coronaviruses, which have been linked to respect for the rule of law.
But Mr Orban could view his decision to withdraw from the European People’s Party as an act of political bravery, in the hope of boosting his image as a European renegade at home, where he faces the most serious crisis since taking office. function in 2010.
Hungary’s healthcare system is strained under the weight of a largely uncontrolled coronavirus pandemic, the economy in tatters and the opposition have come together for the first time to take on Mr Orban in the elections scheduled for next year.
In European politics, it is not yet clear whether Mr Orban and Fidesz will make an alliance with other nationalist, populist or far-right groups, such as the Italian League party.
As Orban wiped out independence from the Hungarian judiciary and much of its media, targeted civil society groups, stifled dissent and pushed refugees back from war-torn Syria, the pressure grew. increased within the European People’s Party to be ostracized.
The group suspended Fidesz in 2019 and recently changed its rules to facilitate the expulsion of a member. He was due to vote on the expulsion of Fidesz at its next in-person meeting, which has not yet been scheduled, he said in a statement.
In a letter announcing the withdrawal of Fidesz, Mr Orban said that at a time when countries were battling the coronavirus, the European People’s Party “was crippled by its internal administrative problems” and “was trying to silence” MEPs Hungarian.
Manfred Weber, the leader of the alliance in the European Parliament, said it was a “sad day” for the group and thanked the outgoing Fidesz members for their contributions. But he blamed Mr Orban’s “ongoing attacks” on the European Union and the rule of law in Hungary for the break-up.
For now, the move is largely symbolic and political, rather than practical.
Even without the 12 members of Fidesz, the European People’s Party remains the most important in the European Parliament and the Fidesz delegates will not lose any right to the assembly.
The long rift between Mr Orban and the center-right group highlights how mutually beneficial the relationship had been.
Mainstream European conservatives have long been reluctant to act decisively against Mr Orban, as they have titled themselves on the right, wary of the challenges of the rise of far-right parties.
Fidesz provided votes to their bloc, which in turn supported, or at least tolerated, Mr. Orban as he methodically dismantled democratic institutions at home.
For Mr Orban, membership of the European People’s Party has lost some appeal, as the access it has long granted to the allies is diminishing.
He is on the verge of losing his key ally in the group, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will soon step down. Analysts say Mr Orban calculated that he would be unlikely to have a close relationship with whoever follows Merkel, so the regrouping would no longer serve him as well.
This alliance between Mr Orban and Ms Merkel has benefited both sides, said R. Daniel Kelemen, professor of European politics at Rutgers University. “Mr Orban gets political protection and legitimacy,” he said, “and Ms Merkel gets votes for her political program in the European Parliament from Mr Orban’s delegates, as well as preferential treatment for German companies in Hungary. “
As a result, “alliances that would be deemed unacceptable at national level occur regularly at EU level,” he said.
“Merkel’s party would never ally with the far right or any other authoritarian party in Germany,” he said. “But he’s perfectly happy to ally with Orban’s authoritarian party at EU level, mainly because German voters don’t realize this is happening.”
While Mr. Orban has been embraced by former President Donald Trump, the Biden administration has criticized his policies in Hungary.
Mr Orban’s weakening of Hungary’s democratic institutions has led prominent watchdogs to say the country is no longer a democracy, often accusing European conservatives of allowing it.
In 2015, when more than a million refugees fled to Europe for safety from Syria, Mr. Orban built a fence along Hungary’s borders and imposed draconian sanctions on those who demanded asylum in the country.
Mr Orban’s position garnered the support of those in the European Union who saw the arrival of refugees as a threat to the bloc.
But many European conservatives have also spoken out against Orban.
“This is not the Middle Ages,” said Frank Engel, leader of the People’s Christian Social Party of Luxembourg, a party member of the center-right grouping. “We are in the 21st century. European Christian civilization is perfectly capable of defending itself without Mr. Orban erecting its fences.
Benjamin novak reported from Budapest. Monika pronczuk contribution to the Brussels reports.