The European People’s Party (EPP) political assembly suspended the membership of Hungarian ruling party Fidesz with immediate effect with 190 votes in favour and three against after a long and painful debate on March 20.
The presidency of the centre-right group, the largest in the European Parliament, agreed jointly with Fidesz on the suspension. The suspension entails that Fidesz will no longer be present at any party meeting, nor have speaking time, nor voting rights, nor the right to propose candidates for posts.
The debate behind closed doors took longer than expected and was rather tense, sources told opposition daily Nepszava. Hungarian Prime Minister Orban was relatively subdued during the meeting and he focused on Fidesz's achievements and the party's firm stance on Christian Democratic values. He criticised the parties initiating the expulsion of Fidesz and called their criticisms “fake news”.
At the press conference after the meeting, Orban said he had agreed voluntarily to pause Fidesz’s participation in the EPP and had not been suspended. Local commentators said he tried to convey the image of a man of compromise.
"I can share the good news that the EPP has taken a good decision. It maintained its unity and we can continue a unified campaign," he said, adding that he would campaign for an EPP victory in May’s European elections.
First comments by Fidesz friendly media championed Orban for his ability to compromise while standing up against his critics, who failed to oust his party, which according to party propaganda was a clear and definite setback.
Independent media says that Orban has managed to buy time before the European parliamentary elections, adding that both Fidesz' and the EPP's future will hinge on the outcome of the May 26 elections. The Hungarian conservative party is polled to reach between 12-14 seats, which could make him the kingmaker for the EPP’s Manfred Weber to become European Commission president.
Orban managed to avoid the most embarrassing scenario, an expulsion, after he vowed to meet demands set by EPP leaders on ending his campaign against Brussels, apologise to Fidesz critics within the party group. The third condition was that the Central European University (CEU) must be allowed to issue US-accredited degrees in Budapest.
Orban accepts Bavarian offer for CEU
German media sources said on Wednesday that Orban has accepted the offer by Bavaria concerning scientific cooperation with the CEU. According to the proposal unveiled by Weber during his visit to Budapest last week, the Munich Technical University (TUM) would fund two faculties on democracy and governance at CEU.
The CEU was barred from issuing American degrees in Hungary last year after the government failed to ratify an agreement the CEU has reached with an American university, which would have allowed it to operate legally in Hungary.
Florian Herrmann, Bavarian minister of state for EU and media affairs, told daily Suddeutsche Zeitung that Orban had "guaranteed" that the CEU would be allowed to continue its research and educational work in Budapest.
Orban was summoned to Brussels as the head of the ruling Fidesz party after a controversial campaign launched last month against Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker outraged his long-time critics.
Some 13 members called for his party to be ousted for breaching the red lines. The leading parties of the EPP, Germany's CDU and CSU, for long have argued that keeping Orban in the EPP was needed to prevent him from joining more marginal Eurosceptic forces. Orban has emerged as a figurehead for far-right politicians and there are speculations that he could form a new fraction with the likes of Matteo Salvini, or Polish PiS.
The Hungarian PM has been well aware of his scope for blackmail, which may have made him overly confident.
His latest taxpayer-funded campaign, however, turned long-time allies such as EPP president Joseph Daul against him, which inevitably led to sanctions against Fidesz on Wednesday.
"We cannot compromise on democracy, rule of law, freedom of press, academic freedom or minorities' rights. And anti-EU rhetoric is unacceptable. The divergences between EPP and Fidesz must cease,” Daul was quoted on EPP's homepage.
Speaking after the long and tense debate, Weber stressed that expulsion is not off the table. A council of "wise men" will be appointed to monitor the situation in Hungary over the coming period, which will evaluate the policies of Fidesz, he said.
The council will be headed by former European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, with former European Parliament president Hans-Gert Poettering and former Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel also serving on the panel.
He said it would take "a long time" to restore trust between the EPP and Fidesz.
Opposition fears Hungary may leave EU
Hungary's political parties were divided on the outcome of the EPP ruling.
Fidesz declared the debate a failed attempt by pro-migration delegates to expel the party from its ranks, while the opposition called it a defeat for the ruling party.
Some observers foreshadowed that Fidesz’ expulsion would pave the way for a possible exit from the EU.
“[I]t should also not be forgotten that a "fringe idea" – Brexit – partially went hand in hand with the departure of the Tories from European People's Party,” wrote Gunter Deuber of Raiffeisen Research in Vienna in a comment for bne IntelliNews.
This view is shared by many on the opposition landscape in Hungary, including the Socialists and right-wing Jobbik.
A deputy from the former radical party, now more of a centre-right formation, said that even though the EPP "allowed Fidesz to agree to the suspension of its membership, it was still clear that it had taken the first steps towards quitting the European Union".
The Socialists will launch a signature drive to allow Hungarians to express their will to keep the country in the EU. The Democratic Coalition said that even as Fidesz tries to prove the opposite, the party was rejected by the EPP.