Fidesz, the ruling Hungarian government party, announced on March 3 that it will leave the European People’s Party group in protest over rule changes that the Hungarian government regards as “tailor made” for the expulsion of their party from the European parliamentary group.
The rift between Viktor Orbán’s party and the EPP first truly opened up during the 2015 migrant invasion of Europe, when the German-dominated EPP spearheaded by Angela Merkel’s CDU, had failed to formulate a policy to stem the influx of illegal migrants into member states of the European Union.
As a consequence, the entire grouping has seen a tangible shift to the left of the political spectrum, and members did not take it lightly that criticism of the bloc’s migration policies coming from Hungarian ranks have started to call into question the entire direction of the European project.
No one was as vocal a critic of the Hungarian government party and its leader than Othmar Karas, MEP for the Austrian ÖVP, a liberal-conservative political party headed by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Karas, who himself is no alien to controversy, is thought to be the mastermind behind the new rule changes that many see as having been designed for the expulsion of Fidesz as their sole purpose. He was also behind the campaign to suspend Hungarian MEP Tamás Deutsch. Deutsch has reacted at Manfred Weber’s remarks regarding the rule-of-law mechanism “if you have nothing to hide, you don’t have to be afraid” saying that the Gestapo and the Hungarian communist secret police had used the same slogan. This remark has earned him a suspension from the EPP, thanks to a campaign by Karas.
Karas, who is from the liberal, strongly pro-EU wing of the ÖVP, has been on a mission for years to undermine the position of Fidesz within the EPP. He has, for instance, seized on the words of Orbán, who has rejected the notion of liberal democracy, and called for an “illiberal-democracy”, saying that “no one can be a member of our party family who declares liberal democracy dead”.
Although Orbán’s ill-advised choice of words about “illiberal democracy” were meant to say that democracy cannot be reduced to a system in which post-modern liberalism, as defined by left-wing movements, is the only legitimate form of governance, in English the word “illiberal” is mostly associated with authoritarianism. However, this has given ready ammunition to Karas and his allies in the EPP to call for the sidelining of Orbán’s party.
Furthermore, Karas has in the past accused Orbán of “using anti-Semitic clichés”, an accusation that most of Orbán’s left-wing critics have adopted in the context of his criticism of the undue influence that American oligarch George Soros is allowed to exert within the European institutions. Although Hungary is one of the safest countries for Jews in the world and the Orbán government is keeping very close and cordial ties with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the anti-Semitism smear was often used by radical left-wing NGOs and their political allies in order to silence critics of their often controversial activities.
Karas also could not contain his anger even when recovery funds were allocated from the European budget.
“The news that Hungary is to receive €5.6 billion in emergency aid, but Italy will only receive €2.3 billion, rightly upset & irritated me too,” he wrote on Twitter.
Earlier he took the opportunity to protest about the Hungarian Parliament’s emergency measures during the first wave of the coronavirus epidemic, writing “the self-elimination of the Hungarian parliament is completely unacceptable. There is no need to disempower parliaments. Orbán uses the corona crisis to govern by decree at his discretion. The EU Commission must immediately take a position and check.”
These and numerous other remarks bordering on obsessive vindictiveness by the Austrian MEP have come in handy for the leader of the EPP in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber. The fact that Weber’s own party, the German CSU, had failed to put up any effective or principled resistance to Angela Merkel’s open borders policy in the German Bundestag during the migrant crisis, that the EPP under his leadership started to vote along socialist and liberal groupings’ proposals in the European institutions, or the party’s inexplicable silence in face of the European Commission’s shambolic coronavirus vaccine acquisition process, meant that the regular criticism from their own ranks, uttered solely by Hungarian government MEPs, has become a liability they could no longer tolerate.
Along with the fact that Weber has lost the chance to become the president of the European Commission as a result of Orbán’s objections, it meant that he was all too willing to let Karas’ faction steer the ship towards a final confrontation with Fidesz.