The saga between the centre-right political family the European People’s Party (EPP) and Hungary’s Fidesz is one of the most captivating soap operas EU politics ever produced.
This season’s finale may now be in touching distance, but it will not fundamentally change the ways how the EU addresses Hungary’s onslaught on European values.
On Wednesday (3 March), the political group of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament passed – with an 84-percent majority – the amendment of its rules of procedure that may enable the suspension of whole delegation’s membership, and as such those of the Hungarian governing party Fidesz as well.
In response, prime minister and party chairman Viktor Orbán put his money where his mouth was and, in compliance with his Sunday threat, he withdraw the Fidesz delegation from the EPP Group.
This may be a huge relief for the EPP caucus in the European Parliament, as it allows keeping further decisions on Fidesz on technical level.
Orbán did not waste a single word in his divorce letter about leaving the party family EPP – where Fidesz’ membership has been already suspended for two years.
However, leaving the group on its own constitutes a breach of the EPP party statutes, as EPP members are obliged join the EPP group with their MEPs.
Orbán’s move provoked a quick response by the EPP, the party family issuing a statement on triggering the exclusion of Fidesz due to the violation of the statues on the same day.
Maintaining the EPP membership of Fidesz without participating in the work of the parliamentary group would not be sustainable option anyhow, as it would deprive Fidesz MEPs of a large chunk of influence within the European Parliament.
Hence, whether Fidesz leaves the party family on its own in the near future, or is expelled at the next potential in-person meeting of EPP, appears to be only a question of time and mere formality.
However, the short-term consequences of the divorce are far less substantial than one would expect, after two years of intense political drama between the parties.
Hungary’s democratic backsliding could have evolved, practically unopposed, more than a decade because EU institutions were neither able nor willing to address authoritarian developments in the country in a proper way.
EPP and Germany as ‘enablers’
In this setup, the European People’s Party was one of the key autocracy enablers that shielded Orbán from potential negative repercussion to his policies. However, it was far from being the only one.
Aside from the EPP, Hungary was also protected at a member states’ level by key bilateral partners; and, as such, not only by illiberal fellows like Poland, Bulgaria or recently Slovenia – but most importantly also by Germany.
And these bilateral relations—which determine political dynamics in the EU Council—will not change overnight simply because Fidesz is no longer member in the EPP political group.
Hence, outsmarting Orbán and forcing him to leave EPP is indeed an important development, but not a game-changer in short term. It will only slowly alter the European political environment to Orbán’s detriment.
It is a matter of fact that changes in the party-political affiliation of Fidesz will not have significant impact on the two most important actual issues with Hungary: the ongoing Article 7 procedure and the implementation of the rule of law conditionality regulation.
In the first case, the decision is in the hands of national governments in the council. And governments often prioritise geopolitical considerations and good neighbourhood relations in their decision-making, over European party politics.
One cannot even expect a fundamental U-turn in the German-Hungarian bilateral relations before the German federal elections in September, although in light of the 84 percent support to the amendment of the EPP group’s rules-of-procedure, apparently many German CDU/CSU MEPs voted against the Hungarian party in this sensitive case.
Hence a successful conclusion of the ongoing Article 7.1 procedure and the determination that there is a “a risk of serious breach” of EU values in Hungary is still out of reach.
Poland has Orban’s back
Sanctions under Article 7.2 of the EU treaty require unanimity, meaning that as long as Hungary and Poland safeguard each other mutually, there is no chance to introduce punitive measures.
The practical implementation of rule of law conditionality regulation will depend on the ruling of the EU Court of Justice on the regulation’s compatibility with EU law.
As this is a legal procedure of an independent court, party political dynamics do not influence it either.
Hungary’s and Poland’s merits in the case are extremely weak, making it obvious that both countries only play for time.
However, there is no sign that the EU Commission would be ready to disregard the December summit conclusion to which it signed on, and decouple the regulation’s implementation from the court case. That simply would not be the commission’s style.
Nevertheless, the commission is still the only EU institution where the change in the party-political affiliation of Fidesz could have a meaningful impact.
In comparison to Poland, the commission always handled Hungary with kid gloves.
Among the various drivers behind this behaviour, party-political affiliation has been certainly one.
Berlaymont winds of change?
However, there are certain signs that winds are changing in the Berlaymont with regard to Hungary.
In February, the commission opened the sanction mechanism (Art. 260 TFEU) against Budapest due to the non-implementation of ECJ’s ruling in the NGO law case, a rather conflict-loaded move seldom used by the Commission in infringement procedures.
In the same month the commission allegedly demanded an amendment of Hungarian public procurement law and tendering praxis due to the widespread, systemic corruption and threatened with suspending Next Generation EU payments to Hungary.
Such commission initiatives may indeed become more frequent if EPP commissioners – and first-and-foremost Ursula von der Leyen – can disregard internal EPP political considerations with regard to Hungary.
However, whether there will be both a critical mass of new cases, and political appetite for more confrontation, apart from the commission which could tip the balance of EU politics against Orbán in the run-up to the 2022 elections, is highly questionable.