Viktor Orbán’s party suspended from centre-right EPP bloc

Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has been suspended from the main pan-European centre-right party, as controversy over the far-right Hungarian leader’s place in the European mainstream comes to a head.

“Fidesz will be suspended with immediate effect and until further notice,” Joseph Daul, the president of the European People’s party (EPP), announced on Twitter, saying 190 members had voted in favour and three against.

The decision, made by a vote of delegates from member parties meeting in Brussels, follows widespread calls for Orbán’s party to be disciplined over alleged violations of rule-of-law principles.

“The suspension entails: no attendance at any party meeting; no voting rights; no right to propose candidates for posts,” Daul said.

Orbán said he had agreed voluntarily to pause Fidesz’s participation in the EPP, and had not been suspended.

“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,” said Orbán, adding that he would campaign for an EPP victory in May’s European elections.

The decision on Orbán’s future in Europe’s largest centre-right political alliance was seen as a test case for the EU’s willingness to take a stand against attacks on the rule of law.

Orbán’s aggressive anti-EU poster campaign and the forcing out of the country of a leading university contributed to the proposal to suspend Fidesz.

A committee of three, led by the former European council president Herman Van Rompuy, will consider Fidesz’s future in the group. The committee will also assess “the respect for the rule of law” by Fidesz, which is accused of trampling over judicial independence and press freedom.

The Hungarian leader announced he would create his own three-person “wise council”.

In a sign of the high stakes, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the head of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, was at Wednesday’s meeting, which brought together all EPP parties in the EU. Kramp-Karrenbauer, Angela Merkel’s chosen successor, brokered the compromise to suspend Orbán, rather than expel him, after 13 EPP parties called for him to go. Party insiders said the debate had been painful.

“We are a family and therefore such a decision may not be taken lightly,” the text on the decision states. It calls on the Hungarian government to take down the “fake news” posters targeting the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker.

The campaign, launched last month, claims EU migration policy has fundamentally endangered Hungary’s safety. It has been dismissed by Brussels as a ludicrous conspiracy theory.

“Fidesz must understand that this campaign has caused considerable political damage,” states the internal document. “The EPP expects Fidesz to fully recognise this and refrain from these attacks in the future.”

Finally, the EPP calls for pending legal issues around the Central European University to be clarified – in response to its forced move out of Hungary.

Manfred Weber, a senior EPP leader who hopes to become the next European commission president, led the calls for suspension, after setting three tests for Fidesz.

The move to suspend Fidesz is a significant blow against Orbán and something many in the party have tried to avoid, fearing he would then align himself with Eurosceptics. The question became impossible to ignore, after Scandinavian, Baltic and Benelux countries said it was time for Orbán to go.

Orbán has long faced criticism from a minority of EPP members over what they see as his backsliding on democracy and the rule of law. But patience of senior party officials finally snapped after Orbán launched his Juncker poster campaign and called party members “useful idiots”.

Weber had worried that any move against Orbán would be seen as western Europe turning on the east, but he was under growing pressure to act.

Some European experts criticised the EPP for failing to expel Fidesz. Laurent Pech, a professor of EU law, described the suspension as a “total fudge”. He said: “Orbán will be happy as he can continue to undermine the EPP from within, benefit from mainstream label [and] maintain possibility of leaving a weakened EPP post [the European parliamentary] elections.”

Critics argue Weber’s strategy to contain Orbán ignores deeper problems posed by his rule in Hungary.

Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal MEP group, said the suspension was “a political trick” and “a stitch up [that] shows the EPP will always put parliamentary numbers ahead of the collective European interest.”

Petri Sarvamaa, a Finnish MEP who led calls for Orbán to go, said criticism of the vote was misplaced.

“It is a new beginning for the EPP,” he said. “We are definitely in a very different situation than we were before the meeting. These are not empty words. It is very clear and the evaluation committee has a very clear task.”