Today I would like to concentrate on two topics: Fidesz’s relation to the European People’s Party, an umbrella organization of right of center parties in Europe, and the Orbán government’s current situation within the European Union. Let me state at the very beginning that I’m more upbeat about today’s hour-long discussion in the European Parliament on the Hungarian situation than some of the people who commented right after the event on Hungarian Spectrum. Let me also add that I consider Fidesz’s status within “the family” of the European People’s Party less secure than most people are inclined to believe.
Let’s start with the parliamentary debate. György Schöpflin, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, predicted a couple of days ago that this debate would be “a third-rate affair” and therefore it was wise of Viktor Orbán not to do attend the session. Subsequently we learned that no invitation was extended to either Orbán or any member of his government. Enikő Győry, undersecretary in charge of European affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was present in observer status only.
Schöpflin seemed to know that neither the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, nor any of the leaders of the parliamentary caucuses would be present. Well, Schöpflin was wrong. Martin Schulz presided over the session, and for the most part the heads of the parliamentary delegations were present and delivered speeches. The notable exception was Joseph Daul of EPP, who only a year ago fiercely defended Viktor Orbán during the last grilling of the Hungarian government in the European Parliament. In his place Frank Engel, a member of the EPP caucus, spoke; his defense of the Orbán government was muted. He basically asked his fellow parliamentarians to delay their judgment until the legal analysis of the Hungarian constitution is completed by the European Commission.
Viviane Reding gave a brief talk in which she outlined the European Commission’s position on the issue of Hungarian compliance with EU law. At the very beginning she made it clear that she represents President Barroso and the opinion of the European Commission. She emphasized that the Commission has been closely monitoring developments related to the Hungarian Constitution ever since 2011. The Commission “has played a very active role as guardian of the Treaties” and “is currently conducting a detailed legal analysis of the amendments.”
But, continued Reding, the Hungarian constitution, quite aside from not being compatible with European laws, has serious flaws as far as the rule of law in general is concerned. And then she added: ” Hungary will also need to take due account of the opinion that the Council of Europe/Venice Commission will deliver in June, in full accordance with both European Union and Council of Europe principles, rules and values. The Commission expects a responsible answer from Hungary to this opinion.” In addition, there is the work of Rui Tavares (Portugal), an independent member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) of the European Parliament who has been preparing a resolution “on the situation of Fundamental Rights in Hungary: standards and practices.” (I might add here that Frank Engel, who delivered the EPP’s message on the Hungarian situation today, is also a member of LIBE and, like Reding, a Luxembourgian.) Reding said that “the Commission expects the Hungarian authorities to engage in a political dialogue with this House.”
So, this is just the beginning. As things stand now, the legal experts of the European Commission are studying the Hungarian constitution and its amendments, as is the Venice Commission. And the LIBE resolution will be ready by early summer. So, it looks as if by June there will be a concerted effort on the part of organizations of the European Union and the Council of Europe to take up the issue of Hungarian non-compliance with European law and the Orbán government’s transgression of democratic principles and the rule of law in general.
The criticism from the socialists, the liberals, and the greens was naturally hard-hitting, but the general consensus was that ¶7, which could deprive Hungary of its voting rights, shouldn’t be the first step. Lucia Creighton of Ireland, the country currently serving as president of the Union, emphasized that Ireland supports the point of view of the Commission. Moreover, she thought that it might be worthwhile to discuss a possible “new mechanism” that would be entrusted with the enforcement of union law in member states. She suggested putting the topic on the agenda of the meeting of the foreign ministers next Monday.
All in all, I’m satisfied with the results. Since the final analyses of the Commission, the Venice Commission, and LIBE were not ready, nothing more could have been done.
The other topic I would like to cover, however briefly, is Fidesz’s position vis-à-vis the European People’s Party. The Romanian Hungarian-language paper isn’t backing down on its story of a discussion between Joseph Daul and Viviane Reding about the possible removal of Fidesz from the EPP caucus. First, the spokesman of the EPP caucus denied the “rumor,” but a day later Joseph Daul himself wrote a letter to the Új Magyar Szó. He claimed that the “articles in question are both distorted and without foundation.” I would suggest that it would have been wiser to say that they were either distorted or without foundation, not both. And if one wants to deny that the topic of the conversation was Fidesz, one doesn’t claim that “the main topic of the conversation was Croatia and not Hungary” because that doesn’t preclude the possibility that Hungary was discussed. In brief, it looks more and more as if Daul did initiate a talk with Reding in Dubrovnik and that the fate of Fidesz was discussed there. The spokeswoman of Redding didn’t deny the existence of a private conversation between the two politicians. She only said to Magyar Nemzet that she is not at liberty to reveal the contents of the conversation.
There are signs that Orbán’s appearance before the EPP caucus wasn’t as jolly as Viktor Orbán tried to make out. In his usual fashion he cast it as a huge victory. He claimed that “it was good to be Hungarian tonight.” It turned out, however, that after a fifteen-minute talk he received about twenty questions. Apparently, most of the questions came from German and Polish members of the delegation, which leads me to believe that Új Magyar Szó’s information that it was the Polish delegation that informed EPP about Fidesz’s exploratory talks with another caucus was most likely correct.
As for the exploratory talks, the EPP members of parliament asked Orbán about this rumor, but he refused to answer it directly. Instead, his answer was formulated as a question: “EPP is the best place, so why should [I] leave it?” And the 50-50 split within the EPP caucus also seems to be on target. Even József Szájer admitted that “not everybody supports Hungary” in the body. According to an EPP member, earlier there was a fairly large group of people within the caucus who tried to mediate between supporters and critics of Viktor Orbán. By now the EPP is much more divided on the issue. You are either for or against Orbán and his government. There is no longer a middle ground. I predict that EPP will not vote en bloc against whatever resolution the European Parliament adopts later this year.