May 02, 2019
Ahead of a meeting with Salvini, Orbán brands the EPP as suicidal
We see three ways to read Viktor Orban's interview in La Stampa yesterday calling on the EPP to cooperate with the far right rather than risk, as he put it, suicide by working with the left. The first is that Hungary’s PM is simply saying what he thinks. The second is that this kind of statement, which Orbán knows full well flies in the face of everything the EPP’s current leadership has publicly said, keeps him in the news. The third is that Orbán is preparing for a scenario where the EPP would be turning, or be about to turn, the current suspension of his Fidesz party into permanent exclusion. As always with Orbán, the safest way to interpret his intent is to assume that he is keeping his options open, and that all three readings mentioned above are therefore equally true.
Orbán has called on the EPP to work with the hard right rather than with the centre left in the past. His interview in La Stampa is noteworthy only because it came a day before his meeting with Matteo Salvini today. Salvini’s ongoing attempt to build a new political grouping of all of the EU's nationalist right depends crucially on Orbán taking his Fidesz party out of the EPP and into the new hard-right alliance. Orbán has repeatedly gone out of his way to praise Salvini in the past while also stating that, if he did not remain in the EPP, his closest political ally would be Poland’s ruling PiS. In other words, keeping all options open in the classic Orbán way.
Is there any chance that the EPP might heed Orbán's call after the European elections, and look to work with the far right rather than seek a political majority with social democrats, liberals, centrists, and possibly Greens? The answer for the foreseeable future is no. Both Manfred Weber, the spitzenkandidat, and other EPP hopefuls for the job of Commission president such as Michel Barnier, have made clear that they see the national populists as the political enemy, and the pro-EU political forces as future allies. While Orbán’s preferred political course of centre-right plus hard right vs the left is fully espoused at the national level by EPP member parties, such as Spain’s PP, the EPP’s internally firmly-anchored European strategy is to continue its cooperation with political forces to its left. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU party leader, reacted to Orbán’s interview yesterday by saying there would be no way back for Orbán if he moved further away from the EPP, and that his and his party’s influence since its suspension was nil.
So what will Orbán do? His political proximity to Salvini is evident. On the other hand, his role as the EPP’s far-right maverick guarantees him political singularity and therefore a level of public attention he would risk losing if he took Fidesz into a national-populist alliance. Also, if Salvini’s Lega does well in future elections, and even more so if Salvini were to rise to the position of prime minister, Orban would be perceived as playing second fiddle - not a position he would be comfortable with. Much of his political appeal at home rests on the projection of a strongman image: a truth-telling Orban defiantly strutting the European stage.