Europe’s Largest Party Suspends Its Resident Autocrat—for Now

Why Brussels’ Faustian Bargain With Viktor Orban Endures

Orban during his annual state of the nation speech in Budapest, February 2019  Bernadett Szabo/REUTERS

Less than two months ahead of elections to the European Parliament, the body’s largest party is in disarray. The European People’s Party (EPP), a center-right, pro-EU alliance of more than 40 national member parties, has been roiled by a dispute over how to deal with its enfant terrible: the far-right nationalist party Fidesz, led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Since 2010, Orban has taken Hungary far enough down the road to autocracy that the NGO Freedom House demoted the country from “free” to “partly free” in its 2019 report—a first in EU history. Fidesz’s slide into authoritarianism has drawn growing criticism from the European Parliament, including from many EPP backbenchers. But it took a blatant anti-EU campaign by Fidesz, featuring unflattering posters of Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission and one of the EPP’s own, for the EPP to take action. At a party conference in Brussels last week, the EPP announced it was suspending Fidesz—but stopped short of kicking the party out entirely.

Practically speaking, the measure accomplishes less than meets the eye. Fidesz will stop participating in internal EPP party business, but its MEPs will mostly go on as if nothing has changed, and their valuable votes and delegates will still benefit the EPP. The reason for the EPP’s soft-handed approach is simple: the party knows it stands a better chance of coming out on top in this May’s European elections if it doesn’t expel Fidesz outright. By opting for a cosmetic measure, the EPP has chosen ambition over principle. That decision may come back to haunt it.


Orban has flouted the democratic values of the European Union and of the EPP for years. Under his leadership, the Hungarian government has sought to muzzle the judiciary. It has attacked the press and hamstrung civil society. It has also solidified party control of formerly independent institutions such as the election commission, the state audit office, the public prosecutor’s office, and

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