European Western Balkans

EPP finally does something about Orban. Should his Balkan allies be worried?

Vučić and Orban; Photo: Tanjug

“The dictator is coming!”, said the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker jokingly while he greeted Prime Minister of Hungary Victor Orban at the 2015 Eastern Partnership Summit. Three and a half years later, it seems that the European People’s Party has finally decided to get at least a little bit more serious with Orban, suspending his Fidesz party from its membership in order to remain “a beacon of values”.

The pile of evidence of Orban’s violations of said values, including the rule of law, freedom of expression and academic research, as well as judicial independence, has been mounting for years. The most recent and most prominent example of his government’s overreach was the decision of Central European University to withdraw from Budapest after almost 30 years, following the restrictions Hungary had put on its work. It is therefore quite understandable that the move of EPP is still seen by many as nothing more than a “friendly” slap Juncker gave Orban during the above-mentioned meeting.

Whichever sanction is fitting for the transgressions of Fidesz, singling it out as the only “bad boy” of the largest pan-European alliance, however, would be a serious injustice. In fact, while reading through the report authored by MEP Judith Sargentini and accompanying the motion for the resolution of the European Parliament calling on the Council to determine, pursuant to Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union, the existence of a clear risk of a serious breach by Hungary of the values on which the Union is founded, it is not that difficult to detect similar trends in some other countries in which EPP members are or, until recently, were in power.

Most of these cases can indeed be found in the Balkans, where Orban’s political allies Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia and Boyko Borisov of Bulgaria have been facing accusations of corruption, diminishing media freedoms and restriction of the independent institutions for years. Budapest has also recently become home to another prominent leader of the region, Nikola Gruevski, who was granted a political asylum in Hungary after spending ten years at the helm of the EPP-associate VMRO-DPMNE government in Macedonia.

A fortunate case for the European People’s Party is that most of its members in the Balkans, such as Democratic Party of Albania, Democratic League of Kosovo and, of course, VMRO-DPMNE, are now in opposition, therefore removing any possible pressure on EPP to react to the problematic ways in which party politics in all of these countries function. However, should it be expected that this value-based “purge” within this Christian-democrat pan-European party will continue, at least when it comes to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria?

Checking the opinion polls first

The short and, perhaps, obvious answer is: no, no it shouldn’t. That is not to say that Serbia and Bulgaria, as well as other Balkan countries during the rule of the European People’s Party members and associates, have not been facing serious problems.

Much like Romania in the past few months, Bulgaria was also approached with concern before it took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in January 2018, due to the high levels of corruption in the country. The apparent monopolization of media scene, coupled with the last year’s brutal murder of an investigative journalist has led to Bulgaria’s continuous drop in the rankings accumulated by the Reporters without Borders.

On the other hand, backsliding of Serbia’s democracy has been almost as well documented as the one in Hungary, and the close relationship between Orban and Vučić only underlines the already existing trends. The anti-government protests currently taking place in Serbia have even coincided with ultimately short-lived protests in Hungary at one point (it should be noted that, in the latter country, one of the main motives was also the new and restrictive labor law).

Meeting of the WB6 leaders in Sofia; Photo: Boyko Borissov / Twitter

Despite all of this, European People’s Party further interventions seem pretty unlikely. Something had to be done with Orban, whose actions continue to cause much more media attention than those of his allies in other member or candidate countries. The ever-closer elections for the European Parliament are probably playing an important role. Namely, EPP did not decide to make this move at the arguably more fitting time in September, when Parliament voted to trigger the Article 7 procedure. It also remained silent as CEU was leaving the country, and it only suspended Fidesz’s membership after a scandal involving billboards targeting Juncker (also an EPP member) and U.S. billionaire and CEU founder George Soros for allegedly planning to populate Hungary with Middle-Eastern migrants, as a part of the election campaign.

Calculation of the EPP is easy to understand – it is currently predicted to win between 170 and 180 seats in the European Parliament, significantly lower than in 2014, but still enough to make it the largest party, with everything between 40 to 50 MEPs more than the Socialists and Democrats. Fidesz’s 12 seats in 2014 (out of 21 allocated to Hungary), will not make that much of a difference even if the party gets an additional MEP or two. Distancing from Orban, thus, will not represent a major cost for EPP, and will still be able to play a dominant role in shaping the future Commission.

Additionally, suspension and not the outright exclusion leaves enough of a maneuvering space for the Christian-democrats to continue cooperating with Orban if necessary. The conditions laid out for restoring his full membership are quite mild: Fidesz only needs to withdraw the controversial campaign material, “recognize political damage it has caused” and resolve legal disputes with the Central European University. The Prime Minister of Hungary has also shown no serious intentions to leave the EPP, even though he has been throwing around the possibility of joining forces with Deputy Prime Minister of Italy Mateo Salvini from time to time – it is, however, always better to participate in power than to be forced into opposition status.

The situation is, thus, not very optimistic for those hoping that the problematic Balkan parties will be “disciplined” by the European parties, if not EU institutions themselves. Orban’s situation is unique, and, unfortunately, not solely about values.

Additional evidence backing up this conclusion is not hard to find – a prominent example of how (in)significant the activities of its members, and especially associate members, are regarded by the EPP could have been seen during the political crisis in (now North) Macedonia, while Gruevski was still in power. It turned the blind eye to many of the party’s breaches of democratic values and rule of law, much like it did with Orban, and only decided to react when the threat of wide-scale violence became imminent.

It is, of course, unrealistic to expect that such a wide coalition of political organizations from Portugal to Belarus and from Norway to Lebanon to be an effective enforcer of anything but the most vaguely formulated principles. It can be argued that even this form of an almost consensual decision (190 members voted for the suspension, while only 3 were against) is a success. Nevertheless, this also means that political opponents of the ruling European People’s Party members with questionable record on European values should not count on a serious support of this pan-European alliance.

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