German conservatives float compromise to defuse EU row with Hungary's Orban
BRUSSELS/BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's conservatives floated a compromise in a long-running dispute between Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the EU's center-right grouping that could avert his party's expulsion over concerns about Budapest's authoritarian drift.
Orban, a feisty nationalist, was due in Brussels on Wednesday for a meeting to decide the fate of his Fidesz party after 13 sister organizations in the European People's Party (EPP) urged its expulsion.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, head of Germany's Christian Democrats, the largest party in the EPP, said Fidesz should be suspended, but not expelled, for violating the grouping's values with contested judiciary reforms and anti-immigration campaigns.
"As long as Fidesz does not fully restore trust there cannot be normal full membership," Kramp-Karrenbauer told Reuters.
A membership "freeze" would be an option, added Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is the frontrunner to eventually replace German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Bavaria's premier Markus Soeder, both EPP members, supported her position, sources close to Kramp-Karrenbauer said.
But, as Orban's decision to attend in person what would normally be a routine administrative meeting demonstrates, the stakes are high: EPP membership for Fidesz confers mainstream respectability and influence that other populist parties lack.
The decision poses a particular headache for Manfred Weber, the EPP's lead candidate in May's European Parliament elections, whose chances of succeeding Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the executive European Commission would be reduced without the votes of Fidesz's European lawmakers, of whom there are currently 12.
Juncker, who was the target of a Hungarian government poster campaign depicting him as a proponent of mass immigration into Europe and a puppet manipulated by wealthy Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros, wants Fidesz expelled.
JUNCKER BACKS EXPULSION
On Wednesday Juncker, who is also from the EPP, repeated his call for Fidesz to be kicked out of the grouping.
"I think that Mr Orban is a long way from basic Christian Democratic values," he told German radio.
The EPP grouping, the largest in the European Parliament, is also concerned over Orban's campaign against the private Central European University in Budapest that Soros founded.
Sources close to Weber said Orban had at least partially met the German conservative's conditions for keeping Fidesz in the EPP, including by apologizing to colleagues in the grouping for labeling them immigration-backing "useful idiots".
The sources said the EPP committee in Brussels would vote on Wednesday on proposals to deprive Fidesz of the right to vote in meetings of the grouping or to propose candidates for posts. Fidesz would also no longer be present at all meetings.
Weber also proposed that former European Council president and Belgian prime minister Herman van Rompuy could head a monitoring committee to evaluate Fidesz's cooperation with its sister parties, the sources added.
However, some were not sure Fidesz - which has a big majority in Hungary's parliament - would accept being suspended.
"I think in reality this means that Fidesz will leave the group," said Swedish conservative Gunnar Hokmark. "I don’t think they will appreciate being suspended. And anyway they will not be able to live up to the conditions."
(Additional reporting by Madeline Chambers in Berlin, writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Gareth Jones)
© Copyright Reuters Ltd. All rights reserved. The information contained in this news report may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of Reuters Ltd.