(CN) — The European Union’s most powerful political force, a European-wide collection of conservative parties, suspended Viktor Orban, Hungary’s far-right prime minister who is seen by many as a dangerous autocrat undermining the European Union.
The European People’s Party voted Wednesday to suspend Orban and his political party, Fidesz, during a party conference in Brussels. The suspension comes two months before European elections.
But many outside the conservative group were unimpressed by the suspension and said Orban’s party should have been expelled. Critics say the EPP is making Orban’s extreme views mainstream by keeping him in the party. Parties inside the EPP recently called for his expulsion too.
Udo Bullman, the leader of socialist democratic parties in the European Parliament, charged that the EPP’s toleration of Orban “has allowed for an Orbanisation of the EPP, which will be hard to reverse.”
He questioned whether the EPP could be relied upon as a “partner in the fight against right-wing populism.” Europe has seen a steady rise in far-right nationalism that many see as threatening the EU’s core values and institutions.
Nonetheless, the EPP said the suspension sent a clear message that Orban must change direction and make sure Hungary abides by EU laws and principles.
Manfred Weber, an EPP leader and frontrunner to become the European Commission’s next president, called the suspension “a necessary decision.”
“Our values are not negotiable,” he said, adding that Orban and his party “have to rebuild trust.”
The EPP called on Fidesz to take steps to ensure it abides by European laws and principles. It also set up a committee to evaluate Fidesz’s actions. There was no time limit for the suspension.
“We cannot compromise on democracy, rule of law, freedom of press, academic freedom or minorities rights,” said French politician Joseph Daul, the EPP’s president. “And anti-EU rhetoric is unacceptable.”
Orban’s government is accused of mimicking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tactics of unlawfully squelching opposition, working closely with oligarchs, undermining the rule of law and silencing critics with smear campaigns. Like Putin, he also is accused of fostering corruption and enriching himself and his allies through politics.
Orban’s latest ploy was to put up billboards in Hungary suggesting the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, was in cahoots with Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros to push Europe into welcoming more immigrants from Africa and the Middle East.
For the EPP, this campaign was particularly offensive because Juncker is a senior member of the conservative coalition. The EPP holds the most seats in the European Parliament and several of the bloc’s top positions are held by EPP members. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party is also a member.
Orban has become a leading voice of far-right politics in Europe with his rhetoric about stopping immigration and advocating a pro-Christian vision for Europe.
But his tactics have drawn the ire of many in Europe. Last September, the European Parliament voted to trigger a process that could lead to sanctions against Hungary.
The Parliament accepted a report that accuses Orban of undermining the rule of law by replacing critical judges, muzzling independent media and unlawfully restricting the work of nongovernmental organizations seeking to help refugees and asylum-seekers. He has been accused of forcing a university supported by Soros to shut its doors.
Judith Sargentini, a Green Party member of the European Parliament and the author of parliamentary report on Hungary, called the EPP’s suspension inadequate. She equated it to “throwing an empty bucket.”
In a news conference after the suspension, Orban said he would have left the party if there had not been a compromise. Orban has held talks with other far-right leaders about forming a new political group.
Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of liberal parties in the European Parliament, said letting Orban remain in EPP “shames Europe.”
“EPP have lost the moral authority to lead Europe,” he said.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)