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EU center-right plots strategy ahead of key election

Finland's Prime Minister Juha Sipila, right, and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the Prime Minister's official residence Kesaranta in Helsinki, Finland, Wednesday Nov. 7, 2018. Conservative leaders from across Europe are gathering to plot their strategy to win the next EU elections, and must decide whether Hungary’s stridently nationalist ruling party should remain in their political family. (Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Lehtikuva via AP)

HELSINKI (AP) — Center-right leaders and senior politicians from across Europe on Wednesday thrashed out their strategy to hold power in the next EU elections and weighed whether Hungary’s stridently nationalist ruling party should remain part of their political family.

Over two days in Finland, heavyweights from the European People’s Party — the group uniting Europe’s center-right parties — are staking their claim to the EU’s top political posts. The leaders of Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland and the EU’s main institutions will all attend.

Far-right and populist parties have made big political gains as European leaders have bickered over how to handle what experts say should be an eminently manageable migration challenge for the world’s biggest trading bloc.

The fresh battle between Brussels and Italy’s populist government over the country’s budget plans — just as negotiations on Britain’s departure from the EU stall — is a stark example of the kind of chaos that could hit the European project after the May elections.

The question facing the EPP is whether to try to contain or to cut adrift Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party and Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In September, EU lawmakers voted to pursue unprecedented action against his government for attempting to undermine the bloc’s democratic values and rule of law.

“In every family there is an enfant terrible,” said EPP President Joseph Daul. “But because I’m a Christian Democrat, I prefer to keep my enfant terrible inside the family and to be able to talk to him and reason with him.”

Already Wednesday, delegates were drafting an EPP statement of values in the hope that Orban and Fidesz would be willing to endorse it.

“If he signs it, he continues in the party but sticks to the line and stops talking about illiberal democracy, which is nonsense,” former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb told The Associated Press. “If he doesn’t sign it, he’s out.”

Stubb, a part-time triathlete, is positioning himself as a center-right moderate, part of “the next generation of Europe.” Delegates will choose between him and the favorite going into this meeting, Germany’s Manfred Weber, to become the EPP’s lead candidate in the elections.

That means helping to run the polls, and possibly becoming the next president of the European Commission, the powerful executive arm that proposes and enforces EU laws.

EPP insiders fear that pushing Orban out might just push him into the arms other far-right groups in Europe, like the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) or France’s National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen. Others worry that this policy of containment might undermine the group.

For the moment, Orban is endorsing Weber, a Bavarian conservative.

Asked by AP why the EPP even felt it had to define its values in a statement, Weber said “there is no debate about any kind of value inside the EPP group.” He said the EPP “invented” the European dream.

Daul, however, said he would keep a close eye on Orban and Fidesz.

“I am waiting for this vote, to see who votes and who doesn’t,” he told reporters.

Stubb and Weber make their case to delegates in a debate on Wednesday evening, with the decisive vote happening Thursday.

Apart from their line on Hungary, the two candidates seem very similar but Teija Tiilikainen, Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, says they hail from very different backgrounds.

“Stubb has been in many governmental positions in Finland whereas Weber has been the leader of the EPP party group without governmental experience from Germany. So different value backgrounds, different geographical profiles, and different political backgrounds,” she said.

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David Keyton contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.



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