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EU’s center-right EPP bloc suspends Hungary PM Orban’s party

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attends a ceremony during the 171th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848 revolution and war of independence against the Habsburg rule in Budapest, Hungary, Friday, March 15, 2019. (Zsolt Szigetvary/MTI via AP)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The main center-right alliance in the European Union’s parliament refrained from expelling Hungary’s ruling party Wednesday, opting instead to suspend Fidesz following a long dispute over its values and policies.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban sought to put on a brave face after his party’s suspension from the European People’s Party grouping, arguing that at least EPP remained united ahead of May 23-26 European Parliament elections.

“The EPP made a good decision because it maintained unity,” said Orban, who attended the meeting where the action took place. “We made a good decision, as no roads were closed. After the elections, Fidesz and the EPP can both decide freely about our relationship.”

EPP leader Manfred Weber said Fidesz “can no longer propose candidates for posts” in the group and said they cannot vote on issues or join major group meetings as long as the suspension lasts.

“The EPP was very clear and united … that the suspension is needed,” Weber said. “It was a very hard decision.”

Orban said Fidesz had itself proposed the measures approved Wednesday by the EPP and repeated his claim that his party would have abandoned the alliance if it would have made any “disrespectful” decisions about the Hungarian party.

“In my right hand during the meeting, I had the letter where it was already stated that we would leave,” Orban said. “So, if we would have not had this compromise proposal, I would have left the EPP today.”

 An evaluation commission led by former EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy will now follow developments within Hungary, where the Fidesz party controls the government, to see when and if the suspension can be lifted. 

“We will now campaign for the victory of the EPP,” said Orban, but added that “after the elections, we will have to see how we will position ourselves.”

Orban’s authoritarian style and anti-European Union, anti-migration policies have long put him at odds with many members of the alliance, and he made it clear after the meeting that he did was not planning major changes.

“We are committed to a strong European Union … and we can’t imagine any change in issue of migration,” Orban said. “Neither can we imagine a compromise in the protection of European Christianity, of Christian values and culture.”

EPP member parties from 12 countries called for Fidesz’s suspension or ouster, deeming Orban’s views and policies incompatible with Christian Democratic values.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the new leader of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said that freezing Fidesz’s membership would be “a feasible route” and it was confirmed by Weber hours later

“As long as Fidesz has not fully restored confidence, normal full membership can’t remain in place,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said, according to German news agency dpa.

The Fidesz-led Hungarian government last week ended a campaign targeting European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who is also part of the EPP, and Orban sent letters apologizing for describing as “useful idiots” those in the EPP advocating for his party’s expulsion.

Orban also showed a greater willingness to compromise on a third condition set by EPP parliamentary leader Manfred Weber for Fidesz to stay in the alliance — letting the Central European University, founded by Hungarian-American financier George Soros, keep all of its activities in Budapest.

CEU says it soon will be moving its U.S.-accredited programs to Vienna because the Hungarian government has refused to sign agreements needed for them to stay in the Hungarian capital.

The state of Bavaria, home to Weber, has offered to finance two professorships at the CEU via Munich’s Technical University at Weber’s encouragement.

After the EPP meeting, CEU reiterated its position that it still needs “legal guarantees” from the Hungarian government about its activities in Budapest.

“These developments do not change CEU’s plans in relation to Vienna,” CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff said. “The university will establish a campus in Vienna to begin operations in September 2019.”

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Gorondi reported from Budapest. Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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