European populism reshuffled as Orbán’s party quits ‘centre-right’ alliance

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has for years been seen as a leader of Europe’s populist right, while his party remained in the mainstream ‘centre-right’ bloc

The Fidesz party led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – seen as a leading force in the European populist right – has resigned from the main centre-right group in the European Parliament. This move will lead to a rebalancing of populist and anti-immigration forces, dependent on Orbán’s next move.

As regular H&D readers will know, international groups broadly representing ideological tendencies are an important feature of the European Parliament. Forming such a group is the key to unlocking substantial extra funds and representation on Parliamentary committees. (There is also a complicated difference between groups within the Parliament and extra-parliamentary political alliances that can also receive European funds and tend to cover much the same ground as the Parliamentary groups, but are technically separate.)

For many years ‘far right’ parties struggled to qualify for group status, partly because the rules were changed by Eurocrats, and partly because of internal divisions between populists and racial nationalists, or over sundry ‘petty nationalist’ or ‘national chauvinist’ issues that loom large especially in Eastern and South Eastern Europe.

Leading figures in ‘The Movement’, an alliance of European populists that preceded formation of the ID group – (left to right) former Trump adviser Steve Bannon; former Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini; and Brussels-based Jewish lawyer Mischael Modrikamen

The present situation is that (reading from ‘centre’ to ‘far’ right) the following Parliamentary groups exist covering a wide spectrum of right of centre views:

European People’s Party (EPP) – the largest group, covering the mainstream of Europe’s Christian Democratic and centre-right tradition who were the core of the European federalist project from its inception. The largest parties in the EPP are Angela Merkel’s ruling CDU-CSU from Germany, and the Spanish conservative Partido Popular (PP).

European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR) – comprises conservatives who are more ‘right wing’ on economics (i.e. anti-state, pro-market), and/or more sceptical about European federalism than their EPP colleagues, but who would wish to avoid being tainted by radical anti-immigration politics or by association with parties that have even faint historic associations with European fascism. Until Britain left the EU, the Conservative Party was the largest force in ECR alongside the Polish governing party Law & Justice.

Identity & Democracy (ID) – the greatly expanded populist rightwing / anti-immigration group launched after the 2019 European elections. The largest parties in this group are Lega, led by Italy’s former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini; Rassemblement National, formerly Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, a leading contender for next year’s French presidential election; Germany’s anti-immigration party AfD; and Marine Le Pen’s original allies – the Austrian Freedom Party and the Flemish separatists Vlaams Belang.

Marine Le Pen with one of her original European allies Geert Wilders

Another group that was significantly more Eurosceptic than ECR but frightened of even mildly racial nationalist associations was Europe of Freedom & Direct Democracy, formed by UKIP / Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage and his allies. This dissolved after Brexit as it no longer had sufficient members.

And to the right of ID are an assortment of more hardline racial nationalists who are unacceptable to Mme Le Pen and Salvini because they are explicitly national socialist or otherwise deemed ‘extremist’. These have included Golden Dawn from Greece; the Slovak national socialist party led by Marian Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia; and the Hungarian nationalist party Jobbik.

There have been several unexpected alignments, some the result of political calculation rather than ideological purity. Though a committed social liberal, UK Prime Minister David Cameron took his Conservative Party out of EPP and into alliance with far more right-wing parties in ECR. This was a cynical gesture designed both to secure Cameron’s election as party leader and to prevent voters (and even MPs) defecting to UKIP – it was part of Cameron’s political gamble that ended in his political ruin at the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Meanwhile Viktor Orbán (though far to the right of Cameron on all social issues) was in the more ‘moderate’ EPP. The surprise is that it has taken so long for this odd marriage to end in divorce. After liberal elements in the EPP forced through a rule change that would have allowed them to expel Fidesz, Orbán today chose to pull his party out of the group before he was pushed.

The big question now is whether he will bite the bullet and sign up with the Le Pen / Salvini group, or whether (like the Spanish ‘far right’ anti-immigration party Vox) he is too frightened of ‘fascist’ associations and opts instead for the ECR, which would then be dominated by a Polish-Hungarian axis, though curiously it also includes the ‘post-fascist’ Italian party Fratelli d’Italia.

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