European Parliament battle-lines redrawn as new alliances loom

Shockwaves reverberated through the European Parliament in early March when Hungary’s Fidesz governing party abruptly pulled out of the European People’s Party’s leaving its MEPs without a group

Victor Orban’s (left) Fidesz and Matteo Salvini’s Lega could form a coalition with Poland’s PiS
Victor Orban’s (left) Fidesz and Matteo Salvini’s Lega could form a coalition with Poland’s PiS

Shockwaves reverberated through the European Parliament in early March when Hungary’s Fidesz governing party abruptly pulled out of the European People’s Party’s (EPP), leaving its MEPs without a group.

The move could have been expected as Fidesz had long been at odds with EPP’s stances against Poland’s various rule of law infractions. It leaves in its wake the possibility of the right-wing gaining considerable ground in the European Parliament, depending, of course, on where Fidesz’s 11 MEPs go.

Hungarian leader Viktor Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party has held a two-thirds majority in Hungary’s parliament practically uninterrupted since 2010. Fidesz has had a somewhat chequered relationship the EPP, the EP’s largest political grouping, over a perceived clash of European values. The EPP had, for example, suspended Fidesz’s membership back in 2019 because of concerns over the faltering rule of law in Hungary, the party’s anti-EU rhetoric and its attacks on the EPP leadership.

Matters came to a head in March when the EPP adopted new rules allowing for the expulsion of an entire political group from its ranks, rather than just individual MEPs. Fidesz, however, argued the new rules were “tailor-made” to expel the party. Instead, it is widely speculated, Fidesz chose to pre-emptively break ranks itself.

Even short of Fidesz’s 11 MEPs, the EPP remains the EP’s largest political group, but the eventual destination of those MEPs could have ramifications on the balance of power within the EP.

While matters are still very much up in the air, political observers are of the common opinion that Fidesz could find a new home with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) along with its ideological ally, Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS), or with the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) party, of which Italy’s Matteo Salvini’s Lega is a member.

A Hungarian, Polish and Italian right-ring alliance

PIS and Lega hold some of the largest delegations in the EP. Earlier this month, Orban invited his Polish counterpart Mateus Morawiecki and Salvini to Budapest to discuss the potential of a right-wing alliance.

“We are going to launch a new platform, an organisation, a process which will give those citizens who believe in a traditional Europe the representation that they deserve,” Orban said at the joint press conference. There will be follow up meetings in Rome and in Warsaw.

As matters stand, Fidesz, Lega and PiS parties share a number of common denominators: they hail from outside the more affluent north-western EU, they are against the ‘over-centralisation’ of power in Brussels, they feel their interests are not considered adequately within the wider EU spectrum, and they have recoiled against ‘cultural standardisation’ within the EU ads they consider it a threat to traditional family values.

To the victor go the spoils, and, in this case, the spoils are large. Fidesz, PiS and Lega together already have 66 MEPs, a number that outstrips the current number of ECR MEPs. But a coalition resulting from a meeting of minds could still be difficult, especially for Lega, whose policy positions are often at odds with those of Fidesz or PiS.

Support for coalition most likely from ECR, ID or smaller parties

A coalition of 66 MEPs would, however, still require more support from other parties if it is to see its objectives pushed through parliament. If one were to speculate purely on the basis of past voting behaviour, it is the ERC MEPs that seem to be the most aligned with the presumptive coalition’s ideologies and most likely to support them.

It is, meanwhile, highly unlikely that EPP MEPs would defect from the largest political group to join what could result in a mere fringe force. There are, however, prospects for support from some EPP members. For example, Orban’s government enjoys a close relationship with the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) and representatives of the Hungarian minority in Romania (UDMR). They are also the EPP members who appear closest the ECR’s positions when past voting behaviour is taken into account.

Apart from that, the prospective coalition’s hopes for broader support within the EP may very well rest on MEPs from the smaller parties.

Another option, although considered to be highly unlikely, would be for the coalition to enlist support from ID MEPs. After Lega, France’s Rassemblement National (RN) and the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) are the two biggest ID members with 23 and 11 MEPs respectively. Their policy positions, however, often contrast with those of the Central and East European (CEE) Fidesz and PiS parties, particularly when it comes to the areas of foreign affairs, budget and employment. Moreover, it is to be noted how both Fidesz and PiS have an actual track record of experience in governing while RN and AfD are smaller fries.

And there are more potential complications still when it comes to the prospect of the coalition embracing the ECR with open arms. A case in point would be Lega’s relations with fellow Italian party Fratelli d’Italia, a leading ECR member whose leader, Giorgia Meloni, also serves as ECR president. In terms of voting behaviour, Fratelli d’Italia is the closest to Lega at the EP but are bitter rivals at national level.

In a similar vein, the Spanish far-right Vox party is also close to Lega on voting behaviour, especially when it comes to the areas of civil liberties and foreign affairs. They are, however, at odds with Lega over its bid for secession of northern Italy, and over its vague stance on Catalan independence.

ECR party N-VA, from Belgium is meanwhile expected to be rather lukewarm to the prospect of more southern and eastern representation within the ECR. The party is also at odds with Poland over rule of law and other issues, while it is also bickering with Spain’s Vox over Belgium’s continued protection of ex-Catalan leader and current MEP Carles Puigdemont. Moreover, Flemish N-VA MEPs are more aligned with EPP positions than those of their own group, the ERC, and could be expected to leave the group if given an ultimatum.

Other possible scenarios

One possible scenario sees Fidesz alone joining the ECR should plans to create the broader alliance fall through. Vox and Fratelli d’Italia would welcome Orban, and the PiS has been found to have agreed with Fidesz in 70 per cent of voting instances. The Polish would remain the largest party in the group, retaining control.

Fidesz’s participation may leave the group more beholden to CEE interests, which could cause problems with some north-western parties such as Sweden’s Sverigedemokraterna and the Dutch JA21. Sverigedemokraterna and JA21 would be more receptive to Lega since they share like-minded views on budgetary measures and civil liberties.

Fidesz and Lega join the ECR

Another prospect is that of both Fidesz and Lega joining the ECR’s ranks. Such a move would increase the group’s size to close to 100 MEPs, making the ECR the EP’s most politically and geographically diverse grouping at the EP.

The fly in the ointment, however is the fact that the Polish PiS would no longer be able to fully control the group’s policy directions since the size of Lega’s representation is basically at par. This could be problematic when the parties have different views.

Lega and PiS broadly agree when it comes to areas such as civil liberties and home affairs, but there is plenty of room for disagreement in areas such as the EU’s budget, for example, where Italy is a net contributor and naturally objects to many of Poland’s budgetary proposals.

Moreover, the fact that Italy forms part of the eurozone, unlike Hungary and Poland, could lead to severe disagreements over economic and monetary affairs. Employment would be another hot potato, given Lega’s stiff opposition to workers from Eastern Europe in Italy.

A mega-coalition

Another, more remote, scenario envisions a broad coalition of parties from Fidesz, ECR and ID, which could potentially create the second-largest political grouping in the EP, and the main opposition to the EPP.

Although unlikely, a full merger of ECR and ID, with the addition of Fidesz and possibly a handful of EPP defectors would create a force to be reckoned with. Such a notion, however, is built on unstable ground, mainly because such broad coalition would involve an extensive amount of horse trading and acrimony on key issues.

Such a mega-coalition – including the Polish PiS, Italian Lega, French RN, German AfD and Hungarian Fidesz – would be able to muster its clout in terms of size and voting power when needed, but it could be extremely difficult for it to speak in a unified voice.

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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