The Cable

How One European Party Shows the EU’s Struggle to Protect Its Own Values

The uproar over Hungary’s bid to close a university tests one of Europe’s foremost transnational parties.

epp orban

The European People’s Party (EPP) is a transnational European party. It is the party most represented in the European Commission. And, at present, it is waging a fight amongst itself.

Why? Because, on Tuesday, Hungary’s parliament approved a law that would effectively shut down Central European University (CEU), or at least force it out of Budapest (CEU was founded by George Soros, who is something of a bogeyman for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban). The move was criticized by Hungarian institutions and individuals as well as politicians and academics around the world. But the Hungarian government is standing its (arguably illiberal) ground.

The problem here is that the Hungarian ruling party is Fidesz. Fidesz is a member of the European People’s Party. Which means that the European People’s Party is finding it — how to put this? — difficult to react forcefully to what many are calling a crackdown on academic freedom.

In an email to their EPP brethren on Wednesday, Hungarian party members wrote, “As in the world of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there are the equals and there are some more equals (sic) than others.” Some non-Hungarian EPPs responded by questioning why Fidesz was even in their party.

EPP chairman Manfred Weber, who acknowledged on Twitter that academic freedom is “essential for our European identity”, is asking the European Commission to deal with Hungary’s law, which some might say is an attempt to kick the issue to the commission. Per a Politico Europe report, one EPP member of parliament, Frank Engel, responded to the Hungarian email (and the Hungarians’ general outrage at the Europeans’ unsupportive reaction to their new legislation), by writing, “Why don’t you leave both the EPP and the EU on your own terms? … You’re practically and factually out anyway. So go. Please go.”

But that’s just the point. Despite pressure from other members of the European Commission and some in their own party, Fidesz isn’t out of the EPP, and Hungary is still in the EU (and Poland would likely block any definitive action the EU tried to take against Hungary, just as Hungary said it would do for Poland). And a strongly worded email is not the same thing as decisive political action. Neither, for that matter, is a tweet from Weber saying the EPP will defend academic freedom “at any cost.”

The EPP email back and forth is not the problem. It’s a symptom of the problem facing European institutions, which is that they want to stand united for certain stated values while actions that they either can’t or won’t stop are taken by their own members to undermine them.

Photo credit: GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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