The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

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.

By , a global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews.
epp orban
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.

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 global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.