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Will there be a radical right turn in Europe that will bring Viktor Orbán and his allies to power? – this is how many are framing the stakes of the European Parliament elections in June. And yet, according to forecasts, Eurosceptic formations will win at most a quarter of the seats. This is hardly enough to turn Europe upside down, but their influence will grow. Together with Fidesz possibly joining a radical right political group in the new parliament, this could significantly impact the balance of power in Brussels and the future of the European project.

By Rudolf Berkes, Political Capital

Eurosceptic, populist, radical, and extreme right-wing parties are brought together by criticism or rejection of the European Union, opposition to deeper integration, reinforcing the position of nation-states, alleged protection of so-called traditionalist values and lifestyles, opposition to immigration, and often but not always, opposition to gender equality and LGBTQ-rights.

Fidesz has become a key player in this milieu and been trying to support more populist radical parties rising to power, hoping for an illiberal, authoritarian, Eurosceptic, and even pro-Russian turn at the EU level. The reason is that the long-term domestic survival of Orbán's regime is ensured by the creation of a favourable foreign policy environment. Thus, Viktor Orbán presents himself as a fighter but also uses the direct or indirect resources of the Hungarian state to support these parties, as has been shown on several occasions.

Although the parties on the same platform as Fidesz are gaining traction in Europe, they are still far from dominant. These parties are grouped into two groups in the European Parliament (EP): the more extreme and pro-Kremlin Identity and Democracy (ID) and the more mainstream, largely moderate populist radical right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). While the ID and ECR groups currently account for 18% of MEPs - 19.5% including the 12 independent Fidesz MEPs - this could rise to roughly 25% in the next parliament, at least according to Europe Elects' February 2024 seat estimates. In other words, although they may gain strength, it is unlikely that the far right and populist right will be able to make a breakthrough this time either.

None of this will stop them from declaring themselves the winners of the election. Their argument will also be justifiable to the extent that, according to current projections, they alone will grow. At the same time, all other factions will suffer more or less losses (the Greens and Liberals being the most likely to shrink). Based on the latest projections and trends since last spring, the ID faction has a strong chance of winning third place in the European Parliament.

Radicals in and out of quarantine

Despite the common topics, the two groups are divided by their attitude toward Russia, often divergent power interests, and even personal differences. It was the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine that derailed the rapprochement between the two party families in early 2022, which Fidesz was also trying hard to facilitate. Subsequently, the ECR's leading anti-Kremlin parties, such as the Brothers of Italy (FdI) led by Giorgia Meloni and Poland's Law and Justice (PiS), have found the pro-Moscow positions of ID member parties - in particular the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) in France, the Italian League and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) - unacceptable.

Fidesz's attempt to create a joint European radical/far-right coalition has failed, which the party leadership realized by last autumn at the latest. So, on 1 February 2024, Viktor Orbán publicly announced their intention to join the ECR after the elections. However, not all parties would welcome Fidesz, with its vocal pro-Kremlin and anti-Ukrainian views. While the Spanish Vox and now the former prime minister of the Polish PiS support the Hungarian ruling party's accession, several smaller parties from Central and Eastern Europe and the Nordic countries, such as the Swedish Democrats (SD), the Latvian National Alliance (NA) and the Belgian New Flemish Alliance (NVA), have already publicly threatened to leave the group if Fidesz joins after the EP elections. The FdI, which represents the other leading force in the ECR, thus faces a difficult choice, as it will be in vain for around 12 Fidesz MEPs to join the group if the same number leaves. Meloni, the party family's chairman, is trying to resolve the situation by setting four conditions for Viktor Orbán: the Hungarian government must improve its relations with Ukraine, stop blocking Ukraine's accession to the EU and EU aid to Ukraine, and the Hungarian parliament must ratify Sweden's accession to NATO as soon as possible.

Fidesz has silently started to fulfill the conditions: the launch of Ukraine's accession to the EU in December, and the 50-billion-euro financial package for the country was approved by Viktor Orbán at the EU summit in early February. After nearly 600 days of delaying, Hungary finally approved Sweden's accession to NATO on 26 February, the opening day of the spring session of Parliament. In addition, improvements in Hungarian-Ukrainian relations and preparations for an Orbán-Zelensky summit cautiously started with the Hungarian and Ukrainian foreign ministers’ meeting at the end of February. If the ECR ultimately accepts it, Fidesz could become the third largest delegation in the group after the Italian (FdI) and Polish (PiS), which could make the ECR the third largest group - if the 30-member Council of member parties, the party family's main decision-making body, has the two-thirds majority needed to admit Fidesz.

At the same time, if negotiations with ECR break down, ID will wait with open arms for Fidesz, which could secure their third place in the EP. Fidesz would also be the third or fourth largest delegation here, after the French RN, the German AfD, and possibly Geert Wilders' Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV).

Yet, this scenario may seem unattractive to Orbán. On the one hand, teaming up with the AfD would cut off any remaining (cordial) ties with German Christian Democrats. On the other hand, Fidesz is primarily planning to sit in a faction with real power and influence. ID remains quarantined, without any significant positions or say in decisions. However, the latter could change this year if the party family gains prime ministers. Wilders seemed to be the front-runner for this in the Netherlands, but coalition talks are progressing sluggishly, and he now faces a narrow chance of forming a minority government at best. The realistic scenario for the Austrian elections in the autumn, however, is that the FPÖ will field Austria's next chancellor.

A (radical) shift to the right instead of a takeover

Thus, in the race for third place between the ECR, ID (and the liberal Renew Europe [RE] group), Fidesz's position can play a significant role. This is no mean feat, but there is no indication that the populist right will turn Europe upside down in June. The informal grand coalition of the Christian Democrats (EPP), the Social Democrats (S&D), and the Liberals (RE) will continue to hold a majority in the EP and will be the main source of support for the next Commission.

The picture is complicated by signs of rapprochement between the EPP and ECR. On the one hand, Meloni and her party are moving towards the European center, for which they need to reach an understanding with the EPP. The EPP's member parties often try to compete with the far-right parties by taking over some of their topics and demands. This was evident in several EP votes on immigration and climate policy in 2023. The pudding has already stood the test in several countries: the EPP and ECR parties are in government together in Italy, the Czech Republic, and Latvia.

Nevertheless, there are still significant differences between the two groups, and there are those within the EPP who would maintain a quarantine against populist radical parties, not to mention other groups putting pressure on the EPP leadership. While ad hoc cooperation between the two groups could help improve the EPP's bargaining position vis-à-vis its coalition partners, there is no chance of a broad right-wing coalition. So, even if there is no talk of a populist radical or far-right takeover in the EP after the elections, their role and influence will most likely be strengthened.

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