“The EPP is dead”! Did Viktor Orbán plan a hostile take-over of the party? What are the plans for the future? Welcome to rainy Zagreb, where the European People’s Party holds its congress 2019.
The Croatian capital is cold and rainy this time of the year. Grim are the moods in the great hall of Arena Zagreb, covered with great speeches on the main stage. Angela Merkel comes, her star shines among the 2000+ delegates, yet you can sense the deadline to her rule in Berlin. There are more people of a decaying glory here, and a few upcoming stars, too. Ursula von der Leyen is relaxed and multilingual. Sebastian Kurz is glowing. Donald Tusk is elected new leader. This is a grand theatre and the main play is to put a good face on a bad game.
Elections won, but…
Every five years since 2009 there are fewer EPP MEPs sitting in the Strasbourg hemicycle. Non only since last May there are only 182 MEPs affiliated with the EPP. The party lost a ruling majority in the Parliament alongside the Social-Democrats. For decades the two, EPP and S&D provided for a stable majority. “It takes two to tango”, but how to learn the dance with a third, or a fourth partner?
The electoral crisis is clear and debated behind the scenes. There is another crisis underneath: the identity challenge. In a moment of weakness one MEP cries, “The EPP is dead“, and asks not to be named.
Feet of clay
The EPP is still the largest political group in the European Parliament, but the future is not looking easy. “If you win the elections, you can’t say you lose,” soberly reminds me the Irish MEP Sean Kelly quoting the EPP leaders, new and old, Tusk and Daul. Michael Gahler, a German MEP, also praises his home party: “We retained political leadership on the European level. Where are the Socialists and the Liberals in their positioning?”
Mr Gahler is not alone, many people here think that the EPP is the best organized party in Europe. Over 2,000 delegates come to Zagreb to discuss new leaders, but also to debate and decide the agenda. Issues such as the climate and technological challenges, enlargement, international policy in Eastern Europe, transatlantic relations and the situation in the Middle East – all of these are important matters for the oldest European political party.
But what does the EPP want to be in the third decade of the 21st century? How to regain voters? It must have been difficult to swallow that Europeans like to vote in European elections, but not as much for the EPP. “We are not popular with the voters“, complains one EPP staffer, as if it was the voter who was the problem. Ideas are welcomed.
How to simultaneously and effectively resist populism of the far right, but also the internal populism from the Hungarian party Fidesz, is the unanswered question here in Zagreb. The Slovenian Janez Janša, former prime minister, says simply: “Punishing the most successful party in the group would not make any sense“. Last spring Fidesz scored 53 percent in Hungary.
The electoral result of other EPP parties outside Hungary is not as positive. “Populism destroys us from the right and the left,” tells me the leading Bavarian MEP Monika Hohlmeier, member of the Parliament since 2009. Not only the EPP members’ share of the Strasbourg chamber has fallen from 36 percent to 24 percent in the same decade, the number of EPP members of the European Council is down from 12 to 9.
What is more, the internal dynamics is shifting, too. As of May, the majority of EPP MEPs are Central European politicians. In countries such as Italy and France, local EPP parties suffered heavy defeats. In Zagreb Silvio Berlusconi walks surrounded by a smaller crowd of journalists, an echo of old glory. The French party was relegated to the third position. In both populous countries the extreme right populists replaced the EPP parties as the main right-wing force in the national public space.
The EPP’s nightmare is this: in Germany the AfD is gaining ground, in Spain the extreme VOX party is fast catching up with the centre-right, and it is possible that in Poland the Civic Platform (PO) – the party of Donald Tusk – will fight the newly united Left to maintain the position of the main opposition party. A few years down the line the EPP members could be relegated to no. 3 or worse in all of the most populous EU member states.
Orbán’s hostile takeover?
How to effectively respond to the challenges of a changing world? Last spring seven EPP members demanded to remove Fidesz from the EPP. Hungarians were suspended and were not invited to the meetup in Croatia. The only Hungarians in the Arena are the Hungarian journalists investigating when the throwing out will happen, if ever.
In Zagreb, one could hear the whisper of Orbán’s intent to make a “hostile takeover” of the EPP from the centre-right and turn the party into a right-wing nationalist family. The attempted hostile takeover failed, Fidesz is suspended. Clearly the Hungarian ideas of illiberal democracy run in opposition to the core values of the modern EPP. In such an orbanesque version, the People’s Party could accommodate the Matteo Salvini’s La Lega and the Polish Law and Justice (PiS).
However, the Fidesz affair weakens the EPP. There are also those, like Janša, who believe that there should be room for the Hungarian party. But for the Hungarians to be unsuspended, they would have to undo many of their changes. There is also the fear that the Fidesz exit from the EPP could have followers. One EPP member protests: “I absolutely do not believe this. This is a rumour spread by the Orbán supporters. There will be no domino effect“. Hence many delegates do not mind the suspension. A report on what to do with Fidesz may be done in December or maybe in the new year. Donald Tusk says the issue should be solved by the end of January 2020.
There is a wide consensus to reject populism. But there is no consensus on what to offer in return. How to effectively talk to Europeans and address their worries? “We must remain a people’s party,” says new Slovak MEP Vladimír Bilčík. “People demand answers here and now, and the answers to these challenges can only be European,” he continues. Bilčík is a politician with a profile comparable to the Croatian prime minister and host of the summit, Andrej Plenković. Both are in their 40-ties and are building their political position with a strong belief and ownership for the European project. “We are the responsible ones. Everything we propose is put into practice” Sean Kelly adds on this point.
Plans for the future
A sense of responsibility, rejection of populism and building an effective offer for Europeans, this is the plan for the future. The EPP wants to fight back for European values like never before. Especially for the rule of law. One MEP asked to be anonymous when he says: “Fidesz is a virus“.
Climate change is also important. It is impossible to escape from the feeling, however, confirmed by many interlocutors, that the EPP is defensive on the topic. The credibility on the climate issues lies with the Green parties, and to a lesser degree, with the Social-Democrats. In Zagreb the EPP is discussing how to balance the greening of the economy with the jobs and the economic performance. They seek for a golden snitch instead of promoting green innovation, some younger and some more liberal MEPs complain. In this political debate over the greening of the economy the EPP frequently accuse the European Greens of political populism, even if Joseph Daul, the outgoing party leader, says he supports to declare the climate crisis an emergency. Many more conservative EPPers do not like to talk climate, instead some prefer to talk sustainability.
Bilčík and Plenković see the issue of greening of politics in their home countries differently. Bilčík speaks bluntly about his party SPOLU in Slovakia, an EPP member, “We are the Greens of Slovakia“.
New kind of leadership
Against this picture Donald Tusk takes over the leadership of the party. Professor Steven van Hecke of the University of Leuven explains what just happened this way: “It is discontinuity, because this is the first [presidency] from the Central European country, not from the traditional Christian democratic power bases of Western Europe. But it is a continuity, because those power bases do not exist any more since May 2019. The strongholds of EPP are in Central and Eastern Europe, so in that way it is not a coincidence“. This explains the context of the Tusk’s ascent to the EPP power, but “why him”? Professor van Hecke continues: “The former president of the European Council has the authority. He will be more political and the litmus test is Fidesz“.
New stars and parameters of success
In the ocean of sorrow not everything is only negative. The recent successes of the EPP members in Greece (winning against the populist left) and Austria (successfully fighting the populist extreme right) promote the figures of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and former/future Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. “The future belongs to them” can be heard when a crowd gathers around Kurz, the “right-wing conqueror”, who, between successive selfies with youth activists and subsequent interviews, tries to rebuild his position in the EPP. Earlier this year Mr Kurz gave up power as a result of a corruption scandal of his far right coalition partner, held the elections and won them decisevely. Mr Kurz is only 33 years old.
Retiring Joseph Daul (72), as well as Donald Tusk who replaces him in a few days, speak of rejuvenation of the EPP leadership. When the important words of the new leader on the defence of European values are spoken on the main stage, one of the EPP activists asserts on a side: “Tusk is a defender of these values” and adds that the success of the new leadership will be measured based on two criteria. First, he expects Fidesz to be removed from the EPP. Second, how aggressively the new EPP leadership will be seeking for new directions for the party and building a “positive agenda”.
Earlier version of this article was published in Polish on Onet.pl