European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has said Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s ruling Fidesz party should leave the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament (EP).
“Against lies there’s not much you can do,” Juncker was quoted as saying by the Reuters news agency, adding that he had called for Fidesz’s expulsion from the EPP.
“They didn’t vote for me in the European Parliament,” he said in Stuttgart, Germany, in a speech.
“The far right didn’t either. I remember Ms. Le Pen, she said: ‘I’m not voting for you.’ I said: ‘I don’t want your vote.’ There are certain votes you just don’t want,” Juncker said, referring to the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
His sharp comments came after Orban’s government unveiled a new campaign accusing Juncker of collaborating with US billionaire George Soros in flooding Europe with migrants.
The Juncker-Soros campaign was a “ludicrous conspiracy theory”, an EU commission spokesperson also said in Brussels earlier on Tuesday.
The dispute comes amid long-standing EU concerns over Orban’s abuse of rule of law and democracy at home.
The EPP group, which dominates the EP, the commission, and the EU Council has shielded him to an extent.
But EPP deputies, last year, voted to trigger a sanctions procedure against Hungary, prompting a debate within the group on whether Fidesz ought to be expelled.
That debate flared up on Tuesday, with Frank Engel, a centre-right MEP from Juncker’s home country, Luxembourg, also calling the Juncker-Soros campaign a “last straw”.
“There is no way we are going to campaign with them overshadowing what we want to do for Europe. The time of Fidesz in the EPP is up,” he said in a post on Facebook.
The EPP’s French president, Joseph Daul, called the campaign “deceitful, misleading”.
“I strongly denounce Hungary’s attacks and baseless conspiracies against president Juncker,” he added.
Daul, who amicably calls Orban the party’s “enfant terrible”, did not indicate he would support expelling Fidesz from EPP.
Frans Timmermans, Juncker’s deputy, who hails from the centre-left Socialist & Democrats (S&D) group, also weighed in after a meeting of EU affairs ministers who, among other things, discussed concerns over the rule of law in Poland and Hungary.
EU ministers had met on Tuesday to discuss the threat of anti-EU disinformation, he noted.
But on the “the same day the council [of member states] discussed the collective fight on disinformation, we also saw, on an official government website, a picture of the commission president with a private individual, alleging all sorts of things that have nothing to do with reality,” Timmermans said.
“It would be a good joke, if it wasn’t so serious,” he added.
For its part, Hungary protested during the meeting that Timmermans, being the lead candidate for the Socialists in the European elections, leads the criticism and assessment of Hungary’s adherence to EU rules.
According to EPP rules, seven parties from five member states are needed to trigger a procedure to expel Fidesz.
But so far, only one party, Finland’s National Coalition Party, has indicated it might be willing to enter into talks on doing so.
The EPP needs the MEPs that Fidesz can deliver in the European elections, in which it is polling to lose dozens of seats to populist and nationalist parties.
The EPP’s lead candidate for Juncker’s job, Manfred Weber, also needs the Hungarian prime minister’s support to become the next president of the EU commission.
He had hoped to put questions on Orban behind him when last September he voted in parliament to start the sanction procedure against Hungary.
Weber kept silent on Tuesday, but Juncker said he ought to ask himself “if I need this [Orban’s] voice” in the EPP.
The 64-year old Juncker, who also served as Luxembourg’s prime minister for 18 years, is on his way out of politics.
But the 55-year old Orban aims to stay and has made no secret of the fact he wants to push the EPP to the right.
He is also popular with EPP parties in Croatia and Slovenia, with the Bavarian CSU party in Germany and with Italy’s Forza Italia.
Some EPP officials also draw parallels with Brexit as a reason to keep him in the fold.
Orban’s departure would recall the then British prime minster, David Cameron’s decision to pull his Conservative party out of the EPP, which set the ball rolling on Britain’s EU exit, EPP officials have said.