Merkel ally confronts Orban in fight for soul of European right

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. (Reuters pic)

BUDAPEST: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban defended a propaganda campaign targeting European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in the face of a sharp rebuke by German Christian Democrats, adding to signs of bitter division within Europe’s centre-right, ahead of a key ballot in May.

Speaking in a public radio interview on Friday, Orban said billboards depicting Juncker as doing the bidding of Hungarian-born, US liberal donor and billionaire investor George Soros were “based on facts.”

He said Juncker, as head of the EU’s executive arm, was responsible for “letting Britain out and migrants into” the EU.

Orban, a standard-bearer for Europe’s resurgent nationalists, has vowed to push the centre-right European People’s Party, the EU Parliament’s largest group, toward the far-right on issues such as migration, which the Hungarian leader vehemently opposes.

Juncker’s spokesman has said Orban’s arguments are a “ludicrous conspiracy theory.”

Juncker was elected president of the Commission as the candidate of the EPP, an umbrella group of European Christian Democrats to which Orban’s Fidesz party also belongs.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose party is also a member of the EPP, said on Thursday that she was in “full solidarity” with Juncker.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who succeeded Merkel as leader of Germany’s CDU party, said the goal of a united Europe growing together is endangered by the Hungarian government’s campaign.

The CDU may break off contact with Fidesz if “it’s no longer possible to come to an understanding,” Kramp-Karrenbauer, told Der Spiegel magazine.

The EPP has been openly critical of Orban, with most of its lawmakers backing an EU probe into alleged rule-of-law violations in Hungary.

At the same time, the political group has rejected calls to expel Fidesz ahead of May’s European Parliament ballot, where the EPP is looking to fend off nationalists and retain important leadership positions in the EU hierarchy.