Hungary’s leader calls his EU parliament critics ‘useful idiots’

Some members of center-right European People’s Party are seeking to oust Viktor Orban’s Fidesz over illiberal policies, anti-migration ad campaign

In this Sunday, February 10, 2019 file photo, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers his annual "State of Hungary" speech in Budapest, Hungary. The inscription reads: "For us Hungary is the first!" (Szilard Koszticsak/MTI via AP, File)
In this Sunday, February 10, 2019 file photo, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers his annual "State of Hungary" speech in Budapest, Hungary. The inscription reads: "For us Hungary is the first!" (Szilard Koszticsak/MTI via AP, File)

BERLIN (AP) — Hungary’s populist prime minister described members of a European Union political group who want his party expelled as “useful idiots,” saying in an interview published Sunday they are playing into the hands of left-wing opponents.

Discussion over whether Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party should remain part of the center-right European People’s Party intensified after the Hungarian government launched a public ad campaign last month opposing the positions of EU leaders on migration.

Critics see anti-Semitic undertones in the billboards, posters, print and television ads that carry images of Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

By suggesting that Soros influences European Union policies on mass migration, some of those offended by the campaign say it evokes Nazi-era propaganda that portrayed Jews as puppet-masters and international enemies.

Orban said in an interview with Germany’s Welt newspaper that EU parliament members who want Fidesz kicked out of the European People’s Party were “useful idiots” for the left, using an expression commonly attributed to Lenin.

A billboard from a campaign of the Hungarian government showing EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Hungarian-American financier George Soros with the caption, “You, too, have a right to know what Brussels is preparing to do,” is displayed on a street in Budapest, Hungary, February 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Gorondi)

“While they believe they’re fighting in a spiritual struggle, in fact they’re serving the power interests of others — indeed, of our opponents,” Orban said.

Orban said Hungarians don’t consider the posters anti-Semitic.

“I can’t do anything about the fact that George Soros is a Hungarian of Jewish origin,” he added. Soros has been the target of various Hungarian government smear campaigns in the past few years.

The European People’s Party is the largest trans-national political group in the European Parliament. It was founded to represent Christian Democrats.

Some of Fidesz’s fellow members, including parties from Belgium, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Luxembourg and Greece, have fiercely criticized Hungary’s campaign. The ads follow years of grumbling within the group over Orban’s efforts to build an “illiberal state.”

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker delivers a speech during a debate on the future of Europe during a plenary session at the European Parliament on May 30, 2018 in Strasbourg, eastern France. (AFP Photo/Frederick Florin)

The European Parliament voted in September to launch a sanctioning process over the Hungarian government’s perceived shortcomings regarding the rule of law and European values. The procedure could lead to Hungary losing its voting rights in the EU.

In his interview with Welt, Orban seemed to offer a possible compromise, which on closer inspection hardly changed his position on the migration policy campaign.

He told the newspaper that government ads against Juncker would soon be withdrawn. However, he said Fidesz would be launching its own campaign, with European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans replacing the EU chief.

Timmermans is the lead candidate of the Party of European Socialists to succeed Juncker after May’s European Parliament election. He has been highly critical of Orban, and Orban has repeatedly expressed his disdain for the Dutch politician.

The European People’s Party candidate seeking to succeed Juncker, Manfred Weber, tweeted in response to Orban’s interview that the Hungarian leader was “following the wrong political path, particularly when it comes to style or fundamental questions about the democratic order.”

First Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans delivers a speech during a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, July 5, 2017. (AFP/Frederick Florin)

Weber linked to his interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, published Friday, in which he said “Orban badly damaged the EPP” with the Soros poster campaign.

In the interview, he said Orban had a “weak” approach that relies on “scaremongering” instead of persuasive advocacy.

“I expect him to apologize and put an end to the poster campaign,” Weber said in the interview. “Beyond that, we cannot simply return to business as usual….We will take concrete steps very soon.”

He did not say whether he’d support the removal of Fidesz from the EPP, but told Spiegel “all options are on the table.”

“Enough is enough,” Weber said. “That is our message.”

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