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#EP2019—Insights from Hungary and Poland (I)

When I was an active party member and an elected Local Councillor until 2014, the European Parliament election campaign period was something I looked forward to, since it had given me the opportunity to knock on many people’ doors and see how they would be casting their votes at the elections.  Now with all the uncertainties attached to the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, however awkward this might sound there is still a slim chance of UK taking a part in the EP elections, we need to wait and see for this.

Whereas the European election campaign trail is in full swing in the latecomer members of the EU: Hungary and Poland.  Since these two countries are beginning to take a huge part of my academic research, I feel lucky enough to be able to take part in the EP elections, not through door knocking this time, but through providing insights from Hungary and Poland concerning issues, pledges and tensions in these countries over the next twelve weeks on ideasoneurope.

While immigration is the main issue, related matters like Hungary’s EU membership and the EU budget are also what drive the election campaign in Hungary, so far at least.

What is most talked about not just domestically, but at the EU level too is the billboard poster published in mid-February by the Eurosceptic and ruling party, Fidesz, Hungarian Civic Alliance, that is likely to maintain its 13 seats in the EP. The billboard suggests that George Soros, the Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President, are pushing for migration a plan that threatens Hungary’s security by introducing a mandatory resettlement quota.

Soros has been a source of campaign for Fidesz for a number of years now, but having Juncker’s picture published in the same billboard with him with such a slogan has caused an outrage at the EU level. Currently the EPP, the European People’s Party groups to which Fidesz belongs to, is considering whether to expel Fidesz from the EPP.

The fate of Fidesz will be decided on 20th March at the EPP’s convention. If Fidesz is expelled before the EP elections, I reckon Orban’s administration will exploit this as a campaign issue up and down the country, which might also open up the gates for Fidesz to join a Eurosceptic party group in the EP after the elections.

While writing up this blog, Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party in the EP, who is also the EPP’s Spitzenkandidaten, have issued a warning to Orban, saying that Orban must end his government’s anti-Brussels campaigns and should apologise to other EPP member parties, if Fidesz wants to remain part of the EPP.

When you think that now Orban’s administration might take a step back on its campaign narrative, this morning we woke up to another Fidesz campaign billboard, which this time also included a picture of Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission and Party of European Socialists’ Spitzenkandidaten.

The billboard has pictures of Soros, Weber and Timmermans at the top, while the bottom part shows pictures of a queue of mostly non-white migrants and refugees, exactly the same picture Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, used in his campaign poster during the UK’s EU member referendum period in 2016. And it reads as: “Brussels is whining because they think Hungary has crossed a line. But Brussels is quiet when thousands cross the border illegally”. The content of this poster will make many in the EU circles worry about how far Orban’s administration can go with this narrative and what consequences this could have for the EU project.

One other related matter to this is the allocation of the EU’s long-term budget 2021-2027. As of now the European Commission is planning to protect the EU’s budget in case of generalised deficiencies as regards the rule of law in the Member States, based on Article 322(1)(a) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European. Under this procedure Hungary may suffer from budgetary loss, since the policy choices made by Fidesz meant Hungary undermining core values of the EU, hence the rule of law.

Cynically Fidesz is turning this around and connects the EU’s budgetary proposals to Hungary’s anti-immigration stance, claiming that the European Commission is punishing Hungary for not admitting non-Christians into Hungary. This means that Fidesz is exploiting this situation for its own electorate gains, while misinforming its own citizens.

Whereas Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, which fights the elections in the hope of gaining three to four seats in the EP, claims that Orban’s administration aims to take Hungary out of the EU. After Brexit saga, I guess there is less appetite for this anywhere in the EU. Well however Tibor Bana, deputy leader of Jobbik, posits that Orban has links with Russian businessmen and that he aims to consolidate this relationship further by leaving the EU. I obviously do not buy into these claims, but it might find some audience in some parts of Hungary where distrust for Orban is beginning to take some ground.

Moving on to Poland, since Polish national parliamentary elections are going to be taking place this year either in October or November, thus the election campaigns for both elections are intertwined and so are the issues at stake.

It seems to me that last year’s local election results and the lessons the main Polish political parties have taken from this is likely to shape the Polish political parties’ election propagandas and the steps they will take.

As of now, however, the debate in Poland is more about which political party is forming alliances with whom. More so who is taking a part in the pro-Europeans/Progressive group and what is the make of the anti-EU/Eurosceptics group.

The governing party PiS, the Law and the Justice Party, is predicted to increase its share of seats in the EP by 6-7 to 24-25. It already made some social policy pledges including to increase public spending by up to $10 billion a year, raising child subsidies, state pensions and transport infrastructure.

It is speculated that the PiS may form an alliance with Paweł Piotr Kukiz’s populist party Kukiz’15, as well as Eurosceptic Confederation KORWIN Braun Liroy. This in my opinion suggests that PiS is leaning further to the right, consolidating the fears that Eurosceptics elements of PiS are getting stronger and more affective than before.

Whereas the pro-EU groups do also consider forming an alliance; there are five opposition political parties expressed an interest. These include: Civic Platform, Modern party (Nowoczesna), Polish People’s Party, Democratic Left Alliance and Greens.

The issues that seem to be occupying the agendas of the pro-EU group are Poland’s EU membership and EU’s long-term budget. Like back in October last year at the Local elections, the pro-EU alliance again suggests that PiS is going to take Poland out of the EU. As far as my reading is concerned, there is not any evidence to support this point of view, but last time this claim made the pro-EU political parties increase their share of votes, so it may work again for them.

Like we have seen in Hungary’s case, the EU’s long-term budget is also matter of debate in Poland too. Since Poland is also going to see reductions in the structural and cohesion funds due to the PiS’s policy choices which have been conflicting with the EU’s core values. The progressives criticise the government for not fighting for a better budget and pledge to do this for Poland when they are elected.

Overall what could be said about the campaign trail in Hungary and Poland is that the debates is only beginning to shape and we need to patiently watch the next steps each political party or party alliances will take from now and onwards.

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