EPP's Weber says problems with Hungary's Fidesz not solved

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Crunch talks on Tuesday between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and European People’s Party leader Manfred Weber have failed to resolve their differences, meaning expulsion of Orban’s Fidesz from the center-right grouping is still possible.

European conservative party leader Manfred Weber makes a statement in the main synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Weber has demanded an immediate and permanent end to Orban’s anti-EU and anti-immigrant campaigning - as well as an apology to EPP members for his rhetoric and renewed support for a university in Hungary.

The EPP groups around 80 parties across Europe and is currently the biggest bloc in the European Parliament, which means it can name the president of the executive European Commission.

As a result, Weber is keen to keep Orban’s nationalist Fidesz on board - as well his supporters across Europe - especially with elections due in the bloc in May that could alter Europe’s political make-up.

“Today my talks with Prime Minister Orban had a constructive atmosphere but the problems are not yet solved,” Weber, a German conservative who heads the EPP’s European Parliament faction, said in Budapest.

Orban’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyas, who is also a vice chairman of Fidesz, told the state news agency MTI that Fidesz wanted to stay within the EPP even though it had some “limits it could not cross”, especially regarding immigration.

The two met for the first time since Weber issue an ultimatum to Orban to honor EPP principles or seek a new political home.

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Weber said the demand for renewed Hungarian government support for the Central European University, founded by liberal financier George Soros, was the single most important issue that had to be resolved for Orban to remain in the EPP.

The university said in December it had been forced out of Hungary after a years-long struggle between Soros, a Hungarian American Jewish billionaire who promotes liberal causes through his charities, and the government of Orban.

In exchange for a permit for CEU to issue American diplomas, the key bone of contention around the school, Weber proposed an expansion of the school with technical research, using support from the Technical University of Munich, the auto giant BMW and several U.S. colleges.

Weber declined to further detail his talks with Orban, saying it was a “work in progress” before the EPP party decides at a summit in Brussels next Wednesday whether to expel Fidesz.

Hungary has said billboards attacking Soros and the EU executive will be replaced this week with others touting Orban’s plan to lift the birth rate. Some of the old ones were being covered with blanks in the capital on Tuesday, while others still on show elsewhere in Hungary.

Gulyas said the poster campaign was officially over, and added that Orban was ready to apologize to anyone he might have offended with his earlier remarks evoking the Communist revolutionary Lenin to call his EPP challengers “useful idiots”.

He reiterated a government line that CEU’s future in Hungary was ensured, even as the university, which plans to begin relocating some courses to neighboring Austria from September, said its expulsion from Hungary still stood.

Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Alison Williams