BUDAPEST — For nearly a decade, Viktor Orban has used his perch as Hungarian prime minister to dismantle democratic institutions, incite anti-Semitic prejudice, stoke hatred toward refugees and generally thumb his nose at the values for which Europe claims to stand.
And, every step of the way, he has had the support of Europe’s most important political family. Alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other mainstream European power players, he has been a member in good standing of the center-right bloc that has dominated the continent’s politics. The group has showered him with money and protection, while he supplies badly needed votes in Brussels.
But perhaps not for much longer.
For the first time, a substantial segment of the bloc has decided to break that Faustian bargain and expel Orban. The issue will be settled in a highly anticipated vote among party-family members this week.
The outcome will have significant implications for Hungary, for European parliamentary elections this spring and for the future leadership of the continent. It may, too, be an elemental test of European identity as nationalist strongmen rise within a union that was supposed to be pluralistic and free.
“This is not some distant autocrat. This is an autocrat within the heart of Europe,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Is the European Union going to continue to subsidize the principal internal attacker of its core democratic values? It’s an existential question.”
Roth was delivering an address last week at Central European University (CEU), a school that has become a symbol of Orban’s oppression. The U.S.-accredited university is being forced out of Budapest, a victim of the prime minister’s vendetta against the school’s founder, Hungarian American financier George Soros.
But as part of the negotiation over whether Orban and his party, Fidesz, can stay within Europe’s center-right bloc, known as the European People’s Party (EPP), the university’s future is back on the line.
Keeping the school in Budapest is one of three demands made of Orban by Manfred Weber, a German politician who is leading the EPP in May’s elections, and who would like to take one of two top jobs in Brussels after the vote. Whether the prime minister complies could determine whether EPP members decide to eject Orban on Wednesday.
The moves to curb his behavior after years of enabling it stems from a personal insult delivered via highway billboards.
Many of Orban’s critics within Hungary have long pushed for the EPP to hold him to account, reasoning that the loss of support from the bloc would cost the prime minister critical E.U. subsidies and protection from attempts in Brussels to censure Hungary. Faced with that sort of pressure, the argument has gone, the 55-year-old might be more restrained.
But as Orban rewrote the constitution, commandeered supposedly independent institutions, leveled dog-whistle attacks on Soros, criminalized help for refugees and turned Hungary into a de facto one-party state, the bloc has stood idly by.
It took a billboard campaign targeting one of the EPP’s own — European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker — to rouse indignation.
The campaign, funded by Hungarian taxpayers, has featured unflattering photos of Juncker side-by-side with Soros, along with an insinuation that the two are hatching a secret plan to flood the country with migrants.
“It’s your right to know what Brussels is cooking up,” the caption reads.
For many in the EPP, it was a step too far. EPP parties from a dozen countries called for Orban’s expulsion. Weber — whose Bavarian Christian Social Union party has been a close ally of the Hungarian leader — swept into Budapest last week seeking an end to the billboard campaign, and an apology.
“What we want to guarantee is that Fidesz is committed to EPP values, and Hungary is a clear pro-European country which sticks to European values,” Weber said in a news conference at Budapest’s historic central synagogue.
Weber cited a reason to be hopeful: The posters lining the road to and from the Budapest airport, where he had just landed, were being removed as he spoke.
But the government had already announced plans to end the poster campaign by March 15, suggesting that Weber was seeking credit for something that had already been decided.
To Orban’s critics, it was just one more reason to be skeptical that Weber and his fellow conservatives are serious about getting tough on Orban.
“Weber’s come far too late. The patient is nearly dead. And here comes the doctor with some new ideas,” said Peter Balazs, a former Hungarian foreign minister.
Speaking alongside Roth at CEU, Hungarian human rights activist Marta Pardavi called Weber’s demands “drapery on the dismantling of democracy.”
Her organization — the Hungarian Helsinki Committee — has been relentlessly attacked by the government for daring to assist refugees and other vulnerable groups. But those attacks, as well as assaults on the independence of the judiciary and the press, went unmentioned in Weber’s demands.
Of his three red lines, the only one with a chance to make a substantive impact in Hungary is his insistence that CEU be allowed to stay.
Weber came to his two-hour meeting with Orban armed with a proposal to use Bavarian money to endow professorships at the university and create a partnership with the Technical University of Munich.
CEU has cautiously welcomed Weber’s advocacy, while stressing that its problems are legal, not financial. Under a law targeting the school, CEU’s U.S.-accredited program has been barred from admitting new students, forcing it to announce a move to Vienna.
“You don’t fight a battle for two years for academic freedom to trade it away at the last second for a couple of professorships,” said Michael Ignatieff, the university’s president. “We have a reputation to defend.”
Orban has said repeatedly that he wants to stay in the EPP, and he has called Weber “a great man” who has earned his support for the European Commission presidency.
But the Hungarian leader has also called fellow EPP members “useful idiots” — a remark for which he has since apologized — while the tightly controlled pro-government press has urged him to preemptively ditch the center-right bloc and set out on his own.
That double message — known in Hungary as Orban’s “peacock dance” — reflects the fact that the prime minister is negotiating from a strong position.
If the EPP keeps him, he will continue to reap the benefits of membership while proving that Europe’s most powerful leaders need him too much to set him adrift.
And if he’s ejected, he can lock arms with far-right parties across Europe that are politically ascendant and that view him as a hero.
“He will become more radical. He will feel that there are no more constraints,” said Istvan Hegedus, a former Fidesz parliamentarian who broke from the party and now leads the Hungarian Europe Society. “That’s certainly a danger.”
But there’s a risk for Orban, too, in leaving the protective confines of the EPP and linking up with a bloc that may be gaining influence but is still not powerful enough to lead in Europe.
That’s one reason Agoston Mraz expects him to stay within the center-right family. Mraz, leader of the Nezopont Institute, a pro-government think tank, said Orban has deliberately provoked conflict with the EPP because he knows it plays well with his voters to attack Brussels. But he is also careful to avoid crossing true red lines.
Orban’s ultimate goal, Mraz said, is not to be an insurgent, lobbing stones at the powerful from the outside. It is to commandeer and transform Europe from within.
“The dream,” Mraz said, “is to take over.”
Blanka Zoldi and Gergo Saling contributed to this report.