Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban left Brussels on a defiant note on Saturday, in spite of promising European colleagues he would “behave” and settle a stand-off with the European Commission.
Mr Orban came under heavy pressure from leaders of his centre-right EU group amid growing impatience and concern across the bloc over Budapest undermining independent universities and mounting a brazen anti-EU publicity campaign.
However only hours after offering private assurances over the legal disputes with the commission, Mr Orban left a Brexit summit in Brussels saying he had “defended Hungary against the [European] attack”.
Mr Orban had been called to defend his recent illiberal policies in front of the European Parliament on Wednesday and again on Saturday morning in talks with Joseph Daul, president of the European People’s party — the group of major centre-right parties that includes Mr Orban’s Fidesz.
The EPP, which has faced criticism for shielding Mr Orban in the past, declared that it had made progress after “an open and frank conversation” with the Hungarian prime minister. Asked by journalists how the discussion went, Mr Orban snapped to attention and said he would “behave”.
But his defiant exit from Brussels will reinforce concerns that Mr Orban’s promise of compromise was little more than a tactical shimmy. It underlines how the EU has struggled to respond to the illiberal turn in the politics of Hungary and Poland, which Brussels sees as challenging the bloc’s fundamental values but has limited powers to address.
Budapest is under fire for new policies which crack down on universities, asylum and registration of non-governmental organisations as well as a government “stop Brussels” campaign, in which it sent 8m letters to Hungarians accusing the EU of jeopardising the country’s independence.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor whose Christian Democrats are part of the EPP, said Mr Dual had informed her that that Mr Orban is ready to rethink his position.
“What will be important for me, and this applies to the commission, I trust, as well, is what will then be the actual result of this,” Ms Merkel said.
Manfred Weber, the EPP’s leader in the European Parliament, said: “The measures in Budapest are not acceptable. Academic freedom must be guaranteed. So after this discussion the ball is in his [Orban’s] court. If he reacts properly, then he is a team player. If not, there will be consequences.”
Hungary tightened rules for foreign-registered universities this month, in a move that was criticised as an attack on academic freedom and threatens to force the Central European University to shutdown.
On Wednesday, the commission opened a legal case against the education law. Officials in Budapest have one month to respond. The commission also published a four-page rebuttal to Budapest’s multimillion-euro information campaign, saying it contained six claims that were “factually incorrect or highly misleading”.
The EPP politicians who met with Mr Orban said he agreed to follow the recommendations of the European Commission, particularly on the university case.
The EPP made no mention of expelling Mr Orban’s party from the group, but said the “constant attacks on Europe, which Fidesz has launched for years” has “reached a level we can not tolerate”.
Additional reporting by Arthur Beesley