Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Picture: REUTERS / BERNADETT SZABO
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Picture: REUTERS / BERNADETT SZABO

Budapest — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has apologised to European conservative parties for calling them “useful idiots” over an anti-EU billboard campaign that could see his party ejected from the European parliament’s centre-right EPP bloc.

“He has sent a letter of apology to the European People’s Party (EPP),” a government spokesperson said on Thursday.

In a newspaper interview earlier in March, Orban called critics within the EPP “useful idiots” and accused them of helping the group’s leftwing and liberal opponents ahead of European parliament elections in May.

“I would hereby like to express my apologies, if you found my quote personally offensive,” Orban said in his letter to the Belgian Christian Democratic and Flemish party which was published by the De Standaard newspaper.

The letters were sent on Wednesday to leaders of 13 member parties of the EPP who have proposed expelling Orban’s ruling Fidesz party from the bloc, Orban’s press chief Bertalan Havasi told Hungarian newswire MTI.

In the letter, Orban asked party leaders to “reconsider your proposal for expulsion”.

While Fidesz “does not wish to change our own position on the issue of migration, the protection of Christian culture and the future of Europe disagreements should not be solved by expelling a party from our political family”, he said.

The controversial billboard campaign accuses European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and liberal US billionaire George Soros, a bete-noir of Orban’s, of plotting to flood Europe with migrants. Similar messages have appeared on television and internet wesbites while Orban has also sent letters to households nationwide that attack Juncker.

A decision on the future membership of Fidesz will be on the agenda at an EPP meeting on March 20, according to Manfred Weber, the bloc’s leading candidate to replace Juncker later in the year.

Weber met Orban in Budapest on Tuesday and called for the populist leader to apologise for the campaign. “We had talks in a constructive atmosphere but problems are not yet solved,” Weber told reporters.

Weber has demanded that Orban meets three conditions for Fidesz to remain in the EPP, including withdrawing the anti-EU campaign, and apologising to EPP member parties.

The anti-Juncker campaign had “created a burden and damage to the EPP”, Weber said last week. Weber also wants Orban to let the CEU university founded by the Soros stay in Budapest.

The government said it would stop the anti-EU campaign by Friday but the messages were still visible on Thursday in newspapers and on internet sites.