Hungary's right-wing leader has lashed out at critics within his own conservative European parliamentary bloc, accusing them of playing into the hands of left-wing opponents. Some members want him booted from the party.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said individuals calling for his party to be expelled from the center-right group in the European Parliament were "useful idiots" for the left.
The populist leader and his Fidesz Party have come under fire for a poster campaign that accuses European Commission (EC) President Jean-Claude Junker of working with Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros to promote illegal migration into Hungary.
The controversial ads sparked an outcry in Brussels and within the European People's Party (EPP) — a bloc of conservative parties across the EU that Fidesz also belongs to.
In an interview with German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Orban said EPP members demanding Fidesz's ouster were aiding left-wing rivals by creating rifts in the political bloc.
"While they believe they're fighting in a spiritual struggle, in fact they're serving the power interests of others — indeed, of our opponents," he said.
Allegations of anti-Semitism
Some critics said the ads had anti-Semitic undertones because they suggested Soros had influence over EU policies much in the same way that the Nazis portrayed Jews as scheming enemies.
In his interview with Welt, Orban said Hungarians didn't consider the posters to be anti-Semitic: "I can't do anything about the fact that George Soros is a Hungarian of Jewish origin."
Orban is one of Europe's most vocal anti-immigrant leaders and often rails against Soros, accusing him of conspiring to purposely weaken Hungary's borders.
While Orban defended his latest poster campaign, he said it would be dropped and replaced with fresh ads — this time targeting EC Vice President Frans Timmermans and Soros.
"The role of Soros for European politics cannot be ignored," he said. "Everyone has the right to know that Timmermans is his professed ally."
Timmermans is the Party of European Socialists' lead candidate to replace Juncker as commission president in EU parliamentary elections in May.
Out of touch?
The EPP's candidate, Germany's Manfred Weber, tweeted in response to Orban's interview that the Hungarian leader was "following the wrong political path, particularly when it comes to style or fundamental questions about the democratic order."
German politician Elmar Brok, also of the EPP, told Welt that Orban's behavior was a "joke," and a sign that he had lost touch with reality.
"Orban is doing massive damage to the EPP," he said, adding that the group should continue to think about whether to expel the Fidesz. So far 10 member parties have said they would back such a move. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel has criticized Orban over the posters, she has stopped short of backing his party's removal.
Much of Orban's conflict with the EU has to do with differing stances on migration policy. At the height of the 2015 migration crisis, he introduced a razor-wire fence along Hungary's southern border and denounced Merkel's decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany.
Since then, he has restricted the possibilities for asylum-seekers to lodge claims in Hungary and vehemently opposed efforts to distribute refugees across the EU.
nm/bw (AP, dpa)