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Hungary’s ruling party guards place in EU center-right fold

Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilae (left) welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the prime minister's official residence Kesaeranta in Helsinki on Wednesday.
Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilae (left) welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the prime minister's official residence Kesaeranta in Helsinki on Wednesday.(MARTTI KAINULAINEN/AFP/Getty Images)

HELSINKI — Hungary’s ruling party pledged Wednesday to respect democracy and the rule of law as center-right parties across Europe weighed whether to eject it and the Hungarian prime minister from the biggest and most influential political group in the European Union.

Fidesz party lawmakers made the commitment at a congress of the European People’s Party group, where an ‘‘emergency resolution’’ was introduced partly to establish where the stridently nationalist party’s sympathies lay.

Delegates at the congress vowed to promote the values of ‘‘human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.’’

Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is preparing for the most direct step yet in a drive to subdue the country’s judiciary, ignoring efforts by the European Union to push back against such moves.

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The Cabinet in Budapest plans to take political control over a newly created high court for public administration. The EU’s top court just weeks ago ordered Poland to halt a court revamp that would open the way for the ouster of supreme court justices. The two illiberal allies are under monitoring for alleged rule-of-law violations, which may result in the suspension of their voting rights.

The proposed court will be split from the supreme court and operate as a separate entity under the justice minister, according to a bill posted on parliament’s website on Tuesday. The head of the new court will report directly to the minister, who will pick new judges and control the institution’s budget. The bill cites the need for the minister to ‘‘take greater political responsibility’’ for the court’s work. It also pledges to respect ‘‘the principle of judicial independence and separation of powers.’’

The EPP, the group uniting Europe’s center-right parties, has been wringing its hands over whether to keep Orban and Fidesz in the fold or cut them loose before European Parliament elections in May.

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Far-right and populist parties have made big gains in EU countries as their leaders bicker over what experts say should be an eminently manageable level of mass migration. Orban’s government erected razor-wire fences to keep migrants out as hundreds of thousands of people — most of them refugees from Syria and Iraq — tried to enter Europe in 2015.

EU lawmakers voted in September to pursue unprecedented action against the Hungarian government for attempting to undermine the bloc’s democratic values and rule of law. However, some EPP insiders fear that pushing Orban out might push him into the arms of far-right parties such as nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) or France’s National Rally.

Others worry that a policy of containment might undermine the EPP and shift it further right.

A recent battle between Brussels and Italy’s populist government over the country’s budget plans and stalled negotiations over Britain’s departure from the EU in March are other sources of concern that the European project could face chaos after the May parliamentary polls.

In their resolution in Helsinki, delegates underlined that the group’s values were ‘‘being challenged in an unprecedented manner’’ and said populist and nationalist extremism were among the biggest threats ‘‘to freedom and democracy in Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain.’’

The two-day meeting — involving government leaders from Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, Slovenia, and the EU’s main institutions — is a chance for the group to thrash out its strategy to hold power in the polls and nominate its lead candidate.

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Material from Bloomberg News was used in this report.