BRUSSELS — For years, Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban, has clashed with the European Union as he steadily eroded democracy in his country, but time and again, an alliance of conservative European political parties has shielded him from serious penalties.
On Wednesday, he lost that shield.
Relations between Mr. Orban and the center-right group, the European People’s Party, had become increasingly frayed as he grew more authoritarian, and the alliance had signaled that it might finally expel him. But Mr. Orban jumped first on Wednesday, pulling his Fidesz party out of the group.
Membership in the grouping has given Mr. Orban and Fidesz clout and a degree of legitimacy within Europe. The party includes mainstream conservatives like the Christian Democrats of Germany, the Republicans of France and Forza Italia in Italy, and is the strongest faction in the European Parliament.
No longer have to provide cover for him could spell some relief for the center-right grouping. Some European conservatives have long complained that accommodating Mr. Orban meant compromising their principles and enabling him and what he called his “illiberal state.”
Isolation from powerful E.U. allies who have long protected him from harsher punishment for his anti-democratic backsliding could cost Hungary desperately needed E.U. funds. His government hopes to receive billions in E.U. coronavirus-recovery stimulus funds, which have been tied to adherence to the rule of law.
But Mr. Orban could spin his decision to withdraw from the European People’s Party as an act of political bravery, hoping to energize his image as a European renegade at home, where he faces his the most serious crisis since he took office in 2010.
Hungary’s health care system is straining under the weight of a coronavirus pandemic that is raging largely unchecked, the economy in tatters and the opposition has banded together for the first time to take on Mr. Orban in elections that are scheduled for next year.
In European politics, it is not yet clear whether Mr. Orban and Fidesz will make an alliance with any other nationalist, populist or far-right groups, like Italy’s League party.
As Mr. Orban has eliminated the independence of Hungary’s judiciary and much of its media, targeted civil society groups, stifled dissent and pushed back refugees from war-torn Syria, pressure grew within the European People’s Party to ostracize him.
The group suspended Fidesz in 2019, and recently changed its rules in a way that would make it easier to expel a member. It was set to vote on whether to expel Fidesz at its next in-person meeting, which has not yet to been scheduled, it said in a statement.
In a letter announcing the withdrawal of Fidesz, Mr. Orban said that at a time when countries were battling the coronavirus the European People’s Party “is paralyzed by its inner administrative issues” and was “trying to mute” Hungarian deputies.
Manfred Weber, the alliance’s leader in the European Parliament, said it was a “sad day” for the grouping and thanked departing Fidesz members for their contributions. But he blamed “ongoing attacks” by Mr. Orban against the European Union and the rule of law in Hungary for the rupture.
For now the move is largely symbolic and political, rather than practical.
Even without Fidesz’s 12 members, the European People’s Party remains the largest in the European Parliament, and the Fidesz delegates will not lose any rights in the assembly.
The long breakup between Mr. Orban and the center-right grouping highlights how mutually beneficial the relationship had been.
Europe’s mainstream conservatives have long been reluctant to act decisively against Mr. Orban, as they, themselves, have titled to the right, wary of challenges from rising far-right parties.
Fidesz has provided votes for their bloc, which has in turn supported, or at least tolerated, Mr. Orban as he methodically dismantled democratic institutions at home.
For Mr. Orban, membership in the European People’s Party has lost some appeal, as the access it has long afforded him to allies is waning.
He is set to lose his key ally in the group, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who will soon be stepping down. Analysts say Mr. Orban has calculated he would be unlikely to enjoy a close relationship with whoever follows Ms. Merkel, so the grouping would no longer be as useful to him.
This alliance between Mr. Orban and Ms. Merkel has benefited both sides, said R. Daniel Kelemen, a professor of European politics at Rutgers University. “Mr. Orban gets political protection and legitimacy,” he said, “and Mrs. Merkel gets votes for her policy agenda in the European Parliament from Mr. Orban’s delegates, as well as preferential treatment for German companies in Hungary.”
As a result, “alliances that would be deemed unacceptable at the national level happen routinely at the E.U. level,” he said.
“Merkel’s party would never ally with the far-right or any authoritarian party within Germany,” he said. “But it is perfectly happy to ally with Orban’s authoritarian party at the E.U. level, mostly because German voters don’t realize this is happening.”
While Mr. Orban was embraced by former President Donald Trump, the Biden administration has criticized his policies in Hungary.
Mr. Orban’s undermining of Hungary’s democratic institutions has led prominent watchdogs to say the country is no longer a democracy, often blaming Europe’s conservatives for enabling him.
In 2015, when more than a million refugees fled to Europe seeking safety from Syria, Mr. Orban built a fence along Hungary’s borders and imposed draconian penalties against those seeking asylum in the country.
Mr. Orban’s stance drew support from those in the European Union who saw the arrival of refugees as a threat to the bloc.
But many European conservatives also spoke out against Mr. Orban.
“This is not the Middle Ages,” said Frank Engel, head of Luxembourg’s Christian Social People’s Party, a member party of the center-right grouping. “This is the 21st century. European Christian civilization is perfectly capable of defending itself without Mr. Orban erecting his fences.”
Benjamin Novak reported from Budapest. Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels.