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Viktor Orban’s teetering position in the centre-right European People’s party is a defining issue that just won’t go away for Manfred Weber, the group’s chair who would much rather be focusing on his campaign to become European Commission president.

The FT’s Brussels Briefing has joined Weber on the latest stop of his Spitzenkandidat campaign tour in his native Bavaria this week. With less than three months until European Parliament elections, the German’s bid to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker is quietly gaining momentum.

Predicting the outcome of EU job contests is notoriously hard. But EU diplomats increasingly see the German MEP as the frontrunner to succeed Juncker, even as they decry the “lead candidate” process that could propel him to power.

Weber’s EPP will almost certainly emerge as the biggest party in the parliament after May’s vote, putting Weber in pole position when the real haggling starts. Other well-qualified candidates will no doubt emerge who were not a Spitzenkandidat. But for them to have a go at rallying the majority of MEPs required to secure the commission job, they must confront not just Weber but also overturn the whole logic of the Spitzenkandidat system.

Weber, in other words, enjoys some inbuilt advantages. But he has one big handicap: Orban. The Hungarian’s noxious campaign posters against Juncker (an EPP stalwart) and attacks on critics as “useful idiots” have finally tipped the balance. Orban’s Fidesz party is on the brink of expulsion from the powerful centre-right alliance, with a potentially decisive vote of the EPP’s 260-strong party assembly coming in little more than a fortnight.

In an effort to demonstrate his anti-Orban credentials and bat away accusations that he has provided cover for the Hungarian’s antics, Weber last night wrote to EPP president Joseph Daul setting out three conditions Orban must meet to save Fidesz’s membership: apologise to Juncker, promise to stop his Brussels bashing and give the George Soros-backed Central European University the right to stay in Budapest.

These look unlikely to be fulfilled. The CEU has already committed to moving to Vienna and the EPP is not holding its breath for any contrition from the combative Hungarian. Weber says Orban’s failure to meet the conditions means “the only option would be to exclude the party from the EPP”.

But Orban still has powerful friends in the tent. Although 12 EPP parties — including in the Netherlands, Nordics, Belgium and Portugal — have called for his dismissal, the EPP’s rightwing such as France’s Les Républicains, Spain’s conservatives and Austria’s ruling party have not joined in the chorus yet.

One elegant solution in the offing is a “temporary suspension” for Fidesz on March 20. It would allow Weber to save face by appeasing anti-Orban voices while not letting the Hungarian appear a martyr. EPP insiders say Germany’s conservative CDU and Bavarian CSU are leaning towards the suspension rather than the exclusion option. Their votes will be crucial. Any motion against Fidesz needs a simple majority to pass.

As for Weber’s political hopes, Orban this weekend backed the German, calling him a “remarkable” candidate for the commission. The feeling is not mutual. Weber’s campaign bus rolls into another 12 countries in the next three months, completing 26 out of 27 member states. The only missing stop? Hungary.

Chart du jour: Eurozone finds its feet in February

After a miserable run over recent months, a closely watched survey of the eurozone’s service and factory sectors recorded a welcome uptick in February. France, a big loser at the start of year, bounced back to record a growth in output. (FT)

Planet Europe

What to make of Macron
“Macron is back on the offensive in Europe,” Zaki Laidi of Sciences Po tells the FT, in a round-up of reactions to the French president’s op-ed on a new pro-European renaissance. He has won the backing of Germany’s social democrat finance minister and Finland’s Hanseatic Petteri Orpo. Juncker claims the best ideas are his own. But not everyone’s a fan. The EPP’s Weber thinks the president’s vision for Europe all but sidelines the European Parliament (Die Welt).

Italian industrial policy
An Italian official told the FT that Rome plans to sign up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative just after the March summit in Brussels. The move will aggravate EU concerns that the 16+1 grouping of China and central and eastern European states is a Trojan horse with ambitions to divide the bloc. It also flies in the face of current deliberations about how the bloc should build an industrial policy to help its companies compete with state-backed Chinese rivals. Washington is also not amused. (FT)

Snowden edition
Just in case you thought it was over, CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden has decided to join in the copyright wars. He has told his near 4m Twitter followers to petition MEPs into rejecting the draft directive at the end of the month to #SaveYourInternet.

Bailout and beyond
Greece has issued its first benchmark 10-year bond in nine years — a major notch on the economy’s road to recovery after nearly a decade of taxpayer bailouts. (FT/WSJ)

Draghi’s record
Volkskrant looks forward to this week’s European Central Bank meeting by confronting the Mario Draghi paradox: why can’t the ECB chief seem to do anything to raise inflation? Martin Wolf calls on the ECB to rethink its decision to end its stimulus measures and give another leg-up to the ailing eurozone.

Brain drains
Six EU member states have seen more than 10 per cent of their working-age population leave to work elsewhere in the EU. Noah Gordon at the Berlin Policy Journal calculates the cost of freedom of movement for some of Europe’s struggling economies and a possible remedy:

“The correct response is not to restrict freedom of movement within a member state or within the EU, but to continue the redistributive and investment policies that aim to make under-developed regions more attractive, whether we’re talking about a small town in Saxony or the capital of Bulgaria.”

Bombardier’s Brexit
Michel Barnier and Geoffrey Cox, Britain’s attorney-general, met for a long Brexit dinner in Brussels on Tuesday night. There was not even an anodyne statement on how talks went — an ominous sign. With Brexit day fast approaching, the FT reports that Bombardier, one of Northern Ireland’s biggest employers, is putting pressure on the Democratic Unionist party’s 10 MPs to drop their objections to Prime Minister Theresa May’s divorce deal. (FT)

Brexit disconnect
Fifteen Brexit voting regions all received EU subsidies to set up free public WiFi, reports EUObserver. Meanwhile, Willie Walsh, boss of British Airways, has lamented the “shocking” lack of progress in Brexit talks. Walsh has previously insisted his IAG carrier would weather out any Brexit fallout — as long as there’s a deal.

mehreen.khan@ft.com; @mehreenkhn

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