Merkel and Orbán meet in Berlin


EDINA OSZTROVSZKY
International Analyst


After a hiatus of more than three years, a formal bilateral meeting took place between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in early July. Rather than an event long planned for, the meeting was a consequence of the crisis in the German government with respect to migration policy. On 18 June, the German Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer gave Merkel a two-week ultimatum to find a Europe-wide solution to combat migration. The very next day, German press reports stated that the German Chancellor would receive the Hungarian Prime Minister in Berlin on 5 July. This hasty organization shows how vitally important it was for Angela Merkel to meet Viktor Orbán as soon as possible in order to position herself successfully on the domestic political stage. With this gesture, Merkel sought to demonstrate to Seehofer that she was even prepared to sit down at the negotiating table with the Hungarian Prime Minister, whose migration policy is diametrically opposed to her own. So it was that a German Chancellor in crisis and desperate for political stability met in person with a Hungarian Prime Minister backed by a stable government.

Looking beyond the crisis in her government, Merkel has in all likelihood woken up to the fact that the future of the European Union is increasingly less dependent only on the German-French axis. The role of the Visegrád Four, Germany’s most important trading partner, is growing in significance both politically and economically. Viktor Orbán is publicly recognized as the leader of the region, which is why it is impossible for Merkel to ignore him. From this point of view, the meeting also carried symbolic significance for both the Hungarian Prime Minister and the Visegrád countries, as, in inviting Viktor Orbán to meet her, the German Chancellor not only recognized him as a major European politician, but also identified the V4 as a competent, strong-willed region capable of influencing the future of the European Union.

Of course, in addition to its symbolic significance, the meeting also came at an ideal time for the Hungarian Prime Minister from a practical point of view. The EU summit in late June also ended with a satisfactory outcome for Hungary, as the obligatory quota system regulating the distribution of refugees was not put into force. Stronger protection of external borders – something which has been continually pushed for by the Hungarian government since the beginning of the migrant crisis – will be assigned an important role in the future fight against illegal migration. There is further consensus on this issue from the main political vector of the European People’s Party: according to one document published in recent weeks, the fight against illegal migration and the protection of borders is a central part of the EPP program for the European Parliament elections.

This is another battle won by the Hungarian government, though the endgame for the migration issue is still some way off. For example, in the draft for a proposal being developed by the European Commission, although the immigration mechanism to be introduced is no longer referred to as a quota system, the proposed solution will focus on handling migration and the distribution of refugees, not the protection of external borders and reduction of migration. The Merkel-Orbán summit serves as a good example of the extent to which this debate dominates the European political arena. When it comes to migration, the standpoints of Germany and Hungary have grown no closer. Ever since the early days of the migration crisis, the Hungarian government has maintained a consistent policy on immigration and continues to refuse to accept illegal migrants. Though they were registered in Hungary, many of the immigrants arriving in Hungary did not enter the Schengen Zone in Hungary, but in Greece. It follows that it is Greece’s duty to accept these people back. Angela Merkel does not agree, while she also fails to recognize that her migration policy to date has served as an open invitation for illegal immigrants to risk their lives to come to Europe. As a result, the disagreements on this topic between the two politicians still cannot be resolved. The context of the meeting, however, clearly shows that the political currents which are critical of migration and originated in the Visegrád Group are becoming increasingly attractive to people living in Western parts of Europe – as the Austrian and Italian elections have shown. This change in the public mood and the European political environment is a challenge which the German Chancellor may have to contend with herself in the not-too-distant future, while she will also be forced to make more radical compromises in order to preserve the stability of the government.

Though they were unable to come any closer in terms of their positions on the migration issue, the two leaders were in agreement on the continuing major significance of economic ties between the two countries. It is important to note that Germany remains Hungary’s most important trading partner in Europe. The future will see even greater cooperation in terms of research, innovation and technology in order to encourage continued growth in investment and trade volume. As well as agreement in these areas, the two leaders also believe that German and Hungarian educational and cultural ties are excellent and indicate that they will strive to make these relations even closer in the future. Last but not least, the two parties also discussed defense policy, with both politicians stating that cooperation in this area will also be closer and more intense in future.

Overall, it is fair to say that the meeting between Merkel and Orbán was far from unsuccessful. While there was no consensus reached on the most pressing issue – migration – there are deepening ties between the two countries on a range of other issues. It is also worthy of note that, in the context of the upcoming European Parliament elections, it is in the common interests of CDU/CSU – who also belong to the European People’s Party group – and Fidesz to maintain positive party relations. Victory in the elections can only be assured, however, if the members of the group remain united, irrespective of any differences of opinion they may have.

 

Source: www.kormany.hu, photo: Balázs Szecsődi/Press Office of the Prime Minister, Szilárd Koszticsák/MTI