Varadkar defends visit to Hungary and cites common ground

Taoiseach says he and Viktor Orban agree on Brexit and EU tax and agricultural policies

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban hold a joint news conference in Budapest, Hungary, on Thursday. Photograph: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has defended his visit to Hungary, insisting it was important to maintain dialogue with its prime minister Viktor Orban despite his alleged disregard for democratic values.

On the eve of Mr Varadkar's trip to Budapest, Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin urged the Taoiseach to "have the courage to defend both the values Ireland and the EU have upheld" or risk giving an "implicit endorsement" to Mr Orban's brand of right-wing populism.

Brussels is suing Hungary for rejecting a European Union plan to resettle mostly Muslim refugees around the union, for tightening government control over civil society groups and for education reforms that could force the closure of Budapest's Central European University, which is seen as a bastion of liberal values in the region.

“We had a very direct exchange of views about those issues,” Mr Varadkar said in Budapest on Thursday.


“Particularly on migration for example, and also on European values and freedom of association, freedom of the press and academic freedoms.

“I can’t tell you yet whether it had much of an impact, but I think it’s important to continue that engagement.”

‘Freedom and pride’

Hailing Ireland as a country associated with “freedom and pride”, Mr Orban said a powerful EU could only be based on strong, sovereign states and defended a migration policy that has seen Hungary build fences on its borders to block refugees and migrants.

“Hungary is not against any other country but it insists on retaining its own identity, culture and achievements,” he insisted.

After more than one hour of talks and a working lunch, Mr Varadkar said he and Mr Orban had also found “alignment” on a number of important fronts.

Mr Varadkar said both leaders rejected EU tax harmonisation and agreed that “tax competition is a good thing and that the setting of tax rates . . . should continue to be a sovereign matter”.

“We also have very similar views on Brexit . . . and believe we should try to negotiate a new relationship that maximises free trade and protects economic links between the EU and UK.”

The leaders also support protecting the EU’s common agricultural policy, Mr Varadkar added.

He said there had been no discussion in Budapest of suggestions from some EU states that future funding from the union’s budget could be linked to recipients’ adherence to democracy and rule of law.

Fuelled fears

That growing debate has fuelled fears in Hungary and Poland – which also faces EU court action over its rejection of refugees, and disciplinary proceedings over sweeping judicial reform – that they could lose billions of euro in years to come.

Mr Varadkar said “there are merits in the idea” of tying EU financing to countries’ respect for democratic values, but he also assured Mr Orban of “Ireland’s ongoing support for structural funds for eastern and central Europe”.

Describing Mr Orban as someone who is "very firm in his views and world view", Mr Varadkar said he and his host had also discussed literary matters – including WB Yeats, Angela's Ashes and Arthur Griffith's The Resurrection of Hungary.

On Friday morning Mr Varadkar is due to travel to Bulgaria, which on January 1st took over the rotating presidency of the EU. "We will of course be talking about priorities such as Brexit," he said.

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe