Austria hails Hungary on migration and seeks to bridge EU's east-west divide

Leaders disagree over Hungary's nuclear plant and Austrian cuts to benefits

 Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and  Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz  at a press conference after their meeting in Vienna. Photograph: Lisi Niesner/EPA

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz at a press conference after their meeting in Vienna. Photograph: Lisi Niesner/EPA

 

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz has praised visiting Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s tough stance on immigration, and said Vienna wants to help heal a rift between some eastern and western states over the future of the European Union.

Opponents criticised Mr Kurz for meeting Mr Orban, whose government is being sued by the EU over rule-of-law issues, and who was also due to meet far-right Freedom Party leader and vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache.

“We need to stop illegal migration to ensure security in the EU . . . it’s in all of our interests that we work together,” Mr Kurz said.

Hungary is an important neighbour for us. We are grateful for co-operation on protection of the EU’s external borders and the closure of the west Balkan route,” he added later on Twitter, recalling how Mr Orban built border fences in 2015 after about one million refugees and migrants trekked into Europe from the Middle East.

‘Greatest threat’

Mr Orban said migration was the “greatest threat today to a bright future for central Europe” and insisted that protection of Europe’s outer frontiers was vital if the EU’s Schengen Area of “borderless” travel was to survive.

“If we want Schengen, we have to close the external borders and open the internal borders, but what’s happening today is that they want to open the external borders and close the internal ones, which is the exact opposite,” he said.

The EU is taking Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to court over their refusal to accept quotas of refugees.

Brussels is also suing Hungary for tightening government control over civil society groups and over education reform that could force the closure of Budapest’s Central European University, a bastion of liberal values in the region.

‘Common goals’

Several central European states strongly oppose calls in Germany, France and elsewhere for deeper EU integration, and Mr Kurz said he shared Mr Orban’s concerns about over-reach from Brussels into the affairs of member states.

“Above all, our common goals are to stop illegal migration and strengthen subsidiarity in the EU. Austria can and wants to make a contribution to reinforce cohesion in the EU and reduce tension,” Mr Kurz said.

Vienna could play a “bridging role” between east and west, he added.

Mr Kurz said he opposed the planned expansion of Hungary’s Paks nuclear power station, however, while Mr Orban criticised Austria for reducing benefit payments to families of workers from poorer EU states.