Merkel and Orban call for unity at border where Iron Curtain cracked

Hungarian leader defends anti-immigration stance denounced by EU and Germany

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban: Dr Merkel has praised Hungary’s border guards for “showing the courage to place humanity above the rules” in 1989. Photograph: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban: Dr Merkel has praised Hungary’s border guards for “showing the courage to place humanity above the rules” in 1989. Photograph: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP

 

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban have glossed over their differences and called for European unity as they marked the 30th anniversary of a picnic for peace that pierced the Iron Curtain.

They attended commemoration events on Monday in Sopron, western Hungary, close to where more than 600 East Germans ran across the border into neighbouring Austria during the so-called Pan-European Picnic on August 19th, 1989.

The refusal of Hungarian border guards to stop them, and the Soviet Union’s decision not to react, emboldened pro-democracy movements across central Europe which in the following months brought down the Berlin Wall and toppled communist regimes across the region.

“We Germans recall with great gratitude Hungary’s contribution to overcoming the division of Europe and also Hungary’s contribution to achieving German reunification,” Dr Merkel said during a church service in Sopron.

“Let’s move forward together in freedom, democracy and unity. In this, too, it can give us all strength when we remember the Pan-European Picnic. That is why it is very important for us today to celebrate with the Hungarian prime minister in a place where world history was written 30 years ago.”

Germany strongly opposes Mr Orban’s hard-line anti-immigration policy, but Dr Merkel offered only oblique criticism of his construction of fences on Hungary’s southern border in 2015 to keep out refugees and migrants.

‘A humane Europe’

“Sopron is an example of how we can achieve everything by standing up for our values. Sopron is the symbol of a humane Europe,” she said, while praising Hungary’s border guards in 1989 for “showing the courage to place humanity above the rules”.

“Sometimes, we have to jump over our own shadows to assume our joint responsibilities towards Europe and the world. The refugees arriving from war zones, seeking shelter here, remind us of the importance of fighting against the things that force them to flee.”

Mr Orban and other populist leaders in central Europe have denounced Germany’s stance on asylum and EU efforts to distribute refugees around the bloc, and the immigration debate has caused perhaps the deepest rifts in the bloc since a host of ex-communist states joined in 2004.

Echoing incoming European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, Dr Merkel looked ahead to a “new start, a new beginning to see how we are able to come to common terms” on migration.

Rule of law

Mr Orban was a liberal pro-democracy activist in 1989, but now his government is facing EU legal action over alleged threats to the rule of law posed by his proudly illiberal reforms in areas ranging from asylum to education.

“We believe that we are the fortress captains of the Germans when we are protecting the external borders of Europe, which are also at the same time Germany’s external borders. We are doing this at our own cost. They could be sending us more contributions, ammunition but it seems that border protection is our obligation and we will continue to perform this,” Mr Orban declared.

“Thirty years ago, on this day, we broke the fence between the free world and Hungary with our East German counterparts. With this breakthrough, the wall that separated our country from Europe and made it part of the Soviet world collapsed . . . Even in times of division, our freedom fighters knew that there was only one Europe. Europe was reunited because we believed in it,” he continued.

“Everything depends on this today. If we believe in it, the unity of the east and the west will remain, and Europe will once again become a rich and strong home for the peoples of Europe.”