Merkel and Orban vie for upper hand on humanity and borders

PM claims Hungary being misunderstood in efforts to protect Europe and Schengen zone

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and German chancellor Angela Merkel: Asked about policy to criminalise people deemed to have aided illegal immigration, Mr Orban said his country pursued “humane” policies. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and German chancellor Angela Merkel: Asked about policy to criminalise people deemed to have aided illegal immigration, Mr Orban said his country pursued “humane” policies. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

 

In the end, Angela Merkel’s fraying patience with Viktor Orban snapped – although in the nicest way possible.

“Right, now we’re taking a photo,” she said, marching the visiting Hungarian leader over to the flags beside the chancellery press conference podiums. After a brief handshake and a curt nod, she was off to meet Theresa May.

Thus ended a remarkable ding-dong that laid bare the bitter political and cultural difference at the heart of Europe’s unresolved migration and borders policy. Liberal or restrictive, open or closed, and which is more humane?

At an energetic press conference in Berlin, in which neither leader wanted the other to have the last word, Merkel insisted Germany was no Hungary on migration even after agreeing to set up closed “transit camps” for asylum seekers on the border with Austria.

Migration policy always has to do with people, she said, and if Europe forgets that it risks losing its most basic value: humanity.

“The soul of Europe is humanity and if we want to preserve that, and for our values to play a role in the world, we cannot simply cut ourselves off,” she said. Even a Europe that protects its outer borders cannot become a “fortress”, she said, a nod to the Hungarian leader and the fence his government erected on its southern border in 2015.

Bristling with indignation, Orban said Hungarians were “hurt” at being portrayed as inhumane or lacking solidarity for building a fence on its southern border.

‘Serious solidarity’

“The fact is that 24 hours a day in Hungary, 8,000 armed soldiers protect the border because if they come to us they come to Germany . . . that is serious solidarity,” he said. “We don’t just protect ourselves, we also take a burden from Germany by not letting anyone enter Hungary.”

The visitor from Budapest indicated no willingness to accept back from Germany asylum seekers detained there who have already been registered in Hungary.

Merkel holds out no hope on this front, given Hungary’s interpretation of the Dublin migration rules which make the EU country a migrant enters first responsible for registering and processing them. “We have a problem that Hungary doesn’t see itself as responsible even if it registers them,” she said.

Orban hit back that it was “not our task” to recognise migrants who had already been in Greece or elsewhere in the EU first – and predicted “a long and drawn-out legal row” to resolve this.

He disputed the western European portrayal of Hungary, insisting his “strategic goal is to protect Europe and ensure the Schengen free-movement area continues to work”.

False hope

Asked about Hungarian migration policy to criminalise people deemed to have aided illegal immigration, Orban said his country pursued “humane” policies.

Budapest favoured a strong border policy, he said, with measures to prevent people being given false hope they have a chance to get into Europe. “We have to be humane without pull factors,” he said, “by closing borders and bringing help there, and not letting in people who bring problems.”

In a lively back-and-forth, Orban couldn’t resist offering poisoned praise for the chancellor, once celebrated for her liberal migration policy, for ensuring that tighter EU outer borders and “hot spot” processing camps in Africa were now “issue number one” on the European agenda.

Despite the chill of what Orban called “very different perspectives” on borders, he and Merkel promised joint events in 2019 to remember the moment, 30 years previously, when Hungary dismantled its fence to Austria – a key moment of thaw in the cold war.