Von der Leyen and Orban strike positive note amid strained EU-Hungary ties

Nationalist Orban favours incoming commission chief to liberal ‘ideological guerrillas’

Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban: “We have come to a good decision, so far . . . We’ll see what happens.”  Photograph:  Aris Oikonomou

Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban: “We have come to a good decision, so far . . . We’ll see what happens.” Photograph: Aris Oikonomou


European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen laid out her “political guidelines” to Hungarian premier Viktor Orban on Thursday and told him rule of law was “crucial”, as the nationalist firebrand expressed cautious hopes for better Budapest-Brussels relations.

Hungary and Poland are facing the EU’s article 7 procedures for allegedly undermining democratic norms and the rule of law, and they hope Ms von der Leyen’s commission will tone down criticism of member state governments on issues ranging from migration to political influence over the judiciary.

“Good talk with PM Orban about my political guidelines. Agreed on need for fresh start and pragmatic solutions on migration,” tweeted the former German defence minister, who is due to take up her new post in November.

“Also discussed competitiveness and need to bring EU institutions closer to member states. Rule of law is crucial, applies to all. Strong defence union needed,” she added.

The populist ruling parties in Budapest and Warsaw have claimed credit for handing Ms von der Leyen a narrow election victory in the European Parliament last month, and for blocking rival candidates whom they accuse of pursuing a liberal vendetta against them and their nationalist-populist agendas.

Mr Orban said it had been a wise move to “keep the ideological guerrillas away” and choose a commission president with a “pragmatic instinct . . . whose ideas for the future coincide with the same issues that concern us”.

‘Sensible solutions’

While praising Ms von der Leyen for being able to “think with the head of a central European” on sensitive issues like migration and raising hopes of “sensible solutions” to thorny problems, he also struck a note of caution.

“We have come to a good decision, so far . . . We’ll see what happens,” he told Hungarian television.

Analysts say Ms von der Leyen is unlikely to soften Brussels’s stance on the rule of law, and they note that her candidacy secured crucial support from allies of French president Emmanuel Macron, who advocates more, not less, EU integration.

Nonetheless, she has stressed her determination to improve relations between Brussels and central European states by visiting Poland and Croatia in recent days and holding talks in Brussels with Mr Orban and populist Czech prime minister Andrej Babis.

‘Balanced’ EU

“My goal is to balance the European Union – the east, west, north and south. To bring balance between the small and large members and newer and older members,” Ms von der Leyen said in Zagreb on Tuesday after talks with Croatian premier Andrej Plenkovic.

“The world wants more Europe and needs a powerful European voice, which we can only have if we are united. We all know that challenges can only unite us, make us stronger and more successful,” she added.

After talks in Berlin and Paris, Ms von der Leyen went to Warsaw last week and stated: “It is important to listen to each other and respect each other without ever forgetting why we joined the EU.”

In response, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he had “great hopes” that his guest would help “create a new opening, a Europe of compromise, a Europe of common understanding on many topics”.