Merkel's missed chance to bring Orban into line

Merkel's missed chance to bring Orban into line

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban shake hands during their meeting in the Hungarian-Austrian border town of Sopron on August 19, 2019, to mark the 30th anniversary of the "Pan European Picnic". (AFP)

A crucial date in the modern history of Europe was marked last week with the 30th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic. Organized at a small town on the Austro-Hungarian border, the 1989 event attracted thousands of citizens of not just these two nations, but also several hundred East Germans, who profited from the opportunity of an open border to cross over into Austria, as the Hungarian border guards refused to make any serious effort to stop them.

Over the following few days, the breach in the so-called Iron Curtain remained open and even widened as hundreds more people from East Germany and other Warsaw Pact nations fled toward the West. The picnic had clearly opened the floodgates and made the desperate residents of the Warsaw Pact nations realize that their governments were more vulnerable than at any time since the end of the Second World War.

Sure enough, less than three months later, the Berlin Wall was brought down and the Warsaw Pact died a premature death. Thus, for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was living in East Germany at the time, the Pan-European Picnic must have been a personally important date, with Hungary’s role in the first breach of the Iron Curtain memorably crucial.

So Merkel must have felt the irony of celebrating the anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic by sharing the stage with and hugging the current leader of Hungary, Viktor Orban. One of the most nationalist and xenophobic leaders in the EU today, Orban has in fact built many new “iron curtains” all around his country, notably on its southern border with Serbia. During the refugee crisis that engulfed the EU in 2015, Orban simply closed Hungary’s borders and pushed back all refugees attempting to make their way north, refusing to accept any at all in Hungary. He was also one of the most vocal critics of Merkel’s open-border policy of the time, which saw nearly 1.5 million refugees enter Germany. He freely used the media to propel his anti-Muslim views.

Over the years, Orban’s views have only hardened. Earlier this year, while campaigning ahead of the European Parliament elections, he called for a strong defense of “Christian Europe” and announced financial perks for “Hungarian” families that have more children to counter the population decline, while keeping immigrants at bay. He has also been engaged in sledging of the US billionaire George Soros, who is of Hungarian origin, accusing him of carrying out a hidden agenda of Islamization in Europe and helping migrants come to Hungary.

Despite Hungary being one of the smallest and weakest EU nations, the entire bloc has been left wringing its hands in despair, lacking any means of stopping Orban from carrying out his xenophobic policies and crushing free expression and human rights in Hungary. Instead of ostracizing Budapest and taking punitive measures that would immediately hurt Hungary politically, socially and economically, Brussels has simply filed suits against Orban’s decisions in the European courts — a process that will take years to lead to any results and with no guarantees that the results will be those sought by the EU. Meanwhile, MEPs last year voted to refer Hungary to the European Council over its breaches of EU principles, but no follow-up hearings have yet been held.

Despite Hungary being one of the smallest and weakest EU nations, the entire bloc has been left wringing its hands in despair.

Ranvir S. Nayar

And Hungary is not alone in going down this road. The Polish ruling party, Law and Justice, is equally critical of the EU’s immigration policies and has acted in a similar fashion to Hungary by closing its borders to refugees, even though it is not as voluble or loud in its anti-Islam propaganda. In fact, Orban has managed to escape even a tiny rap on the knuckles as Poland blocks any moves by EU heads of states to formally criticize Orban or pass any resolution against him. Orban is encouraged by the fact that EU leaders will remain helpless spectators as long as Poland, or any other EU nation, stands by him and does not let the EU move formally against Hungary in a significant manner.

In such a scenario, Merkel ought to have given the anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic a miss. By sharing the stage with a leader who is actually practicing entirely against the open-door policies of the EU and violating its basic values and norms, Germany and the other members of the EU have sent out a wrong message on how they intend to deal with leaders or nations that fall out of line on key policy matters. By getting Merkel to share the stage with Orban, despite his rhetoric and policies that fly in the face of those of Germany and the EU as a whole, he must have realized that he can actually keeping going without any fear of being ostracized or penalized.

Merkel would have been better off organizing a Pan-European Picnic event in Germany or Brussels and inviting select other EU leaders, keeping Orban and his like away. Only then would the message be clearly received that all EU member states have to follow the common policies on key issues and not serve only their narrow interests. The EU should be clear that it will not allow another Iron Curtain to come up on its borders ever again, and its leaders should act accordingly.

• Ranvir S. Nayar is the editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.

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