Merkel, Orban clash over EU values with anti-migrant wind blowing

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday accused Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban of failing to respect “humanity” with his immigration policy, days after she made key border protection concessions to hardliners who have embraced Budapest’s anti-migrant stance.

In a remarkable clash on European values at a time when migration threatens the cohesion of the EU, Merkel and Orban each presented themselves as staunch defenders of the bloc’s very purpose.

“The problem as I see it, and where the difference lies, is that we must always remember that we are talking about human beings,” Merkel told a joint news conference.

“It is about human beings who come to us, and about Europe’s basic message. And that is humanity.”

Merkel said securing the EU’s external borders was not about creating a “fortress” against people brought by smugglers on perilous journeys across the Sahara and the Mediterranean. She said the bloc needed to sign accords with African nations to ensure legal migration was still possible.

“The soul of Europe is humanity and this soul, if we want to maintain it — if Europe with its values is to continue to play a role in the world, then Europe cannot simply turn its back on hardship and suffering,” she said.

Orban, a populist firebrand who has spearheaded a drive against European asylum policies fiercely defended by Merkel, was making his first visit to Berlin in three years.

He agreed that he and Merkel had fundamentally different approaches to migration “and how to help people in a humanitarian way”.

Orban said Germany could be grateful for the fence Hungary had built on its borders with Serbia and Croatia, which he said was guarded “24 hours a day by 8,000 armed men”.

“Otherwise 4,000 to 5,000 refugees would be arriving in Germany per day. That is solidarity — solidarity that can be taken seriously,” he said.

Only this week, Merkel ended a tense showdown with her arch-conservative Interior Minister Horst Seehofer by agreeing to tighten border controls and set up closed “transit centres” to hold migrants on the Austrian frontier.

The weeks-long row had threatened to topple her “grand coalition” government after just 100 days in power.

Influential news weekly Der Spiegel said Thursday that the hard-fought compromise marked an “Orbanisation” of Merkel’s policies.

Seehofer’s Christian Social Union party in Bavaria state actively courted Orban in recent years in an affront to Merkel.

Spiegel said she now appeared to recognise that EU hardliners could no longer be ignored or stonewalled.

Merkel’s fateful decision in 2015 to leave the German border open to those fleeing Middle East conflict zones was prompted primarily by Orban’s refusal to offer them refuge and blocking the so-called Balkan route into the EU.

At the time, Orban railed against Merkel’s “moral imperialism” while the chancellor, who grew up in communist East Germany, said she had seen enough walls in Europe for a lifetime.

Since then, far-right parties have joined governments in key countries such as Italy and Austria while the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party won nearly 100 seats in the Bundestag lower house.

Merkel’s tone toward Orban had softened of late.

Last week she even thanked the Hungarian leader for his efforts to bolster the EU’s external borders, while Orban declared the “enormous success” of his tough stance in the conclusions of an EU summit last week.

But Merkel on Thursday denied that she had sacrificed European principles of open borders and compassion toward qualified asylum seekers on the altar of power politics.

Merkel, who has said that Europe’s fate could be determined by the migration issue, said the accords she had hammered out at the EU summit and within her own government were aimed at keeping the asylum system from collapsing.

The German solution, however, is dependent on bilateral agreements with EU states to take back asylum seekers who previously registered in their countries.

Budapest has until now rebuffed such overtures, although Merkel noted the number of people who would qualify for return there was “very, very small”.

Seehofer was in Vienna Thursday to discuss similar cooperation with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.