The relations between Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán grew frosty following the migrant crisis of 2015, despite being relatively friendly before. When becoming the leader of Germany in 2005, the CDU politician announced the policy of ’Die Mitte,’ moved her party to the Centre, especially in ideology, and left behind several characteristic features of the Christian rightist party. By contrast, FIDESZ, as the biggest Hungarian centre-right party, moved towards a radical rightist position in several aspects in the same period.
Their debate is not rooted exclusively in their different interpretation of migration; it goes deeper in political philosophy, including the desirable future of Europe. Orbán’s vision for Europe’s future comprises the preservation of traditional wisdom—with Christian ethos as a foundation above all else—along with the achievements of constitutionalism and freedom. That’s why he considers the defense of Christian Europe to be a crucial element in his program. Angela Merkel, on the other hand, focuses on widening human rights and liberal democracy. She gained the leadership position in CDU in 2000 and has been the Chancellor of Germany since 2005. She has won four elections, so if she finishes her present term she will have been in office for 16 years. Between 2005 and 2010, Orbán was the leader of the Hungarian Opposition. In what was a tense and chaotic political situation in Hungary, Orbán concentrated on domestic policy and winning elections. Their relationship was really good at the time and no major conflict weighed on it. However, following the 2008 world crisis, Merkel sharply criticized incumbent Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány for his economic policies.
In 2010, following an eight-year socialist-liberal government, Viktor Orbán’s party came to power with a two-thirds majority. They created a new constitution, changed several basic laws and modified election law as well. The German government strongly condemned a number of the changes, believing they weakened important values of liberal democracy. As a result, Orbán and Merkel gradually became estranged after 2010. The real split, however, came in 2015 with Europe’s migrant crisis. The Hungarian Prime Minister persistently attacked policies dealing with migration. At the same time, reacting to the crisis in which tens of thousands of migrants piled up on the Balkanic route, Angela Merkel finally allowed them access to Germany in September 2015. As a result, over one million migrants arrived in the German state. The relations between FIDESZ and CDU, both belonging to the same European political group, deteriorated at such a rate that, within the next two years, there was hardly any communication between the two parties. The cold relationship between the two leaders determined the connections of their parties as well.
Eventually, Orbán and Merkel met in Berlin this July. This improved the situation somewhat, but it also showed that the disagreement about the migrant issue remained unchanged. Merkel’s position at home is worsening; she won’t run for the leadership of her party in December. She intends to stay in office as Chancellor until the end of her term, but it’s uncertain whether she will succeed in it. Anyway, Merkel has just a few years left in the German political arena. Orbán’s political life seems stable in the forthcoming years in Hungary, and possibly in the European scene as well.
The European Parliamentary elections will bring us closer to being able to see how history will judge the two politicians’ debate. It is quite clear that their differences do not revolve around short-term problems. With their different takes on issues like tradition, the importance of Christianity as a framework in secular democracies and strong nation states versus European federalism, two possible pathways for Europe are drawn. Are Orbán’s ideas for a renaissance of Christian Democratic parties and policies (and the underlying ethos as well) the end of an era or the beginning of a new one, which, paradoxically, intends to rely more on the wisdom of the past? Only time will tell.
By Dénes Sályi
featured photo by Balázs Szecsődi/PM’s Press Office