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Angela Merkel and Viktor Orbán commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic

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2019.08.19. 10:23 Módosítva: 2019.08.19. 11:59

On Monday morning, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán came together to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic. The two leaders spoke at an ecumenical service in the Sopron Evangelical Church, followed by bilateral talks and a joint press conference in the early afternoon.

The Pan-European Picnic was a demonstration against a divided Europe held on 19 August 1989 near Sopron, close to the Austrian-Hungarian border. News of the event quickly reached the citizens of the DDR who were in Hungary at the time, and more than 600 East Germans used the opportunity provided by the temporarily open border to flee to the West. The event was an important symbolic milestone leading up to the dismantling of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of Germany.

In a video message on Saturday, Angela Merkel said that Germany will forever be grateful to Hungary for their contributions to German reunification, of which the Pan-European Picnic was an important building block. The Chancellor noted that this process lead to a united Europe that could leave the Cold War behind, and with the contributions of Poland and (at the time) Czechslovakia, a "great new partnership with Central and Eastern Europe could form, which we can experience together in the EU and NATO." She added that despite the many challenges still ahead, "living in democracy and freedom is a great joy."

Before the two leaders could speak, former Hungarian Minister of Human Capacities Zoltán Balog took to the pulpit. He said in German that soul-searching must be done to see if the freedom bestowed upon us by God was used well, and called everyone to pray for those working for their communities, especially those "to whom the electorate has given the greatest responsibility." He added that first and foremost, we have God to thank for the demolition of the Iron Curtain and for the region being able to regain its freedom thirty years ago.

After Balog, students had a chance to say their prayers. One of them asked for the power to stand together for a Christian Europe, another pointed out that just like thirty years ago, people are forced to flee from their homes even today:

"We ask you, Lord, to take them into your protection. Make our borders traversable, and bring the borders in our hearts down as well." 

Next up was Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Orbán: Unity of the East and the West

The Hungarian Prime Minister opened his commemorative speech with a long laudation of Angela Merkel, saying it is an honour for the citizens of Hungary to be visited by Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany who lead her country for 14 years and was elected four times. He said Merkel worked for Europe, the European cooperation, and the reunification of the entirety of Europe for many years, and for this, his respect is only growing stronger, as

"Europe has to be reunited conflict by conflict, dispute by dispute, day by day. Europe is comprised of sovereign nations, therefore, it has to be reunited every single day."

He added that chivalry dictates that Hungarians pay attention to women, especially hard-working, honest women as Angela Merkel. He proceeded to ask for God's blessings on her and her family.

Viktor Orbán in Sopron, speaking at the ecumenical service commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic on 19 August 2019.
Viktor Orbán in Sopron, speaking at the ecumenical service commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic on 19 August 2019.
Fotó: Miniszterelnöki Sajtóiroda/Szecsődi Balázs / MTI

Orbán noted how Sopron, often dubbed the City of Loyalty has a special place in the heart of Hungarians, as Hungarians, Croatians and Germans living in the city voted to remain in Hungary after World War I, and because the people of Sopron were the ones to "break through the prison fence" of the Eastern bloc, and thus made the Iron Curtain come down, breaking the post-WWII world order.

"In Sopron, we started demolishing the wall that was built by the east, from the east."

He noted that according to his memory, a greater portion of Hungarians supported the German reunification than Germans because Hungarians always knew that a united Germany is Hungary's only way to the NATO and to the EU. 

Orbán reiterated what he said many times, saying that the relationship between Germany and Hungary was always special. Orbán noted that this goes back further than the picnic in Sopron 30 years ago and even further than "our joint losses in the twentieth century," as Saint Stephen, Hungary's first king who converted Hungary to Christianity, "brought a crown from Rome, but a wife from Bavaria." He continued by reminding his audience that in 1946 after the Second World War ended, two-thirds of Sopron's Germans were deported. He characterised that as "a pain that never subsides", but today, the German minority in Hungary is getting stronger in numbers and in spirits. Orbán concluded his speech by saying that these four things, founding a Christian Hungary, breaking through the border at the Pan-European Picnic, and the German-Hungarian special relations all point towards a strong Europe:

"Europe was reunited because we believed in it, and this unity of the East and the West will be preserved just like that; if we believe in it."

Merkel: Let us continue on the path of freedom, democracy, and unity

Merkel started out by reminiscing about the flyers of the Pan-European Picnic being distributed amongst East-German holidaymakers in Hungary, and how that led to the greatest flow of East-German refugees to the west. She commended the Hungarian border guards who, despite the increased tensions, did not shoot like they did many times before. Merkel said that the picnic became a symbol of how the yearning for freedom can never be suppressed, and how freedom can only be achieved together:

"Germans remember with great gratitude what Hungary had done to dispel division."

She also mentioned freedom movements of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic states which all contributed to writing Europe's history of freedom and brought down pieces of the wall. The Chancellor noted that Europe can only be as strong as it is united, as the continent's peace is not self-sustaining:

"Sometimes, we have to step over our own shadows to take on our joint responsibilities we feel towards Europe and the world. The Refugees arriving from war zones, seeking shelter here remind us of the importance of fighting against the reasons that make them flee."

Merkel noted that by today, Hungary, Germany, and the rest of the European states are neighbours, friends, partners who shape the future of Europe together, and that

"the memory of the Pan-European Picnic gives everyone the strength to continue on the path of freedom, democracy, and unity."

Finally, in Hungarian, she said thanks for the opportunity to speak, and with the commemorative service over, the diplomatic delegations of Germany and Hungary left for their official meeting.

bilateral talks

After the delegations finished their negotiations, the two leaders held a joint press conference at 12:45 PM. After shortly reiterating what they said earlier about the Pan-European Picnic, Merkel and Orbán delved into the main points of their talks:

  • Economy: Orbán noted that Germany is the number one trading partner and investor of Hungary - trade between the two countries in 2018 exceeded 54 billion Euros, and there are 6000 German companies providing jobs to 600,000 Hungarians, and the corresponding ministers of Hungary and Germany are working together to boost high-tech innovation and digitalisation. Merkel said this cooperation will be made more visible in the future, the ministers are set to meet during this autumn. 
  • Defence cooperation: Orbán noted that the acquisition of German weaponry is a crucial step in Hungary establishing its first capable defence force since the country's democratic transition, Merkel echoed that sentiment adding that the importance of the deal also stems from Hungary's NATO membership. (As political daily Népszava reported in July, Hungary has bought 1.76 billion Euros worth of German arms.)
  • Migration: Merkel noted that despite the differences in the German and Hungarian approach to migration, the emphasis has to be on what the two countries agree on, and as Orbán said, that common ground is that help needs to be taken where it is needed. Quoting Ursula von der Leyen, the President-elect of the EU Commission, Merkel said that the discourse on migration has to be started over with a clean slate. Orbán elaborated that Africa's capability to retain its population must be improved. Answering a journalist's question, Orbán said Hungary is on duty as the captain of the fortress defending the southern border of the European Union, which is the external border of Germany as well - he noted that Europe should pay at least 50% of the border defence costs, as intelligence reports state that mounting pressure is to be expected from the South. Merkel sees things similarly, she said that in order to uphold the Schengen area, Europe's external borders must be strengthened, adding that refugees coming here have a right to asylum, it is illegal human trafficking that needs to be stopped.
  • EU enlargement: Both leaders agree that the European Union has to expand to the Western Balkans. Merkel said that the enlargement is necessary due to geostrategic reasons. Orbán said that the question is vital from a Hungarian perspective, as currently, Hungary is the EU's southern border, but with the accession of Serbia, that would change.

All in all, both Orbán and Merkel said that the talks were conducted in constructive spirits, and the Hungarian PM added that there are no factors that would disturb the relationship of Germany and Hungary, only outside forces pressing the two countries towards stronger economic cooperation. 

Answering journalists' questions, Merkel said that the structural funds of the EU are meant to boost convergence of member states, there are projects which need to be completed under the EU's next seven-year budget. She noted that Hungary invests these funds well, and said she is glad Germany can contribute to Hungary's growth with job creation, and that Germany is ready to represent the interests of Central and Eastern Europe in the EU. Later, Orbán said that historically speaking, the next 15 years will be about the emergence of that region.

Orbán, when asked about what he has to say to those who think it is strange that he celebrates bringing down a fence while he is erecting new ones, Orbán said that the purpose of both acts was to guarantee freedom - one allowed East-Germans through to the west, the other stopped the tidal wave of immigration. He attributed this to what he called a very particular Hungarian perspective, which is what he invoked upon facing inquiries about the criticism he widely received for dismantling democratic institutions and attacking academic freedom in Hungary:

"This kind of criticisms contain no statements of facts, everyone is invited to come and gather their own experiences, to take a look around to see how Hungarians furbish their lives. We may live in a different way than the Germans, the French, and other nations. We have our own Hungarian way of life that stems from Christian democracy and Christian liberties, we are proud of this and we protect it, but we are eager to show others what lead to our success. We cannot be completely satisfied yet, but Hungary is performing better."

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