Yesterday I sketched out a number of hypotheses about Angela Merkel’s objective in visiting Budapest. Almost all Hungarian foreign policy experts were certain that Merkel would not touch on Hungarian domestic issues. Her only concerns would be Viktor Orbán’s compliance with the common EU policy regarding Russia and his treatment of German businesses in Hungary. Since the Hungarian prime minister accommodated on both fronts just prior to her visit, she would have little to complain about. The consensus was that she would remain silent on the state of democracy in Hungary.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine that Merkel could ignore this issue. The German press has been full of stories about Orbán’s authoritarian regime. It has given extensive coverage to Hungary’s anti-government, pro-democracy demonstrations. So there was some homegrown pressure on the German chancellor to stick her neck out and talk openly about the issue. Many people comment on Merkel’s low-key, sometimes vapid style. Those who know her better, however, assure us that in private she can be a tiger. Well, today, we caught a glimpse of that side of her character.
This morning Gregor Peter Schmitz in Der Spiegel demanded “plain talk” from Merkel in Budapest. “The whole of Europe is terrified of extremists, Angela Merkel is meeting one,” he said. It is time to speak out. If Schmitz watched the press conference after a short luncheon meeting between Angela Merkel and the Hungarian prime minister, he was most likely disappointed, at least initially. She did talk about issues that democrats at home and abroad find important: the role of civil society and the importance of the opposition, but her critique was pretty bland. She said, for instance, that “even if you have a broad majority, as the Hungarian prime minister does, it’s very important in a democracy to appreciate the role of the opposition, civil society, and the media.” Merkel had said the same thing many times before.
The real surprise, “the plain talk” Schmitz demanded, came at the end when Stephan Löweinstein of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked Merkel her opinion about Orbán’s “illiberal democracy.” After explaining that liberalism is part and parcel of the ideology of her own party, she added: “I personally don’t know what to do with the term.” In her opinion there is no such animal. Orbán did not back down. He repeated his belief that not all democracies are liberal and that liberalism cannot have a privileged position in the political landscape. I should add that the Hungarian state television station omitted this exchange in its broadcast of the press conference.
Viktor Orbán was not a happy man. I’m certain that he expected concessions from Merkel after he was so “generous” on the RTL Klub case. It seems that Merkel did not appreciate his efforts to the extent hoped for in Budapest.
During the press conference Orbán talked mostly about German-Hungarian economic relations and thanked Germany for its investment, which resulted in 300,000 jobs in Hungary. But he became more insistent and strident as time went on, especially when Merkel began talking about a common European energy policy. He indicated that in his opinion the European Union doesn’t appreciate Hungary’s utter dependence on Russian gas. He stressed, in a raised voice, that the Russian-Hungarian long-term gas supply contract will be expiring soon and that Hungary must have a new agreement with the Russians. Hence the forthcoming Putin-Orbán meeting in Budapest.
An opposition politician called my attention to the fact that Merkel referred to Orbán as “ein Kollege” instead of the customary designation “friend.” An American acquaintance noted that the new American ambassador also talks about Hungary as an “ally” and no longer as a friend.
The German papers are already full of articles about the trip, and I’m sure that in the next few days there will be dozens of articles and op/ed pieces analyzing Merkel’s day in Budapest. I’m also certain that I will spend more than one post on this visit. Here are a few initial observations.
Merkel spent very little time with Viktor Orbán. Just a little over an hour, including a meal. With János Áder no more than 15-20 minutes. On the other hand, the event at the German-language Andrássy University was quite long where differences of opinion between the two politicians became evident. The introductory remarks by the president of Andrássy University were lengthy as was the speech by the president of the University of Szeged, which bestowed an honorary degree on Angela Merkel. Her own speech was not short either. What was most surprising was the number of questions allowed. Some of the questions were not political but personal. Perhaps the students didn’t have the guts to ask politically risky questions. Her answers showed her to be quite an open person, very different from what I expected. One brave soul did bring up the topic of terrorism and immigration, indicating that Orbán inflames prejudice against people from different cultural backgrounds. Merkel stood by her guns, stressing the need for tolerance, openness, and diversity. Another question was about Russian aggression. Here she used strong words against aggression and condemned Putin’s use of force.
Finally, a few words about Merkel’s final destination, the synagogue on Dohány utca, where she talked to Hungarian Jewish religious leaders. Apparently, the Hungarians first suggested that Viktor Orbán accompany Merkel. The Germans turned that kind offer down. I find it significant that Merkel’s visit to the synagogue was longer than planned. Her plane left Budapest half an hour later than scheduled.
All in all, those people who were afraid that by going to Budapest Angela Merkel would give her stamp of approval to Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” can breathe a sigh of relief. Nothing of the sort happened.