Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Monday said that even at times when the continent was divided “we knew there was always only one Europe,” at an ecumenical service commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic, a pivotal event in the fall of communism in 1989.
“We believed in it [the reunification of Europe], and it was reunited. It was reunited because of our faith,” Orban said at the service held in western Hungary’s Sopron and attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto and other dignitaries. Orban said that “if we continue believing in it”, the unity of East and West will be preserved and Europe remains a prosperous home to Europeans.
Orban said that Sopron has a “special place in Hungarians’ hearts” as the city that pledged itself to Hungary by referendum when the country lost large territories after World War I. The people of Sopron, “and our East German friends”, broke through the fence separating Hungary from the free world thirty years ago, he said. Hungary has always promoted the reunification of Germany as a stepping stone for both countries into NATO and the EU, Orban said.
The prime minister noted that August 20 is the memorial day of Saint King Stephen, Hungary’s first king who converted Hungarians to Christianity. His decisions to “ingrain” Hungarians into Christianity, to request a crown from Rome and take a Bavarian wife, have defined the country ever since, Orban said.
Orban called Merkel’s visit a great honour. He said Hungarians have great respect for the chancellor who has led the largest and strongest country in Europe for 14 years. She has also laboured to ensure cooperation among European nations and the reunification of Europe, he said. Since Europe comprises of free and independent nations, European unity “is never completed”: it has to be recreated time and time again, he said. In Hungary, “we tip our hats before hardworking and successful ladies”, he said, wishing Merkel further success, the respect of her nation and of Europe.
Merkel thanks Hungary for its role in German unification
In her speech, Merkel thanked Hungary for the role it had played in the reunification of Germany. “We Germans are grateful for Hungary’s contribution to abolishing division in Europe and to German reunification. We thank Hungary for that,” Merkel said.
She noted that thirty years ago, the Pan-European Picnic was organised as a demonstration for European peace and included plans to symbolically open the Hungarian-Austrian border for a few hours. East Germans, “vacationing at Hungarian camping sites,” have caught wind of the event and hundreds left all their belongings behind to try and reach freedom, she said.
Merkel called the picnic an event of historic importance and noted Hungarian border police’s courage who refused to shoot at those crossing the border. The Pan-European Picnic has become a symbol of the era’s freedom fights, Merkel said. On September 11, Hungary opened its borders for good, and on November 9, the Berlin Wall fell, ending division in Europe, she said. She thanked the organisers of the Picnic, those helping East Germans in their flight and all those fighting for democratic change.
Regarding the “enormous” challenges facing Europe, Merkel said Europeans should not lose sight of their shared values. “We have to be aware that any nation’s prosperity is conditional on Europe’s. Europe is only as strong as it is united. Europe is strong only inasmuch as it can make compromises in contested issues,” she said.
The European peace project “is not self-sustaining,” Merkel said, adding that shouldering shared responsibility for Europe and the world at times requires “stepping over one’s shadow”. The masses seeking asylum and needing protection in Europe from crisis regions of the world show how important it is to fight against the root causes of persecution and flight, she said. Hungary, Germany and the other EU states are today partners in shaping the future of a united Europe, she said. “We have to proceed on the road to freedom, democracy and unity, and might be strengthened by remembering the Pan-European Picnic,” Merkel said.
Orban calls for stronger Hungarian-German economic ties
At their joint press conference, Orban highlighted the necessity for stronger business relations between Hungary and Germany. “There are no developments in sight that could disturb Hungarian-German ties but there are some factors pressing for strengthening economic cooperation,” Orban said. He added that the economy was in the focus of his talks and noted that Germany is Hungary’s top investor and trading partner.
Bilateral trade with Germany “breaks a record each year” and German investors have brought the most modern technology to Hungary, Orban said at a joint press conference with Merkel. He noted that 6,000 German businesses are present in Hungary, employing some 300,000 Hungarians, while there are 17 major development projects by German companies in the pipeline.
Orban and Merkel discussed the European Union’s enlargement, and Orban voiced Hungary’s interest in the Western Balkans countries joining the community as soon as possible. Hungary urges the enlargement process in which Serbia has a key role, he said, adding that speeding up accession talks with Serbia will also serve Europe’s interests.
The talks touched upon cooperative efforts targeting development in Africa because “aid should be delivered where the problem is rooted, to help Africa retain its people” through jointly financed programmes, Orban said.
Answering a question, Orban said that central Europe was a contributor to Europe’s economic output and insisted that “the traditional German-French axis is now completed with considerations of the interests of central European peoples”. “This is a new process”, he added, and went on to say that “central Europe will have a growing weight in European decision making; ties between Germany and central Europe will have a focal role in preserving Europe’s unity”. He added that Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s incoming president, will “pose an opportunity for Hungary” to leave “old disputes” behind and start new negotiations.
In his answer to another question, Orban said that Hungary “dismantled the walls 30 years ago so that East Germans could become free and live in security; now we protect our southern border so that Germans can continue living in freedom and security”. Border control is an “obligation” for Hungary, Orban said, adding “it would be good if Brussels could cover some of the costs”.
Orban said that Hungary’s border control was a key issue in Hungarian-German ties “because the influx of migrants is not over and an ever increasing pressure should be expected from the south”. He insisted that illegal migrants “can only be prevented from flooding Austria and Germany if Hungary keeps protecting its borders”.
On another subject Orban dismissed critical remarks on the state of democracy in the country as “politically biassed” and “lacking facts”. He encouraged foreign critics to pay a visit “to see how we live”. He added that Hungary is “doing better and better” and its government “has good reason to continue what it has been doing”.
At the press conference, Merkel highlighted challenges impacting the European Union’s future, and voiced agreement with incoming European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, who has called for a “new start”, policies aimed at increased integration between members of the European Union. Merkel urged finding shared solutions for challenges in connection with economic and defence cooperation, as well as migration.
The chancellor thanked Hungary for opening its borders and allowing East German refugees to cross into Austria in 1989, thus contributing to restoring Germany’s unity. Merkel also highlighted the importance of trade cooperation with Hungary, adding that the turnover of bilateral trade was balanced and said it was a sign of “extremely close” relations. She said that the achievements of German companies in Hungary greatly contributed to the success of the German economy.
Referring to the European Union’s cohesion and structural funds, Merkel said that “looking at the growth rate of Hungary it is obvious that Hungary has used those funds well to benefit its people”. Germany is happy to have contributed to that welfare through creating jobs, she added. Germany seeks to further develop scientific, research and innovation cooperation with Hungary, Merkel said, adding that ministerial talks would follow to that end.
Merkel said her talks with Orban had touched upon defence industry cooperation, which she said was extremely important in light of the two countries being NATO members. On another subject, she said that Brexit was a “lamentable reality” which should be accepted, and added that her country would seek “the best possible” relations with Great Britain in future. Parties at the talks agreed that the EU needs to strengthen ties with the US and China to prevent protectionist tendencies, the chancellor said.
Merkel said that Germany seeks to build “tight relations based on trust” with all EU members and suggested that she would also promote the interests of Hungary and central Europe in the community’s next budgeting cycle. “We need fair solutions,” Merkel said. She said she hoped that Hungary would also consider Germany’s aspects in the interest of good cooperation and voiced her country’s readiness to find compromises.
Held on August 19, 1989, on the Austrian-Hungarian border near Sopron, the Pan-European Picnic was a demonstration of peaceful coexistence between Austria and Hungary. The border crossing was opened for three hours, allowing nearly 1,000 East Germans to flee to the West. The picnic was one of the events that contributed to the opening of the borders and the reunification of Germany.
Source and photo: MTI