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Merkel, Orban stress unity on Iron Curtain anniversary

Géza MOLNAR
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A monument in Sopron, on the Hungarian border with Austria, commemorates the 1989 "Pan-European Picnic" during which at least 600 East Germans crossed the border and escaped to the West

A monument in Sopron, on the Hungarian border with Austria, commemorates the 1989 "Pan-European Picnic" during which at least 600 East Germans crossed the border and escaped to the West (AFP Photo/ATTILA KISBENEDEK)

Sopron (Hungary) (AFP) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel struck a conciliatory tone Monday alongside her Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban as they commemorated the 30th anniversary of a pivotal moment in the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

Merkel admitted there were still "differences" between the pair over migration but she also emphasised that they agreed on many aspects of the issue, including doing more to tackle the causes of refugee movements.

The two leaders were speaking after marking the anniversary of the "Pan-European Picnic" held at the Austro-Hungarian border in 1989, which saw at least 600 East Germans cross the border and escape to freedom in the West.

The first mass exodus of East Germans since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, it was seen as a key factor in the fall of the wall itself three months later.

Without the historic changes that events like the picnic set in train, "I wouldn't have become a politician and couldn't have been chancellor of a reunified Germany," said a visibly moved Merkel.

The commemoration was a rare encounter between two of the great survivors of European politics, with Merkel in office since 2005 and Orban since 2010.

Their last major meeting was in July 2018 when Orban made his first visit to Berlin for three years.

It was an awkward affair, during which their divisions were on full display and Merkel accused Orban of failing to respect "humanity" with his harsh anti-immigration policies.

Orban has been a sharp critic of Merkel's 2015 decision to open German borders to about one million migrants, mostly those fleeing Middle Eastern conflict zones.

- 'Germany's southern garrison' -

Merkel said at Monday's press conference that she had faith in incoming European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen to give fresh impetus to finding a common European approach to the migration question.

Meanwhile, Orban was asked whether it was incongruous to celebrate the dismantling of borders given that Hungary has erected fences along its southern frontier.

He rejected any contradiction, saying that the walls in 1989 had been taken down so people could live in peace and security and "the new ones are built precisely in order to preserve European peace and security".

Due to the Schengen, passport-free agreement, "in one sense we are Germany's southern garrison," he added.

Pressed on the frequent criticisms levelled at Hungary over the erosion of the rule of law, Orban said they were "politically biased and not supported by facts".

"We have our own... constitutional foundations and Christian freedom which we will always protect," he said.

- 'Liberation from the Soviet yoke' -

Earlier the two leaders addressed an ecumenical church service in Sopron, close to where the picnic was held.

Orban hailed the fact that the events of 30 years ago had "cleared the way towards German reunification".

Hungarians had always known that "our liberation from the Soviet yoke would be definitive (and) endure only once Germany was united," he added.

Merkel recalled her own memories of seeing plans for the picnic advertised in 1989.

She remembered the "uncertainty and worry" when it became apparent the picnic had turned into an escape to the West.

"Everyone knew how the uprising in East Germany in 1953 turned out, as well as the one in Hungary in 1956 and the Prague Spring," she added.

She praised the "courage" and "humanity" of the Hungarian border guards who did not fire on the crowds.

The events at the picnic reflected the values of "solidarity, freedom and a humane Europe", she said.

The two leaders were both personally marked by the events of 1989 but have since taken starkly diverging political directions.

Merkel's upbringing in communist East Germany imbued her with a belief in the importance of liberal values in politics and free market economics.

Orban by contrast, while starting as a young liberal centrist in 1989, sees the events of that year as the first step for the nations of eastern Europe to re-establish their sovereignty.

Despite the political tensions, Budapest and Berlin enjoy close economic relations.

Germany is Hungary's largest trading partner and a major source of foreign investment, particularly by its mighty car industry.