In the joint press conference during Benjamin Netanyahu’s fleeting visit to Berlin three weeks ago, the prime minister warned about Iran’s actions in Syria. One of the implications, he said, could be another wave of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe.
“And we all know where they will come to,” he added. Standing beside him, Chancellor Angela Merkel looked even more mournful than usual. Netanyahu had hit her weakest spot, and he had learned to do so from his best European friend – who’s due to arrive in Israel next month.
Over the last few years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been waging a war of attrition against Merkel over Europe’s future. It may sound absurd that a modest-sized country with economic problems is taking on Europe’s superpower. But based on events in recent weeks, Orbán looks like he’s winning – mainly thanks to the immigration issue.
This weekend they were both at the European Union Leaders Summit in Brussels. The desperate attempt to agree on an EU-wide solution to the immigration crisis was at the top of the agenda.
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Orbán, arriving in Brussels, was forthright. “The invasion should be stopped,” he said of the refugees at the Continent’s borders, “and to stop the invasion means to have strong border control, and we have that.”
Merkel, in a speech in Berlin before leaving, sounded almost apologetic. “Our decision to open doors to refugees in 2015 was not unilateral,” she said. “We acted to help Austria and Hungary.” This time, it was Merkel who was in need of help, to save her political career.
After a nine-hour marathon meeting that went on into the early hours of Friday, Merkel succeeded in cobbling together a compromise of sorts.
In an agreement that 16 EU members agreed to sign, they undertook to set up “centers” for immigrants, both in Europe and North Africa, where they would be processed. Those eligible for asylum would be allowed to stay, while the rest would be deported. The member-states also undertook to prevent the emigration of refugees within the EU. Merkel also signed a separate agreement with Greece and Spain, who undertook to receive immigrants that had arrive there first.
The details are still vague. It was an achievement for Merkel, simply in being able to agree on a policy that encompasses most of the EU. It may also satisfy her political allies at home, who are demanding more control of Germany’s borders. But it was a win for Orbán and other countries with anti-immigration governments, as no country will be forced to have an immigration center in its territory against its will.
Can the agreement be implemented? Will it hold up to pressure when the next wave of immigrants arrive? Orbán and his allies are waiting to trip up Merkel at the next sign of trouble.
Merkel and Orbán were both born and raised under communist regimes. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, they both learned the rules of democracy and became all-powerful leaders of their countries.
This is where the resemblances end. The apolitical Merkel who swiftly reached the leadership of the conservative CDU party is now seen as the last guarantor of the post-Cold War liberal world order. Orbán, who burst onto the public scene in Hungary as an anti-communist activist, is the standard-bearer of “illiberal democracy,” a term he invoked in a speech in 2014.
Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside
George Soros, the Hungarian-American financier now the most hated man in Orbán’s Hungary, said in 2016 that Orbán is “challenging Merkel for the leadership of Europe.” According to Soros, the Hungarian prime minister “attacks the values and principles on which the European Union was founded. Orbán attacks them from the inside, [Vladimir] Putin from the outside.”
It was a showdown that Merkel, backed up by Germany’s economic might and a near consensus among EU leaders, was winning. In early 2015, she visited Budapest and forced Orbán to cancel a tax his government had levied on German companies. But two weeks later, the Russian president visited Budapest as well, and Merkel should have read the signs. She was about to make a series of decisions that would lead to her current predicament.
Throughout 2015, she led the EU’s tough line against the cash-strapped Syriza government in Greece. Merkel insisted on severe austerity measures in return for a bailout. She broke Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, despite the referendum in which a large majority of Greek voters rejected the EU’s terms. The price was bolstering her domineering and coercive image, and that of the EU. A year later, things would end very differently in another referendum.
But before that, Merkel would make another fateful decision – in September 2015, when she decided that Germany would open its borders and welcome the stream of Syrian refugees crossing the Aegean from Turkey to Greece. Despite the Dublin Treaty, which stipulates that refugees will be processed in the EU member state where they first arrive, she agreed to accept the over 1 million refugees who were reaching Greece and from there crossing the Balkans into Hungary and Austria.
Merkel had sown the seeds of the current crisis and would begin to counter growing opposition from other EU members who were asked to take in a quota of refugees.
In 2016, in a series of meetings with Britain's then-Prime Minister David Cameron, Merkel refused to grant any concessions on the EU’s freedom-of-movement principle for immigrants. Without her support, Cameron had no chance with the EU, and though he continued to support remaining in the union, immigration was to become a main issue used by Brexit-supporters, motivating 52 percent of British voters to support leaving on June 23.
Brexit was to be the wind in Donald Trump’s sails, who five months later promised his supporters on Election Day a “Brexit-plus-plus.” With Trump’s surprising election, Merkel had two alternatives. She could swallow her pride and try to embrace the vainglorious president, or stand for her principles. She chose the second option and won glowing headlines as “the new leader of the free world.” But she also began to lose supporters in Europe.
The three other members of the Visegrad Group – Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – rallied to Orbán, as did Bulgaria and then Austria under its new right-wing-populist government, which has taken a much tougher line on immigration.
The most damaging blow was to come last month when Italy’s new populist government began blocking boats from Libya carrying immigrants. But the greatest danger lay at home.
Orbán has long been building his relations with the CDU’s sister party, Bavaria’s CSU, and especially its leader, Horst Seehofer. The more conservative and wealthy Bavarians were much less excited by Merkel’s friendly welcome to the refugees thronging in their thousands at Munich’s main train station. Seehofer, who has hosted Orbán at CSU meetings where Merkel’s immigration policy has been criticized, is now demanding that Germany block at its borders refugees who have passed through other EU countries.
Merkel refuses to budge, and this weekend’s summit was her last chance to try to deliver a new EU policy that would not only gain the support of the other member states but also placate the CSU. She was on the brink of losing the party necessary for her tenuous majority in the Bundestag.
The deal achieved on Friday will probably satisfy the CSU for now. But it may not be enough to deal with much larger numbers of immigrants, if a similar wave to that of 2015 arrives from Syria or North Africa. Orbán is lurking.
And now he is not alone; he has a much larger coalition of like-minded governments, including the Trump administration and a growing list of European allies. These new populist leaders see Orbán and Netanyahu as their father figures.
“Orbán has managed to diffuse international condemnation of anti-Semitism by forging a political marriage of convenience with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an equally cynical, ruthless and shrewd operator,” wrote the Hungarian-Jewish journalist, Paul Lendvai, in his recent biography of Orbán. “Each side uses the other as a smokescreen to cover up ugly realities and offer pretexts to blunt liberal critics.”
In three years, Merkel has gone from leader of Europe to being almost isolated. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, nominally her ally, has been discreetly distancing himself. The photograph of Merkel at last month’s G-7 summit confronting Trump made liberal hearts soar across the Western world. But it also underlined how the West is now divided into two camps. And the Orbán-Trump-Netanyahu camp is swiftly gaining ground.