Can Europe Make It?

Orbán, Seehofer and the anti-immigration link

Why are the leaders of Hungary and Bavaria meeting up for talks in a German monastery?

Alessio Colonnelli
14 October 2015


"Kloster Banz Luftbild" by Presse03 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.“We should only be pleased to see so many people wanting to come to Germany: it validates what a great country it is,” commented Detlef Esslinger in Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. A well-meaning remark, in line with prime minister Angel Merkel’s welcoming attitude of late (though she wasn’t always like this).

Many in Bavaria do share his views. The right-wing Christian Social Union (CSU) partly do, but mostly don’t. Party leader Horst Seehofer definitely doesn’t: he surely agrees on the latter bit – the greatness of Germany – but when it comes to immigrants, he’d rather kick them all out.

He and Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán are amongst the most hawkish anti-asylum-seeker political chiefs in the whole of Central Europe and possibly beyond, matched in terms of rhetorical harshness only by Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini.

The Bavarian and Hungarian leaders met in mid-September at the majestic Banz Abbey, a former Benedictine monastery in southern Germany. Orbán illustrated his views on how to counter massive immigration waves. His message in a nutshell: you just have to build barb-wired fences and they’re cheap too. It’s the questionnaires you need to send nationwide to convince people how good these barriers are which cost quite a bit… (1 billion forints or 3.2m euros according to researchers Annabel Tremlett and Vera Messing) You can just imagine Orbán saying he’ll claim funds from the EU for protecting the union’s borders, so that’ll cover that.

A key player in central Europe today, who believes that Hungarians are not used to multiculturalism (a patronising stance) and publicly declares to be against liberal democracy, disqualifies himself immediately as a reliable interlocutor. Seehofer’s invitation is much worse than a simple faux pas; rolling out the red carpet for Orbán dismantles Merkel’s huge efforts to make CDU/CSU look kinder, its reputation being in tatters thanks to Wolfgang Schäuble’s draconian style. The Germans know they’ve got an image problem in Europe – perhaps more in the union’s south than in the north, but still – and it’s only Seehofer who can’t see it.

So, the walls, right? They don’t have to come in triple rows like Ceuta and Melilla’s, the two Spanish towns on northern African soil. A four-metre tall wall with nasty, spikey bits at the top will do. Counterarguments are worth diddly-squat: sovereign EU countries are free to fence their borders as long as these are not shared with other fellow EU members.

The massive Hungarian wall along Serbia is sadly still within international law. But the wall on the Croatian border isn’t; the Romanian one wouldn’t be either. Although international analysts quoted by the Economist think the latter wall is only on paper and will remain so, Orbán’s strategy is downright cheeky at best and blatantly offensive at worst.

Irritating the Romanians, the arch-enemy, is all about chauvinistic fun and domestic-politics calculus (further-to-the-right Jobbik are successful “business” rivals). Again, two fingers to everybody – the more foes (including Hungary’s own badly-treated Roma community), the more he feels vindicated as a national hero.

Who feels indignant at the Magyar PM’s dreadful attitudes towards humanity? Hungary’s civil society first and foremost, with all their wonderfully enterprising volunteers and charities who help out refugees as best they can. They even collect money through crowd-funding to print posters and publicly take the piss out of Orbán all over Hungary. Humour him, they think – best thing, really.

And then pretty much all Europhiles, i.e. those who firmly believe in the right of people to move freely; to look for ways to improve their lives. Unfair restrictions in one’s homeland require individuals to seek refuge elsewhere. It’s the primary duty of freer countries to provide hospitality.

That’s how you spread democratic culture (no digging-up of weapons of mass destruction, no, nothing to do with that). And that’s what the EU is essentially about; don’t bother being a member if you can’t figure that one out – this should be Brussels’ main message. And it isn’t; not enough.

Monasteries used to welcome travelling pilgrims and the needy alike. How ironic that Seehofer and Orbán chose Banz Abbey to meet and congratulate one another on their upper-class arrogance (immigrants are portrayed as proles soiling their middle-class voters’ hard-won lifestyle).

The Bavarian government opposition was outraged by Orbán’s visit to the ruling CSU party. For Florian Pronold, the chairman of Bavaria’s Social Democrats, Orbán is the “epitome of anti-Europeanism.” The invitation by CSU (the Bavarian branch of Angela Merkel’s CDU) was “embarrassing for the conservative party family, because their approach goes against any possible intervention in the handling of refugees by the Hungarian government,” Pronold told Die Zeit. The Bavarian Green Party leader Margarete Bause also thinks the same: “What does he [Seehofer] want to learn from this man [Orbán] who’s been violating European solidarity for years?”

Does Seehofer really care? Of course he doesn’t. Horst the boss has a huge immigration-bone to pick with national party leader Merkel. This has firmly been at the back of his mind all along: antagonising Germany’s prime minister is Seehofer’s political raison d’être. To say he can’t stand her is an understatement; he’s indeed no newcomer to anti-immigrant outpourings. “We are not the social services for the whole world,” Seehofer barked in February, with a thick vein visibly pulsating down his forehead.

People displaying even slightly darker skin colour than his own must really get on his nerves. But Seehofer’s main fault is actually another one, which links him to Orbán and many others Europe-wide (Britain included): they easily – or conveniently – forget they are leaders of wider populations and not just of their own party. They haven’t come out of party politics and embraced proper statesmanship. Hence their dismal mediocrity. Depressing stuff.

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