Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban risked further isolation in the European Union after comparing a remark made by Chancellor Angela Merkel with Nazi Germany’s military seizure of the country in World War II.
As the two leaders prepare to meet tomorrow in Brussels at an EU summit, Orban’s comments in a May 17 radio interview have raised the ire of politicians in Berlin. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle yesterday called his words a “regrettable derailment.”
Asked about a remark Merkel made on “sending in the cavalry” in the context of responding to concern about Hungary’s erosion of democracy, Orban made reference to Germany’s 1944 incursion into Nazi-allied Hungary to prevent it from switching sides.
“Let’s be clear, the Germans already sent cavalry to Hungary, they came in the form of tanks,” Orban said on state-run MR1 radio. “They should not send any, we ask -- it wasn’t a good idea, it didn’t work out.”
Merkel’s comments at a May 16 symposium were meant to moderate criticism of Orban’s government. The German leader had been asked to respond to comments by the Social Democratic candidate for chancellor in Germany’s Sept. 22 elections, Peer Steinbrueck, that Hungary could be expelled from the EU if it didn’t reform.
“I’d say you don’t always have to send in the cavalry,” Merkel replied. That reference was a play off a 2009 Steinbrueck quote about forming a “cavalry” to force Swiss compliance with international tax standards.
The chancellery didn’t comment on Orban’s remarks. The Hungarian premier was reacting to Steinbrueck raising the possibility of expelling Hungary from the EU, the Budapest-based Foreign Ministry said in a statement today.
Merkel, in her reaction, “unequivocally rejected this possibility and the Hungarian prime minister completely agrees with the chancellor’s position,” according to the statement. “The Hungarian government categorically rejects Hungary or its government being dragged into the German election campaign.”
Still, setting Germany’s role in the EU debate on Hungary alongside aggression under Adolf Hitler met with derision among German politicians, including Ruprecht Polenz, a top foreign-policy lawmaker in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.
“He’s increasingly burdening the traditionally good relationship between Germany and Hungary,” Polenz told Spiegel Online yesterday. “That Orban is now making unspeakable Nazi comparisons that have until now been the domain of Greek demonstrators speaks of an increasing loss of reality.”
With the help of a two-thirds parliamentary majority won in 2010, Orban has centralized power to an unprecedented degree since the country’s transition from communism to democracy in 1990, raising concerns about an erosion of checks and balances.
Orban’s lawmakers wrote a new constitution over opposition protests, ousted the chief justice of the Supreme Court, set up a media regulator led by ruling-party appointees and named allies to independent institutions, including the Constitutional Court. In March, Orban’s Fidesz party used an amendment to override court decisions and limit legal interpretation, sparking criticism from the EU and U.S.
Until now, the Hungarian leader has faced muted criticism from Merkel’s government. Orban’s party is allied with her CDU in the European grouping of conservative parties.
The chancellor last week reiterated Germany’s support for the European Commission’s demands for Hungary to comply with European treaties, though she said the best course of action with respect to Orban’s changes is engagement.
“We have to do everything to bring our Hungarian friends onto the right course and not expect that we should exclude them,” Merkel said. “Then we wouldn’t have any more influence on them.”
Attila Tibor Nagy, a political analyst at the Meltanyossag research institute in Budapest, said the Hungarian premier’s comments appeared to be spontaneous rather than politically calculated.
“Orban overreacted,” Nagy said by phone today. “Still, it fits into the government’s strategy of trying to minimize interference with Orban’s overhaul of the country.”
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