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Germany and Hungary: A Tale of Two Congresses – Angela Merkel and Viktor Orbán

German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel left the party congress of her Christian-Democratic Union (CDU) last week firmly in control of her message, her party, and her country. 

When it was all done, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, writing from the Bavarian front lines of the refugee crisis, made it very clear:  “The Boss is Back.”

Going into the congress, Merkel was under increasing pressure within the party by opponents of her liberal policy on accepting refugees in Germany.  By the time it came to her centerpiece speech, however, the party faithful responded with standing ovations.  All but five of the almost one thousand delegates to the congress voted in favor of her proposed language on refugee and asylum policy – language that included no reference to the “upper limits” on the number of refugees the country would accept that many in the party were demanding.

Tying herself firmly to such historic greats of CDU politics as Konrad Adenauer, Ludwig Erhard and Helmut Kohl, the chancellor compared today’s challenges to those of post-WWII reconstruction in the 1940s and 1950s and German reunification in the 1990s.  “Konrad Adenauer didn’t say, ‘we choose some freedom.’ Rather, ‘we choose freedom.’  Ludwig Erhard didn’t say, ‘prosperity for almost everyone.’  Rather, ‘prosperity for everyone.’ And Helmut Kohl didn’t promise ‘blooming landscapes’ for some regions of East Germany, but rather for all the new federal states.” Referring to the party, she said, “it is at the core of who we are that we are prepared to show what we are capable of.”  She got a ten-minute standing ovation.

These are indeed great challenges, as Germany this year alone will take in almost 1,000,000 refugees, an amount roughly equivalent in population terms of the United States accepting 37,500,000.  Managing this process and the economic and security costs it will entail will likely take a decade or more.  But Angela Merkel has, at least for now, effectively closed the ranks of the party behind her.  And the party knows that it will need her in the lead as Germany moves toward six state-level elections in 2016 and national elections in 2017, with growing support for parties emerging to the CDU’s right. 

Meanwhile in Hungary at almost exactly the same time, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won reelection as chairman of Fidesz at the party’s 26th congress last week, taking 1,174 out of a possible 1,177 votes and vowing to lead the party into the 2018 elections and to lead a subsequent government in case of a Fidesz victory.  Calling Fidesz Central Europe’s longest-standing, largest and most successful party, Orbán said “We have been here for thirty years, and we will be here for the next thirty years, as well.”  Orbán has been chairman of the party since 2003 and also served in the same capacity from 1993 to 2000.

Further developing the themes he laid out in a July 2014 speech in Baile Tusnad, Romania, the prime minister said, “the past 25 years have been a great liberal period in European history, but Liberalism has now tired out; it has turned against freedom, turned against the people and democracy itself.”  Convinced even more of this approach by the recent refugee crisis on the continent, Orbán said, “Europe does not believe in its roots.  Europe fails to believe in common sense, military virtues and national pride, and has forgotten Christianity as its root,” he said. “It is promoting human rights, progress, openness, new types of families, tolerance.  These are nice and kind things but secondary.”  Concerning the migrants themselves, he said they “believe their culture is stronger and more fit.  They have no intention whatsoever of adapting.  If it goes on like this, we will become a minority and lose Europe.”  Delegates adopted a resolution calling for tighter restrictions which stated that current immigration policy “jeopardizes the existence of the European Union itself and threatens to shake the whole of European civilization.”

On domestic policy, the prime minister outlined a set of policies designed to develop a “civic Hungary” and support Hungarian families, with the aim of ensuring that every family has a roof above its head.  To this end, the government will propose reducing the Value-Added Tax on home construction from 27% to 4% in the next four years.  To keep Hungarians safe in their homes, he said the country needs “well-prepared and young police, a determined counter-terrorism force and a self-assured disaster-prevention authority.  “While Hungary is protected,” he said, “it is also necessary to see that Europe is under invasion, and it looks like a battlefield.”

Concluding, Orbán sought to focus the delegates on achieving greater goals.  “All in all, we have been Hungary’s robust governing party for ten years.”  He then asked, “What holds us together?” and “How are we of the same blood?”  Providing the answer, he told the delegates “we in Fidesz all believe that the meaning of our life comes from the service of things greater and more important than us.”

And so we are left with two leaders – Merkel and Orbán – firmly in control of their parties and their countries, taking those countries in diametrically opposed directions on the single most important issue facing Europe today.  One wonders what impact this division will have on the course the European Union will take in 2016.

Posted by

Jan Surotchak

Senior Director, Transatlantic Strategy