Viktor Orban, a populist firebrand who has spearheaded a drive against European asylum policies fiercely defended by Merkel, could not resist gloating over his first invitation to Berlin in three years.
“The moment came that no one thought possible no matter what the circumstances: Angela Merkel requested a meeting with Viktor Orban, and not vice versa,” the daily newspaper Magyar Idok, which is closely aligned with Orban's government, wrote this week.
“The initial, much-criticised Hungarian resistance,” as well as the “persistent unity” of Central European states against migrants, and a recently declared Austrian-Italian-Bavarian “axis” on border policy “have together decisively turned the EU debate on the refugee issue in a different direction”.
“New winds are blowing in Europe,” it said.
Merkel ended a tense showdown with her arch-conservative Interior Minister Horst Seehofer Monday by agreeing to tighten border controls and set up closed “transit centres” to hold migrants on the Austrian frontier.
The weeks-long row had threatened to topple her “grand coalition” government after just 100 days in power. Influential news weekly Der Spiegel said Thursday that the hard-fought compromise marked an “Orbanisation” of Merkel's policies. “At the height of the refugee crisis (in 2015), Merkel and Orban waged legendary wars of words in Brussels,” it said.
Seehofer's Christian Social Union party in Bavaria state actively courted Orban during those years in an affront to Merkel. Spiegel said she now appeared to recognise that EU hardliners could no longer be ignored or stonewalled.
Merkel's fateful decision in 2015 to leave the German border open to those fleeing Middle East conflict zones was prompted primarily by Orban's refusal to offer them refuge, effectively blocking the so-called Balkan route into the EU.
At the time, Orban railed against Merkel's “moral imperialism” while the chancellor, who grew up in communist East Germany, said she had seen enough walls in Europe for a lifetime.
Since then, far-right parties are sharing power in key countries such as Italy and Austria while the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party won nearly 100 seats in the Bundestag lower house.
Merkel's tone towards Orban has changed recently as well. Last week she even thanked the Hungarian leader for his efforts to bolster the EU's external borders, while Orban declared the “enormous success” of his tough stance in the conclusions of an EU summit last week.
In an interview with ARD public television Wednesday, Merkel denied that she had sacrificed the European principles of open borders and compassion toward qualified asylum seekers on the altar of power politics.
Merkel, who has said that Europe's fate could be determined by the migration issue, said the accords she had hammered out at the EU summit and within her own government were aimed at keeping the asylum system from collapsing.
“I understand that if you only ever talk about border security, border security, border security that people will say: you only want to seal yourselves off,” she said.
“Of course I always asked myself whether what we are doing is right and important. And I always told myself, yes, it is important to stick to these principles. That is why I am pleased we've found a solution.”
The German solution, however, is dependent on bilateral agreements with EU states to take back asylum seekers who previously registered in their countries.
Budapest has until now rebuffed such overtures. Seehofer is due in Vienna later on Thursday to discuss similar cooperation.