Merkel stresses need for ‘humane’ Europe on Iron Curtain anniversary

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recalled the importance of a "humane" Europe Monday as she took part in commemorations in Hungary to mark the 30th anniversary of a pivotal moment in the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

Merkel stresses need for 'humane' Europe on Iron Curtain anniversary
Merkel is greeted by Peter Szijjarto, Hungary's foreign minister, as she arrives in Sopron on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

Speaking alongside her Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban — with whom she has clashed in recent years over the issue of migration — Merkel said the “Pan-European Picnic” held at the Austro-Hungarian border in 1989 reflected the values of “solidarity, freedom and a humane Europe”.

The two leaders were addressing a church service in the city of Sopron to mark the anniversary of the picnic, during which at least 600 East Germans crossed the border and escaped to freedom in the West.

The German Foreign Office tweeted about the anniversary of the “Pan-European picnic” on Monday.

SEE ALSO: Merkel to mark Iron Curtain anniversary with Orban amid new divides

The first mass exodus of East Germans since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, it was seen as a key factor in the fall of the wall itself three months later.

The commemoration is a rare encounter between the two of the great survivors of European politics, with Merkel in office since 2005 and Orban since 2010.

Their last major bilateral meeting was in July 2018 when Orban made his first visit to Berlin for three years.

Merkel holding a press conference during his bilateral visit to Berlin in July 2018. Photo: DPA

It was an awkward affair during which their divisions were on full display and Merkel accused Orban of failing to respect “humanity” with his harsh  anti-immigration policies.

Orban has been a sharp critic of Merkel's 2015 decision to open German borders to those fleeing Middle Eastern conflict zones.

Germany's southern garrison

Merkel said at Monday's press conference that she had faith in incoming European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen to give fresh impetus to finding a common European approach to the migration question.

Meanwhile, Orban was asked whether it was incongruous to celebrate the dismantling of borders given that Hungary has erected fences along its southern frontier.

He rejected any contradiction, saying that the walls in 1989 had been taken down so people could live in peace and security and “the new ones are built precisely in order to preserve European peace and security”.

Due to the Schengen agreement, “in one sense we are Germany's southern garrison,” he added.

Pressed on the frequent criticisms levelled at Hungary over the erosion of the rule of law, Orban said they were “politically biased and not supported by facts”.

“We have our own… constitutional foundations and Christian freedom which we will always protect,” he said.

'Liberation from the Soviet yoke'

In his address to the service in Sopron, Orban hailed the fact that the events of 30 years ago had “cleared the way towards German reunification”.

Hungarians had always known that “our liberation from the Soviet yoke would be definitive endure only once Germany was united,” he added.

Merkel recalled her own memories of seeing plans for the picnic advertised in 1989.

She remembered the “uncertainty and worry” when it became apparent the picnic had turned into an escape to the West.

“Everyone knew how the uprising in East Germany in 1953 turned out, as well as the one in Hungary in 1956 and the Prague Spring,” she added.

Merkel greets former East German refugees during celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the so-called Pan-European Picnic. Photo: DPA

She praised the “courage” and “humanity” of the Hungarian border guards who didn't fire on the crowds.

The pair held talks ahead of a joint news conference set for 12:45 pm.

The two leaders were both personally marked by the events of 1989 but have since taken starkly diverging political directions.

Merkel's upbringing in communist East Germany imbued her with a belief in the importance of liberal values in politics and free market economics.

Orban by contrast, while starting as a young liberal centrist in 1989, sees the events of that year as the first step for the nations of eastern Europe to re-establish their sovereignty.

Last week Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert admitted that the “differences of opinion” between the two leaders on issues such as refugee policy were well known and that they would tackle current events in their discussions.

Despite the political tensions between the two, Hungary and Germany enjoy close economic relations.

Germany is Hungary's largest trading partner and a major source of foreign investment, particularly in the form of the mighty German car industry.

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.