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German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to seek common ground on refugees with Hungary’s populist prime minister at a meeting where she avoided mentioning a European dispute over the rule of law.
Merkel met Viktor Orban for the 30th anniversary of then-communist Hungary’s opening of its borders to East Germans in an event that helped bring down the Iron Curtain as she tries to confront a surge of populism across the European Union.
While she avoided criticizing Orban, who has tried to build an international movement to counter the EU’s liberal, multi-cultural values, she called for unity in the bloc. She said that one way to cooperate would be to work with the newly elected EU leadership to strengthen protections on external borders and address problems in refugees’ home countries.
“Even if differences remain, we need to find the common traits,” Merkel told reporters Monday in Sopron, where East Germans came to meet with their friends and family in neighboring Austria 30 years ago. “With a new European Commission, we have every chance to do that.”
The event in Sopron, heralded as a key trigger for the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, carries strong symbolism for the Hungarian premier. A member of the anti-Communist resistance at the time, Orban has since based his political narrative on fighting immigration and built a border fence to keep refugees out.
Orban’s stance against immigrants and his efforts to erode checks and balances in his self-styled “illiberal democracy” has increasingly isolated him from other European leaders. Hungary is facing a top-level EU probe into flouting rule of law, and Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has been suspended from the umbrella European People’s Party.
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