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25th May 2019

Merkel clashes with Orban on meaning of 'democracy'

  • Merkel: 'I can’t understand what is meant by illiberal when it comes to democracy' (Photo: bundeskanzlerin.de)

German chancellor Angela Merkel criticised Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban over his government's treatment of the opposition, civil society, and media and openly clashed with him over the definition of democracy during a visit to Budapest on Monday (2 February).

In a sometimes tense joint press conference, Merkel expressed doubt over Orban’s interpretation of democracy.

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“Honestly, I can’t understand what is meant by illiberal when it comes to democracy,” she said.

The chancellor was referring to a speech by Orban last year in which he said he was building an “illiberal” state in Hungary, and cited Russian and Turkey as examples.

But Orban replied that "not all democracies have to be liberal" adding: “Those who say that democracy is necessarily liberal are trying to put one school of thought above others and we cannot grant that."

Merkel also criticised the Hungarian premier’s treatment of diverging opinions, saying that societies thrive through dialogue.

“It is very important in a democracy, including when one has a broad majority, to recognise the role of the opposition, civil society and media,” the German leader said.

Orban's right-wing Fidesz party has ruled with a two-thirds majority in parliament for five years, and has been accused of abusing its super-majority.

Speaking later at the German-language Andrassy University in front of around 100 students, Merkel said: "In a democracy the opposition is not an enemy, the majority must protect the minority.”

She also called for media pluralism and a free civil society, amid criticism within and outside Hungary, most notably Washington, that Orban is undermining democracy.

Ties between Hungary and Germany - its biggest investor and largest trading partner - have cooled over the last years and it is Merkel’s first visit since Orban came to power in 2010.

The trip was seen as an effort to reinforce relations amid attempts by the Hungarian PM to forge close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is due to visit Budapest on 17 February.

Orban was willing to clash with Brussels over the now dropped Russian-backed South Stream gas pipeline. He also signed a €10 billion loan deal last year with Moscow to build a new nuclear plant.

Turning to Putin

Merkel put pressure on Orban over Russia, in an attempt to ensure sure Hungary sticks to the common European line on sanctions against Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine.

She reminded Hungary that it is not the only EU member state highly dependent on Russian gas.

Orban, while backing the sanctions, has voiced criticism over the negative economic effect of the restrictive measures on the EU's own member states, saying last year Europe “has shot itself into the foot”.

Merkel also made clear that Germany will not provide arms to Ukraine in its conflict with Russian-backed rebels.

“Germany will not support Ukraine with guns and weapons. It is my firm belief that this conflict cannot be solved militarily,” she said.

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