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4th Jul 2020

Orban praises von der Leyen after first face-to-face

  • Viktor Orban and Ursula von der Leyen at their Brussels meeting, which saw a change in tone after the Juncker years (Photo: European Commission)

EU Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen met on Thursday (1 August) with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, amid a series of meetings the German politician is holding with EU national leaders as she assembles her commission to take charge in November.

The meeting comes after Hungary and Poland, whose governments are currently under EU scrutiny for breaching EU norms on the rule of law, claimed they played a key role in von der Leyen getting the top job.

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Last month Hungary and Poland, other central European countries, plus Italy and a few centre-right EU leaders, opposed nominating Dutch Social Democrat lead candidate Frans Timmermans as the next commission president. Timmermans has been leading the current commission's efforts on tackling rule of law transgressions.

"We have made a good decision so far," Orban said told Hungary's public broadcaster after the meeting, adding that it was a good decision to keep "ideological gorillas", referring to Timmermans, away from the commission presidency, and nominate someone with a "pragmatic instinct".

Orban described von der Leyen as a politician "who has the same questions in her thoughts about the future as us", specifying the future of children and families, security, and a common European force and the development of the military industry.

Von der Leyen tweeted after the meeting that she held a "good talk" about her political guidelines with Hungary's premier.

"Agreed on need for a fresh start and pragmatic solutions on migration," von der Leyen added.

"Also discussed competitiveness and the need to bring EU institutions closer to member states. Rule of law is crucial, applies to all. Strong defence union is needed," she tweeted.

'No compromise' compromise?

Von der Leyen told the European parliament before MEPs approved her nomination that "there can be no compromise when it comes to respecting the rule of law".

She later then said in an interview that in central and eastern European countries "many feel that they're not fully accepted, and if we guide debates as sharply as we have done, it contributes to countries and peoples believing that they are being targeted as a whole".

"We must all learn that full rule of law is always our goal, but nobody's perfect," she added then.

Orban confirmed on Thursday that von der Leyen is "sensitive" to issues such as migration, and also in this respect "she is able to think with central Europeans' head".

The commission recently proposed to do yearly rule of law reports on all 28 EU states to avoid targeting specific countries, a plan that Hungary had already rejected.

Von der Leyen told MEPs she supports a full EU-wide rule of law mechanism.

A 2018 parliament report that triggered the sanctions probe against Hungary said that the Orban government's actions represent a systematic threat to democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights and constitute a clear risk of a serious breach of EU values.

Hungary's government claimed the report and the probe are a political attack against Hungary for not allowing asylum-seekers into the country.

After Thursday's meeting, Orban remained cautious, saying "we'll see what happens next", but added: "today there is a greater chance of a reasonable solution than before or with any other candidate".

He said von der Leyen told him she wants to focus not on the issues that divide member states, such as the distribution of migrants, but rather on issues where a positive outcome is possible, like external border protection.

Orban said they barely spoke about the country's candidate for the commission post.

EPP and Fidesz

Orban and Von der Leyen hail from the same centre-right European political alliance, the European People's Party (EPP).

Orban's Fidesz party is suspended from EPP for his attacks on EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and academic freedom, but Fidesz officials still received top positions in the parliament with the EPP's backing.

Orban, who openly flirted with the far-right ahead of the European elections in May, has said he wants to make sure EPP turns towards an anti-migration alliance.

Orban sees von der Leyen's presidency, whom he often points out is the "mother of seven children" as an opportunity, to redress ties with Brussels.

Budapest is also hoping - and emphasising - that the new commission, unlike Juncker's, should not act as a political one.

Hungary's new just minister, who also focuses on EU relations, Judit Varga tweeted a picture of Orban and von der Leyen with the caption: "winners' meeting".

Von der Leyen aims to 'rebalance Europe'

The German EU Commission president-elect hopes to bridge divisions within the EU, as she meets with EU leaders setting up her team of commissioners.

Timmermans: von der Leyen will be tough on rule of law

The Dutch rule of law top man said the new commission would be just as tough on the issue as the current one, but would not say whether he wants to hold onto the portfolio in the next executive.

PiS & Fidesz claim credit for von der Leyen victory

Warsaw and Budapest are boasting about their support for von der Leyen after the german is confirmed only by a small margin of MEPs, but the illiberals should not expect the softening of rule of law scrutiny.

Orban edges closer to Salvini's anti-migrant alliance

Hungary's Orban has hinted at leaving the EPP for Italy's far-right Salvini, saying it will be difficult to remain in the centre-right political family if it allied with leftist parties after the European Parliament elections.

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