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Apr 04, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

They’ve changed their tune -- from Wilkommenskultur to Auf Wiedersehen

In February, I posted a few examples of how certain leaders were beginning to sing a distinctly different tune on the growing migration challenge. The title of the post was “Migration and European Borders: That Moment When Other EU Leaders Sound Like Prime Minister Orbán.”

In January 2015, over a year ago, Prime Minister Orbán was the first to talk about the link between the uncontrolled influx of migrants and the increased risk of terrorism. The prime minister was among the first and most outspoken proponents of the need for Europe to defend its Schengen borders. His frank assessments and insistence on holding fast to the Schengen rules for admitting asylum seekers were roundly criticized.

But over the past 14 months, many European leaders have gradually adjusted their positions as they come to grips with the scale of the problem of mass migration and Europe’s woeful response. Hungarian journalist András Zsuppán, in an article that appeared recently in the conservative weekly Heti Válasz, offered a look at the sometimes dramatic shift by drawing up a timeline of the past month’s political declarations regarding the crisis. Here are a few examples.

In June 2015, the Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs announced that the country was constructing a fence to control migration and protect Europe’s common southern border. He said, “We hope there will be a common European solution, but Hungary just cannot afford to wait any longer.”

The western press and European elites quickly denounced the move. “Closing the border is a step in the wrong direction,” said Austrian President Heinz Fischer. “Serbia will not erect walls and will not live in Auschwitz,” commented Serbian Prime Minister Vučić. Austria soon erected a fence on the Slovenian-Austrian border, which – unlike the Hungarian fence – is between two countries of the Schengen Area. In September 2015, border control was temporarily restored between Germany and Austria.

Just last weekend, in an interview with Die Presse, Austrian Chancellor Faymann talked openly about changing his position on the issue. The chancellor said that a common European solution is not working, that the European Commission has made a mistake by not ensuring the protection of the external borders of the EU – something Hungary was denounced for last year – and that German Chancellor Merkel’s approach might hurt Austria’s interests. That’s a bit different than what we were hearing last fall.

In August 2015, French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius called for Hungary to tear down the border fence; he said it was a “wire fence they don’t even make for animals.” At the same time, a larger border fence was constructed in Calais, France.

Also last August, Chancellor Merkel announced her suspension of the Dublin Protocol for Syrians, which effectively served as an open invitation. Chancellor Merkel’s famous selfie with migrants was published September 10. Three days later, border controls between Austria and Germany were temporarily restored.  In October, Germany began to transport asylum seekers back to their countries of origin. Their plan is to send back half a million people.

“I told him that he shouldn’t protect Christianity in my name, no thanks,” Croatia’s Prime Minister said September 24, referring to Prime Minister Orbán. Less than a month later, a fence was erected on the Croatian border and the Croatian prime minister lost the elections in November. 

In January 2016, Denmark and Sweden restored border controls along with Austria, which also set quotas for the number of migrants to be admitted. As a result, the Western Balkans migration route has closed.

Developments show that Hungary and Prime Minister Orbán were right. More and more EU leaders have decided to speak openly about the need to control the migration crisis in order to protect the freedoms of the Schengen zone and to protect their own citizens. In contrast to the noisy criticism we heard last year, it’s remarkable how many have changed their tune.