“Are You Opposed to Peace?”

Europe owes much to the EU. Reference to historical truth, however, is not enough to ensure its survival. The Union can only be successful again if it restores citizens’ sense of security.

(The following text appeared in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Monday, July 11, 2016.)

Not long ago I was in Oggersheim. It is always uplifting to talk about Europe with former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. I visited Konrad Adenauer’s house on the way to the Deutsche Telekom headquarters in Bonn, where I had a taste of the challenges presented by digitalisation. Standing by the statues of Adenauer and de Gaulle, I looked down on a Rhine bathed in sunlight. The peoples from both sides of that river launched Europe's most successful ever project. So why is the EU now in such an unstable, insecure condition? For decades peace has reigned, and prosperity – even though not uniform – has made Europe the most desirable part of the world. Why do people feel such great doubt?

In the early hours of 24 June, when the last results came in from British voting areas, it became clear that this great project had lost the support of the majority of citizens in a large Member State. On 24 June the sun rose as always, but one chapter in the history of European integration had come to an end and a new one had begun. Do we have sufficient courage and honesty to understand this situation and give responses based on respect for great predecessors and in the interest of our citizens, our nations, our community?

In communist East Germany, if someone even discreetly tried to talk about obvious problems, the doubter was confronted with a stupid – but apparently conclusive – argument: “Comrade, are you opposed to Peace?” A crisis-prone EU cannot shut down debate on some fundamental issues by saying that people who doubt the great project should visit Europe’s military cemeteries. The recognition of historical truths will not be enough to ensure the survival of the EU.

For many years Europe’s construction project made progress – not always smoothly, but with overall consistency. The waves of closer integration and enlargement interlocked like the teeth of a zip fastener. The most uplifting moments in this process were German reunification in 1990 and European unification in 2004.


And then in 2005 something went wrong. The citizens of two founding states – France and the Netherlands – rejected the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. In contrast to Danish and Irish referenda on other European treaties, there was no question of holding a second vote after minor adjustments. The momentum towards integration came to a halt. By the time changes were made, with the Treaty of Lisbon’s entry into force, a global crisis was upon us. In 2008 the European elite, which had drawn its legitimacy from economic achievements, suffered a defeat. The aftermath of the economic and financial crisis spelled the end of the illusion that the EU could guarantee continuing prosperity – let alone increasing prosperity – for all of its citizens. In certain Member States the crisis of the elite has escalated into a crisis of democracy.

This came to a head in the geopolitical crisis in Ukraine in 2014 and the migration crisis barely a year later. Fears and concerns have multiplied, while the number of solutions and effective answers has reduced. This is how we arrived at the British referendum; this is a turning point, because for the first time since its foundation the EU is losing a Member State, which is a substantive move towards disintegration.

Most people today believe that the United Kingdom will suffer as it withdraws from the EU. This is assured, as every rebirth involves suffering. I am not worried for the British people, however, as we are talking about Europe’s oldest democracy, a nuclear military power of inescapable importance, a member of the UN Security Council, and the world’s fifth largest economy. They will find their new place in the world faster than we might think.

Instead we should worry about ourselves. First of all, we should make clear to ourselves and our citizens that there are still 27 Member States, and a community with a population of 444 million. This continues to be an entity of enormous potential, but can only be successful if we take the people with us into the struggle that seeks to address our crises. We need every individual, every nation, every Member State. Institutions cannot act in their stead, but must assist and coordinate the Member States – and must not marginalise them. The institutions are there for the Member States, not the other way round. We need a rational and decisive shift. We must put an end to the move away from the nation states of Europe and the idealisation of European projects, and we must discard the false perception that we have of ourselves. The EU as a whole – and its individual Member States – no longer have the power and influence they had decades ago. We have a big heart, but our opportunities are limited. We must use them responsibly.

We must recognise that the experiments which sought to create direct, democratic legitimacy for EU institutions of the by circumventing the Member States have in fact produced the opposite result. The President of the Commission used to be selected through consensus between the Member States, but now we have been split into a majority and a minority; this led to a conspicuous disregard for the British people, which itself contributed to the majority of people in the UK becoming fed up with the European Union.

The essence of Hungarian thinking is simple: the EU is rich, but weak, which is the worst combination of qualities. At the same time, we must avoid unproductive ideological debates on whether we need “more Europe” or “less Europe”: where we need more, there should be more; where we need less, there should be less.

Recent events have shown that an increasing number of people are beginning to have doubts about the European project, and are turning against it. We must also acknowledge that there are diverging views about the challenges and proposed solutions – not only among politicians and political parties, but also among the people themselves. There are likewise diverging views regarding the options for further action. There are some who want more centralisation, and there are some who want less. There are some who prefer a Europe of nations, while others would even ban national flags from sports stadiums. There are some who would systematically import labour to Europe from afar, while others would like to provide jobs for the masses of young unemployed people. There are some who would take in millions of people in order to address their demographic problems, while others place their faith in the promotion of families. There are some who believe that today the most burning issue is better animal protection, while others say that people’s sense of security must be restored as soon as possible. There are some who would integrate the Western Balkan countries, while others recoil at the very mention of further enlargement. There are some who would plan the future at the expense of others, while there are many who reject excessive debt at the expense of other Member States’ taxpayers – and particularly at the expense of future generations. And there are European citizens behind each and every one of these views and opinions.

How can we restore order to this European chaos? Because even in democracy there must be order. The answer is not too complicated, if we commit ourselves to the principle of being “united in diversity”. We must observe the rules that we ourselves have created. We must return to the consistent application of European law. This also means that we must use the same standards for all of us. And it also means that we must not make ”yellow card” procedures meaningless, we must respect the role of national parliaments, and we must not attempt to exclude them from the ratification of international agreements of the utmost significance – as has been the case with CETA or TTIP.

The main reason for the crisis and uncertainty is that, by disregarding the rules, we put at risk Europe’s two principal achievements: the common currency and the internal market protected by Schengen – in other words, our way of life and our economic model. The systematic violation of the Stability and Growth Pact, the Schengen Agreement and the Dublin Regulations has become standard practice, furthermore with the tacit approval of the anointed guardians of these treaties. The concept of a political Commission is in itself difficult to countenance, as the Treaty clearly lays down the powers of this body.

Our community is both one of values and of shared responsibilities. Good examples of this are our budgetary framework and the system for the protection of our external borders. In neither case does the responsibility begin in Brussels, but in the Member States. And if a given Member State finds itself under great pressure through no fault of its own, the community – the other Member States – come to its aid. It was in this spirit that Hungary protected its external Schengen borders – 97 per cent of the funding for which has been provided by the country itself. It was based on this conviction that Hungary has repaid all its debt, after being the first country forced to seek protection from the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and being the only Member State so far to have been the subject of sanctions for violation of fiscal regulations.

There is no doubt that, in addition to observing the current rules, there is a need to create new ones. But this need or demand should not be approached on an ideological basis. The protection of the external borders, digitalisation or industrial policy are all areas where common sense dictates the strengthening of European cooperation. These areas include common foreign and security policy, and defence and development policy. But where there is a dispute on how to proceed, there is a single European instrument for the settlement of disputes: this is, once again, the Treaty itself. The euro and Schengen prove that flexible integration is a reality. Moving forward within more limited boundaries is not a new invention either, and the rules for strengthened cooperation have been sufficiently developed. It is unnecessary – indeed, dangerous – to envision an EU which gradually decays by stepping outside the framework of its regulations and by calling its boundaries into question.

We must not be naive, of course: there are disciples of creeping Treaty change. Examples of this are the “Spitzenkandidat” method of nominating the President of the Commission, or the Commission’s proposals on the permanent and mandatory redistribution of refugees. But I could also cite the European Parliament’s latest decision on triggering Article 50.

The other fundamental task is the restoration of people’s sense of security. The uncontrolled influx of hundreds of thousands of people, and the collapse of systems which people had believed were functioning – particularly those for protection of Europe’s external borders – cannot be separated from the failure of integration. The recent horrendous series of attacks leaves no room for any further inaction.

The same is true of the European economy and labour market. Yes, we are passive witnesses of globalisation. But if we believe, if we feel strong enough, we shall not resign ourselves to the situation, but shall join the competition. The external borders, which were once believed to be indefensible, are gradually becoming protected. The Spanish method proves that the blue border can be defended, and the Hungarian method proves that the green border can be defended. In addition to mass population movement, other phenomena of globalisation– particularly the everyday social and economic effects of digitalisation – amply demonstrate where the risks and the opportunities lie. Hungary will support with all possible means the raising of the national, regional and European digital agenda to a matter of high priority.

Today more than ever we need Member States – small and large, old and new, eurozone and non-eurozone, eastern and western, southern and northern – to combine their efforts. Whether we like it or not, Germany’s central position is becoming ever stronger. And Germany can rely on Hungary to share Europe’s common obligations. This remains true even though among ourselves we must clarify one important thing – in our own best interests and those of our shared union. I can sum this up in a single word: “fence”.

In 1989 we wrote European history – together. In 2015 we found ourselves at the centre of a European debate – together, once again. Only we can explain this to ourselves and our European partners – and yet again, together. Hungary is not a large Member State, but God has put us in a place on the map where History sometimes arrives in transit.

In the summer of 2015, with complete disregard for European rules, more than ten thousand migrants a day were arriving at the Hungarian-Serbian border. These people had already been in the territory of another Schengen Area Member State. As it is the responsibility of a country on the Schengen Area’s external border to ensure that the crossing of that external border is controlled, Hungary had no choice but to erect a physical barrier. We would quietly note that at that point in time, there were already four other such fences in the territory of the EU. Germany, and a considerable section of German public opinion, were unable to comprehend – and some people are still unable to do so – how Hungary, the country that tore down the iron curtain, could resort to such a measure.

I understand how German society, which for decades was divided by walls and barbed wire, dislikes the fence. But if anyone has the moral standing to explain this to their German friends, surely the Hungarians do. After all, it was Hungary that cut through the Iron Curtain which divided Europe – and the German people – in the decades after the Second World War. The decision for Hungary to allow East German citizens to leave en masse for the West was withdrawal from a bilateral intergovernmental agreement signed with East Germany in the nineteen sixties – an agreement which followed on from the building of the Berlin Wall. The decision to break that agreement enjoyed consensus across the whole of Hungarian society: in the democratic opposition and the reform communist government alike. Hungary used international law to knock the first brick out of the wall. This led to the unification of Germany, and thereafter to the unification of Europe. This was also a matter of self-interest. German unity is therefore integrally linked to Hungarian independence and freedom. Both are inseparable from the unity of Europe. We could add that in no country other than mine did the unification of Germany enjoy such undivided support. Perhaps it is also no coincidence that Hungary has one of the highest popular approval rates for EU membership.

In 1989 we dismantled a fence which divided the peoples of Europe. In the early autumn of 2015 we erected a fence on the external green border of the Schengen Area, to protect the European Union’s greatest achievement: free movement within the common area of the internal market. As a result, we have been protecting the European people’s way of life and economic model – at least on the section of Europe’s external border for which we are responsible. And, no less crucially, we have been protecting their security.

We did this as good, law-abiding Europeans. The protection of the external border is not a thing of beauty, it is not a matter of aesthetics, and it cannot be done with flowers and cuddly toys. In Banz, when I told politicians from the Christian Social Union in Bavariathat I am the captain of your border fortress, I wanted to express the essence of Schengen. The external borders of Germany and the central Member States are in fact many hundreds of kilometres from their territories. These countries have placed their faith in the Member States on the external borders, trusting that they will perform their duty. And Hungary has done this. Hungary is protecting the Germans – along with the Swedes, the Dutch and all its other European partners. When some people hear these comments they automatically react with the accusation of populism. As Shakespeare would put it, however, populists are people who call a spade a spade. We Hungarians call things by their names. This is part of our nature. We do not want to distribute the migration burdens falling on Europe, but we want to eliminate them: to put an end to them.

We have now reached a stage at which the protection of the external borders enjoys a broad consensus. And our views have also converged on a number of other matters. These include the need for action against the causes of migration, as part of which Hungarian and German soldiers are serving together in operations in several critical regions. We have agreed that those in need should be given help and support as near to their homes as possible. Cooperation with partner countries – be those countries of origin or of transit – is becoming ever more important. We have increased humanitarian and financial aid as far as our capacities permit. Hungary has not let anyone down – the Germans least of all.

In addition to the “fence”, there is another word which we should discuss. That word is “voluntarism”. The Brussels institutions believed (and continue to believe) that there is a single means with which to manage and resolve the entire migration crisis: the mandatory relocation quota. Hungary was the first to firmly express its opposition to this idea. We opposed it in political debate, we shall go to the European Court in Luxembourg, and we shall also consult the Hungarian people in a referendum. So why this firm, tough position?

On the one hand, until we regain the ability to control the situation on our external borders, and until we decide who may enter our territory, any kind of distribution scheme is an invitation. On the other hand, mandatory distribution is not possible if the smuggler or the migrant in question is the one who decides on their ultimate destination. Thirdly, this message which encourages millions of economic migrants to set out. A better life cannot be seen as a fundamental right – much though we would like to be able to grant it. Last but not least, in European law there is no consistent rule for mass immigration.

So this is what we return to: if there is no jointly agreed rule about something, we can only provide for it on a voluntary basis – at least until the adoption of a new rule. On a number of occasions there has been a consensus on the European Council approving the principle of voluntarism, but other institutions in Brussels have refused to acknowledge this. Furthermore, the European Commission’s latest proposals seek to mix together three different dimensions: asylum, legal immigration and demography. This is a grave error.

True refugees must be helped in the most effective way possible. There are general rules for legal immigration, but they fall within national competence; and this is how it should be, as the situations of the Member States vary greatly. In Hungary we must integrate hundreds of thousands of our Roma compatriots into the labour market, while elsewhere young unemployed graduates number in the hundreds of thousands. And as regards demography, the EU has no competence of any kind. We also have a demographic problem. While there is no guarantee that our response – the strengthening of family policy – will be successful, we wish to decide ourselves how we envisage our own society, how wish to live and who with. In Hungary for centuries we have lived together with compatriots originating from every corner of Europe. In the Hungarian parliament there are representatives from thirteen national minorities. In Budapest the Catholic Basilica is only a short walk from the city’s astonishing synagogue. Generations have grown up in this cultural environment. Their social vision of a shared future together has been based on their decisions, not the instructions of a remote, faceless institution.

The protection of the external borders must also restore the people’s shaken sense of security. This is important, but is naturally not enough. There is still also much to do in the reinforcement of shared security and defence policy, and in the consistency of our development policy. A new vision must also be offered to the countries of the Western Balkans, which are bounded on all sides by European Union Member States. It is important to focus on our southern neighbours, but they cannot replace those to the east and south-east.

We can no longer delay debate at the highest level on strategic partners. We should not shrink from allowing the heads of state and government, rather than EU officials, to debate on international relationships – whether between the EU and Russia or between the EU and the United States. If we lose political control, important projects such as the TTIP may end up in a blind alley.

And, last but not least, we must also mention the EU’s competitiveness as both a problem and an opportunity. In 2000 a Lisbon strategy was created. Even at the time, its scale of ambition brought a faint smile to our faces, as we were reminded of resolutions adopted at party congresses in the socialist era. But this is deadly serious. The economy is the most important indicator of the EU’s decline. The population is shrinking and economic output is declining, and this contrasts with disproportionately high social expenditure. While we have been under the pressure of the migration waves we have lost valuable months, and digitalisation has kicked the door in on us. Not only may certain sectors or businesses now find themselves in trouble, but we will be forced to fundamentally change the life of society and the economy, the community and the individual, as we know it today – or perhaps they will change of their own accord. Millions are worried about their jobs. Digitalisation, industrial policy, related innovation, training and infrastructure development are good examples of the issues ordering us to cast aside the ideological precepts of “more Europe” or “less Europe”. We must pragmatically identify the areas in which we can develop the process of European integration. We need a positive schedule, security and growth. We need the wider acceptance of tried and tested methods (such as the system of dual vocational training), or the introduction of new ones, such as support for internet-based business models or start-ups.

Hungary does not yet use the euro as its currency, but – due to its close ties with the Southern German economic region – the extent to which we succeed in placing the eurozone and its largest national economy on a stable path of growth is key for our economy. When there was a continuous series of crisis meetings, we could all see the essence of Germany’s “holy trinity”: fiscal discipline, competitiveness and structural reform. In this – in a new European growth programme – Hungary is a reliable partner, together with the whole of Central Europe. This is also true for security in a broader sense. Together we Hungarians and Germans can do a great deal for the success of the European project. In the tradition of Bismarck, we can leap up and grasp the hem of God’s garment as he marches past.

The rebirth of the European ideal is possible. Hungary, together with its Visegrád countries, feels determined, strong and committed enough to play a proportionate role in this. This is what I was reminded of in Oggersheim and Rhöndorf.