German-Hungarian Friendship Standing on Shaky Ground

By Daniela Neubacher | 2 November 2015

To quote this document: Daniela Neubacher, “German-Hungarian Friendship Standing on Shaky Ground”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 2 November 2015,, displayed on 08 December 2022

 It has now been 26 years that Hungary opened its borders to refugees from the German Democratic Republic (GDR), thus making a first step towards German reunification. Ironically, fences at Hungary's borders are now putting relations to her most important economic partner to a severe test. Commentary by Daniela Neubacher.

The "year of the German-Hungarian friendship" has already got off to a bumpy start. Chancellor Merkel reminded the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to enter into dialogue with civil society, the media and the opposition. In the months before, tens of thousands of Hungarians had gone on the streets in order to protest against the Orbán government. The powerful chancellor's reproach cast a cloud over the beginning of the anniversary of German reunification, to which Hungary had made a symbolic and significant contribution when opening her borders to refugees from GDR on September 11, 1989.

In the transition years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Germany turned into Hungary's most important economic partner. Since Orbán took up office in 2010, however, the German government has found it increasingly difficult to cement these economic ties also on the political level. A controversial media law, constitutional revisions or Orbán's public statements against what he sees as failed liberal democracy have been deepening the gulf between Budapest and Berlin ever since. This is why János Lázár, Minister of the Prime Minister's Office, announced that Hungary's most important foreign policy goal this year was to improve the relationship with Germany again. Ever since then, Orbán has not stopped reaffirming his good intentions. German companies created 300.000 jobs, he explained, and Hungary's exports reached records in 2014. Hungary therefore said “Thank you, Germany,” as Orbán explained at his meeting with Chancellor Merkel this spring.

The Bavarian Brotherhood

Indeed, a quarter of Hungary's foreign trade is with Germany – and this is likely to rise. Last year, Germany invested around €18 billion in Hungary, 31 per cent of which went into vehicle manufacturing only. A third of all investments comes from Bavaria alone. Budapest keeps close contacts with its Christian-social EPP partner. Bavarian Minister-President Horst Seehofer (CSU) has shown particular understanding for Orbán's policy of protecting his borders. The two are also of the same opinion when it comes to criticising Merkel's politics of welcoming refugees. “Today Bavaria’s borders are being defended by Hungary,” the Hungarian Prime Minister said in a joint press concerence with Seehofer in September. He went on to say that he was the “the captain of one of the Bavarian minister-president’s border fortresses”. Seehofer demanded limiting immigration to Germany and criticised Merkel's decision not to set a maximum limit for taking in political refugees.

Migration: Opportunity or Threat?

Answering the question on how far the Hungarian population actually supports Orbán's immigration and asylum policy is not as easy as it is presented in many media reports or government-friendly think tanks such as Századvég Foundation. According to a September survey by Publicus Research, the majority of Hungarians would not have built the border fence to Serbia and thinks that it is useless. More than half of the people surveyed would like refugees to be treated in a more humane manner. However, 41 per cent also support the use of weapons for protecting borders.

Orbán also justifies his measures with the recent results of the "National Consultation," at which the government asked its citizens twelve questions on the topic of immigration. Questions included “We hear different views on the issue of immigration. There are some who think that economic migrants jeopardise the jobs and livelihoods of Hungarians. Do you agree?” and “Would you support the Hungarian Government in the introduction of more stringent immigration regulations, in contrast to Brussels’ lenient policy?”. Critics argued that the questions had been formulated in a suggestive and manipulative manner. The results of the consultation can therefore only be taken seriously to a limited extent.


Skills Shortage due to Emigration

In the current debate on migration, Germany and Hungary are only drifting further apart. While Merkel propagates the arrival of refugees as an opportunity for the German labour market, Orbán talks about a cultural threat for Hungary. However, Hungary is faced with a shrinking population not only due to an ever lower birth rate but above all because of the mass exodus of young Hungarians. Most of the emigrants represent a qualified workforce, the Managing Director of Randstad Hungary, Sándor Baja, has explained recently to the left-liberal weekly hvg. 25 per cent of the Hungarian emigrants are aged below 30, 63 per cent are below 40, and 32 per cent have a higher education diploma. “The Government has to pay attention to the emigration of Hungarians again,” economist Péter Ákos warned at a conference on German-Hungarian relations in October. Hungary has to recognise that the local labour market needs immigration just like the German one according to the Hungarian economist and former Ministry of Industry and Trade (1990-1991). Ákos also noted that he was sometimes ashamed by the lack of objectivity and high emotionality with which this topic was discussed in Hungary.

A Bilateral Stress Test

Emotionality can indeed be seen in East-Central Europe when it comes to bilateral tensions and clashes between heads of government. The Hungarian border fence to Serbia had cast a shadow on the relations to the Southern neighbour at the very beginning of its construction in July already. Later, in order to prevent thousand of refugees from transiting Hungary, Orbán tightened immigration laws and ordered locking the border down for several days at the checkpoint Horgos/Röszke. As refugees were now taking the route over Croatia, Hungary decided to act more drastically. Soldiers unrolled a 41 meter long razor wire on the Croatian border, which could also be used at the Romanian border if needed, Orbán explained.

Harsh reactions followed on this isolation from Bucharest and Zagreb, aggravating the already problematic relations with Hungary's neighbours. The German Chancellor's position on that is clear: “[I]solation doesn’t help,” Merkel is cited at the beginning of October by the magazine POLITICO. “The refugees won’t be stopped if we just build fences. That I’m deeply convinced of, and I’ve lived behind a fence for long enough,” Merkel is reported to have said in a closed-door meeting of the European People’s Party.


Orbán seems to deliberately accept the tensions to his neighbours. Reinterpreting and softening criticism from Brussels has long become routine in Budapest. The Berlin-Budapest axe has always been more important than relations with Brussels, the Minister of National Economy, Mihály Varga, emphasised recently at the German-Hungarian conference in Budapest. However, Hungary is faced with a dilemma, given Angela Merkel's strong position on the German and European level. It is yet to be seen how diligently the Orbán government can keep the balance between economic rapprochement and political distance.

About the Author

Daniela Neubacher (26) studied Journalism and Corporate Communications in Graz and Saint Petersburg. After that, she obtained an interdisciplinary master's degree in Central European Studies in Budapest. Her main research focus is on the political and social transformations in East-Central Europe. Born and raised in Austria, she has lived in Hungary since 2013, where she is currently doing her PhD and working as a freelance journalist. Weblog: Twitter: @neubac.


To go further 

On Nouvelle Europe

On the Internet


Photo credits: author's picture of the border crossing between Hungary and Serbia at Röszke.