French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to Hungary’s capital on Monday for talks with the leaders of the European Union’s eastern nations, discussions likely to highlight political rifts over the scope of the EU’s authority and the bloc’s future course.
In the afternoon, Macron held a bilateral meeting in Budapest with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a right-wing populist who has challenged the EU’s values and its jurisdiction over the affairs of the bloc’s 27 nations.
Orban and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, with whom Macron also plans to meet, have been in conflict with Brussels over the EU’s attempts to rein in governments seen as violating rule of law and democratic standards, values that Macron is eager to champion.
During a news conference after his meeting with Orban, Macron acknowledged that he had “political disagreements” with the Hungarian leader, but was “committed to work together for Europe and to be loyal partners.”
Still, the French leader emphasized the importance of the rule of law, a topic he said would lead to “interesting debates” and potential disagreements with Orban.
“Respect for the rule of law, media pluralism, and the fight against discrimination are at the heart of the European project,” Macron said, a reference to claims by Orban’s critics that he has eroded democratic institutions in Hungary and seized control of large parts of the country’s media.
During brief comments, Orban said a point of agreement between the two leaders is the need for “strategic autonomy” in Europe.
“We think there is no autonomy without a European defense industry. There is no autonomy without our own energy capacities, that is, without nuclear energy. And there is no autonomy without the ability to be self-sufficient in agriculture,” Orban said.
Macron on Monday also met with Hungarian President Janos Ader, where he expressed his concerns over the rights of LGBTQ people in Hungary and other issues, according to the French presidency.
The French leader was also scheduled to meet Slovakia’s prime minister, Eduard Heger, and plans to take part in a summit of the leaders of the Visegrad 4 group of countries: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
His visit came as the EU’s executive arm continues to withhold tens of billions of euros in COVID-19 economic recovery funds from Poland and Hungary over concerns about corruption, judicial interference and media control. The EU has threatened to impose additional sanctions if the two countries fail to live up to rule of law requirements.
France is set to take over the EU’s rotating 6-month presidency on Jan. 1. Macron’s trip, the first visit to Hungary by a sitting French president since 2007, comes ahead of an EU summit later this week.
Macron, a centrist who is staunchly pro-EU, also plans to meet Monday with Budapest’s liberal mayor, Gergely Karacsony, and with Peter Marki-Zay, an opposition candidate who is planning to challenge Orban for the post of prime minister during Hungary’s general election in the spring.
Earlier in the day, the French president visited the grave of Hungarian philosopher and Orban critic Agnes Heller.
Macron is likely to seek a second term in France’s presidential election on April 10. Among his chief challengers at this point are two hard-right nationalists, journalist Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, who have both met in recent months with Orban and embrace many of his policies.
Orban has been working to consolidate Europe’s right-wing, including politicians and parties that share his anti-immigration views and opposition to the EU exercising legal powers over the bloc’s national governments.
Macron, who has shifted to the right on security and migration issues since he first became France’s president in 2017, said after meeting Orban on Monday that he hopes to move towards convergence on migration policies in Europe.
“There had been tensions in the past,” he said. “I think what we have been through in Europe in recent weeks … is allowing us to reconsider a common organization to better prevent migrant flows, protect our (European) external borders and be able to find the ways and means of a more efficient cooperation between Europeans.”