Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 November 2019

The picnic that ended the division of Europe

Leaders commemorate event when 600 East Germans fled communism

All friends now: Angela Merkel shakes hands with Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban after clashing in the past over EU migration policy. Bloomberg
All friends now: Angela Merkel shakes hands with Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban after clashing in the past over EU migration policy. Bloomberg

Two of Europe’s longest-serving leaders marked the pro-freedom picnic 30 years ago that proved one of the pivotal moments in the tearing down of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban put aside their differences over migration for the anniversary of the “Pan-European Picnic” during which more than 600 East Europeans crossed the border from communist Hungary into Austria.

The flight was the first exodus of East Germans since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and was seen as a major factor in its fall three months later.

The fall of the Berlin Wall resulted in the reunification of Germany and the gradual incorporation of former states under Soviet control into the European Union.

The rare meeting of the two leaders, who addressed a church service in the Hungarian border town of Sopron, also reflected current divisions within the 28-nation bloc.

Mrs Merkel’s Germany accepted more migrants than any other EU nation when more than a million people arrived in the bloc in 2015, while Mr Orban ordered fences to be built on Hungary’s southern border to keep them out.

The pair have since clashed as the EU has sought to strike new migration and asylum policies after protests from countries including Italy and Greece, which have received most people travelling from North Africa.

The pair last met in 2018 when Mrs Merkel accused Mr Orban of failing to respect “humanity” with his harsh anti-immigration policies.

Mrs Merkel told the service on Monday that the picnic represented the values of “solidarity, freedom and a humane Europe”. She praised the "courage" and "humanity" of the Hungarian border guards who didn’t fire on the crowds.

In his address to the service, Mr Orban hailed the fact that the events of 30 years ago had “cleared the way towards German reunification”.

Updated: August 20, 2019 10:11 AM

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