BUDAPEST – French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday affirmed his commitment to strengthening the external borders of the European Union, a point of common agreement at talks he held in Hungary's capital with the leaders of the bloc's eastern nations.
The summit in Budapest of the Visegrad 4 group of Central European countries hosted Macron as France is set to take over the EU’s rotating 6-month presidency on Jan. 1.
While his views on migration found welcome ears among the more conservative leaders of the V4 governments, Macron's visit also highlighted rifts within the 27-member EU over the scope of its authority and its fundamental values.
The host of the summit, Hungary's right-wing populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, is one of the EU's fiercest critics of immigration.
But he and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who was also present, 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.
In a news conference following the meeting, all five leaders emphasized the necessity of revamping the EU's migration policy, while Macron reaffirmed his views on migrants, saying “there is a clear convergence of views” with the V4 leaders.
Macron called for changes in the passport-free Schengen area to improve the protection of external borders and limit flows of migrants from one EU country to another, and to streamline the process of sending those who don’t qualify for asylum back to their home countries, “people who have no right to stay in the EU."
Yet political rifts remain between the staunchly pro-EU French leader and Orban, who together with Morawiecki has challenged the bloc's jurisdiction over the affairs of its 27 member nations.
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 and judicial interference. It has also threatened to impose additional sanctions if the two countries fail to live up to rule of law requirements.
Macron, a centrist who favors deeper European integration, acknowledged that he had “political disagreements” with the Hungarian leader, and earlier in the day insisted that “respect for the rule of law, media pluralism, and the fight against discrimination are at the heart of the European project,” 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.
Yet Macron, the first sitting French president to visit Hungary since 2007, struck a conciliatory tone when he emphasized the need for dialogue and finding points of agreement with political opponents.
At the summit, he and the V4 leaders — which also included Slovakia's Prime Minister Eduard Heger and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis — agreed on the need to make nuclear energy a fundamental part of the EU's goals to reduce carbon emissions.
Orban said that agreement had also been reached on the need for “strategic autonomy” in Europe, which included developing a European defense industry, increasing energy autonomy through nuclear energy and building self-sufficient agricultural capacities.
Earlier on Monday, Macron met with Hungarian President Janos Ader, where according to the French presidency he expressed his concerns over the rights of LGBTQ people in Hungary, an issue which has raised the ire of some politicians in Europe concerned with recent Hungarian legislation that some saw as homophobic.
He also met with opposition leaders opposing Orban, like Gergely Karacsony, Budapest’s liberal mayor, and 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.
At a news conference following that meeting, the opposition leaders said that they had raised issues of corruption and rule of law in Hungary, as well as the country’s increasingly close ties to eastern countries like China and Russia.
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.
Corbet reported from Paris.