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German, Hungarian leaders commemorate '89 freedom picnic

BERLIN (AP) — The leaders of Hungary and Germany sought to strike a conciliatory note Monday, largely setting aside the frostier tones that have dominated their recent relations as they commemorated the 30th anniversary of a key moment in Cold War history.

Speaking at a ceremony recalling the "Pan-European Picnic" — an event on the border of Austria and Hungary considered to have helped lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed their countries' shared history and common European values.

Orban, one of the fiercest critics of Merkel's welcoming stance toward asylum-seekers during the 2015-2016 migrant influx, voiced fulsome appreciation for the German chancellor, whose country has close economic ties with Hungary.

Merkel responded by expressing her country's appreciation for the fact that on Aug. 19, 1989, Hungarian border guards allowed some 700 refugees from East Germany to cross the border into the West, thereby putting further pressure on the Communist regime in East Berlin to let its citizens emigrate.

"We Germans recall with great gratitude Hungary's contribution to overcoming the division of Europe and also Hungary's contribution to achieving German reunification," Merkel said during a church service in the western Hungarian town of Sopron.

Alluding to the split within the European Union over migrants, Merkel said it was "sometimes necessary to jump over one's own shadow in order to do justice to our joint responsibility for Europe and the world."

Pressed on the issue at a news conference, Merkel said the new head of the European Union's executive Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was aiming for a "new start, a new beginning to see how we are able to come to common terms" on the migration issue.

Asked about his country's decision to erect hundreds of miles of fences along its southern borders to prevent migrants reaching the EU when it had been Hungary that helped tear down the Iron Curtain 30 years ago, Orban said that "these two kinds of behaviors are completely compatible with one another."

"We believe that we are the fortress captains of the Germans when we are protecting the external borders of Europe, which are also at the same time Germany's external borders," he said. "We are doing this at our own cost. They could be sending us more contributions, ammunition but it seems that border protection is our obligation and we will continue to perform this."

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