BUDAPEST (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is “one of Europe’s bravest politicians” and the European Union should aim for strong strategic relations with Britain after it leaves the bloc, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Thursday.
He spoke after chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said a comprehensive agreement on the future relationship between the bloc and Britain would take longer than the 11-month transition period that begins after Britain’s Jan. 31 exit.
Orban, an anti-immigrant nationalist, has often clashed with EU authorities in Brussels over compliance with democracy standards but has never suggested Hungary should also depart the bloc, from which it receives major annual development funding.
“I believe a generous and strategic cooperation is needed with the British in the coming period when they are no longer members of the EU,” Orban told a news conference.
“I regard Boris Johnson one of the bravest European politicians,” he said, adding that “the whole world was against” Johnson and his eurosceptic Conservative Party still won a large majority in December’s national election, ending a long parliamentary deadlock over the terms of Brexit.
Orban said he believed the EU “misunderstood” the situation if it believed a good set of relations was primarily in the interest of Britain after Brexit, as this was just as much in the interest of the EU’s 27 remaining members including Hungary.
He said post-EU Britain would be successful and that it had opened a “fantastic door, a fantastic opportunity” for itself. “I am sure there is a success story in the making there.”
Budapest’s interest in Britain’s future after Brexit arises in part from the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who work in Britain; London is often cited as Hungary’s second biggest city.
Britons voted 52%-48% for Brexit in a 2016 referendum, with calls to control immigration one of the major factors in the outcome after over four decades of EU membership.
Britain will leave the EU at the end of this month but the agreed transition phase means it will remain bound by all the bloc’s rules and pay into the EU budget until the end of 2020.
Barnier cast doubt on Johnson’s end-of-year timetable for an agreement defining long-term trade and other ties.
(Reporting by Krisztina Than and Marton Dunai; Editing by Mark Heinrich)