7:30 p.m., Vienna, Chancellery
An official memo from the Hungarian ambassador in Vienna arrives at the Austrian Foreign Ministry. The note advises Austrian officials that a group of around 1,000 persons who entered Hungary illegally are now on their way to Austria. The ambassador also requests Austria's view of the situation: On the basis of what legal foundation should Hungary react? The diplomats in the Foreign Ministry immediately forward the message onward to the Chancellery, where Chancellor Faymann and his advisors interpret the memo as being far more than a non-binding diplomatic note. Rather, they see it as a question coming straight from Orbán as to whether the Hungarians should stop the march or allow it to continue to Austria. They are also certain that the march can only be stopped with violence — and they all quickly agree that such violence should be prevented at all costs. Faymann decides to call Angela Merkel.
7:45, Cologne, Flora Köln
With Merkel at the podium delivering her speech to the CDU anniversary celebration, the telephone of her deputy office manager, Bernhard Kotsch, who is sitting in the audience, begins vibrating. Merkel's aide receives a message from the situation center in the Berlin Chancellery: Werner Faymann would like to speak with Merkel. Extremely urgent.
8 p.m., Budapest, Parliament Building
The Hungarian government's crisis task force assembles for a special session under the leadership of János Lázár, Orbán's chief of staff. There is only a single item on the agenda: What to do about the refugees? The assembled politicians and officials, including the interior minister, the head of the national police force and the prime minister's special envoy for disaster relief, are appalled. Parts of the highway system have been closed down due to pedestrians on the roadway, the situations at the train stations in Budapest and Bicske are chaotic and there has been a death. Furthermore, refugees are no longer following instructions from officials and are deciding for themselves where to go and where to stay. To make matters worse, the international media is showing almost exclusively misleading images from the train station in Budapest, making the situation seem more chaotic than it is and suggesting that Hungarian officials are using violence.
Meeting participants quickly agree that the state must rapidly regain control. Now. Immediately.
8:15 p.m., Budapest, City Center
Prime Minister Orbán begins making his way to the sold-out Groupama Aréna in the southeastern corner of the city to take in a European Championship qualification match between Hungary and their archrivals from Romania. Shortly before kickoff, Chief of Staff Lázár calls Orbán to tell him that a plan has been hammered out. Just a few minutes later, Orbán tries to reach Chancellor Faymann in Vienna, but is unsuccessful. Faymann isn't taking calls from Orbán.
8:15 p.m., Cologne, Flora Köln
Chancellor Merkel's speech in Cologne lasts 32 minutes. In closing, she says: "It is good to celebrate, but from now on, work will continue and that can be fun too." At the time, she has no idea about the work awaiting her just a few minutes later.
As the crisis task force is meeting in Budapest, as Mohammad Zatareih and the other refugees on the highway are slowly tiring and as CDU members in Cologne begin sipping their first beers, Merkel's four-car convoy drives up to Flora Köln to take her to the airport, located roughly 20 minutes away. The chancellor climbs into an armored Audi A8 and security personnel pile into an additional A8 behind her vehicle.
Merkel quickly has herself connected with Faymann. He fills her in on the situation, saying it is critical and telling her about the images from the highway. He also warns of the possibility of violence and even of deaths and says Hungary is pursuing a strategy of escalation. Merkel is certain that force would be necessary to stop the refugees and that, in turn, would trigger a humanitarian catastrophe. As such, she is convinced that Austria and Germany will not be able to close their borders.
If one is looking for the moment when the historical decision was made, this is it.
But Merkel also knows that it would be problematic to simply let them all in, so she tells Faymann that she has to talk with her people and that afterwards, Faymann should then speak with Orbán. Faymann hangs up with the feeling that the German chancellor will help him out.
Merkel starts making calls. She wants to know what her advisors, her government ministers and her coalition partners think. Are there serious objections? What is the legal situation?
8:40 p.m., Budapest, Groupama Aréna
In just a few minutes, German referee Felix Brych will blow the opening whistle. Viktor Orbán is sitting in the VIP box and is able to relax. He has just made a decision that gives him the upper hand, one that will change the entire situation in one go. Its effects will be felt across Europe.
8:40 p.m., Berlin, Hungarian Embassy
A directive for the ambassador arrives from Budapest ordering him to immediately inform the German government of Orbán's decision. Ambassador József Czukor dutifully sits down at his computer and fires off an email to Chancellery Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier and State Secretary Emily Haber, who is responsible for refugee issues at the German Interior Ministry. Hungary is no longer able to guarantee the registration of refugees, Czukor writes, and is thus planning to bus them to the Hungarian-Austrian border. The total number of refugees, he continues, will be between 4,000 and 6,000 on board around 100 buses. In the mail, Czukor asks for a return phone call, and a few minutes later Altmaier is on the other end of the line.
9 p.m., Budapest, Parliament Building
The Hungarian government's crisis task force instructs the Budapest transport company BKK and the state-owned bus company Volán to immediately make fueled up buses available and to arrange for drivers. Departure: as soon as possible. The Interior Ministry and the national police force, they are told, are in charge of coordination.
Around 9 p.m., Highway M1, Kilometer 27
After almost 32 kilometers on foot, the mood is souring among the refugees who are still making their way down the highway. Women and children are unable to continue and it is getting cold and dark. Then the rain starts. There are arguments and some begin complaining, saying at least it was dry in the train station. Hungarian bloggers accompanying the march send out a call for people to donate camping mats, sleeping bags and creams for aching muscles. Mohammad Zatareih begins looking for a place to camp on the side of the highway that would be difficult for police to surround. The Red Cross is supplying the provisions and there are many volunteers helping out. The situation is precarious, but not at all catastrophic.
9:15 p.m., Budapest, Parliament Building
János Lázár, Viktor Orbán's chief of staff, addresses the press following the meeting of the crisis task force. That same night, he says, buses will head to Keleti station and to the M1 highway to transport the refugees to the town of Hegyeshalom on the Austrian border. It will be up to the Austrian government, he says, to determine whether they will then be allowed to enter Austria. Vienna, he continues, hasn't yet commented on the issue despite numerous attempts by Prime Minister Orbán to reach Austrian Chancellor Faymann. The Hungarian cabinet has even sent a diplomatic cable to Vienna, Lázár says, but "we haven't thus far received a real reply." He adds that Chancellor Faymann has notified Orbán that they can speak on the phone at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning.
Hungary, though, can't wait that long, the chief of staff continues. "The EU and several EU member states are demanding solidarity from us even as they don't exhibit any solidarity with us."
The move is a clever one. On the one hand, it is unquestionably a humanitarian gesture, with Orbán giving the refugees what they want: free passage to the west. The women, children, sick and exhausted will be plucked from the rainy highway and provided shelter. On the other hand, Orbán is shifting the pressure to where he wants it to be — away from himself and toward the Austrians and Germans. Toward Merkel.
Within just a few hours, the time it takes for the refugee-filled buses to reach the Hungarian-Austrian border, Orbán's political adversaries will have to make a momentous decision. Should they continue to insist on the application of European law? If they do, they will have to stop the refugees, a move that will make them seem like cold-hearted hardliners, not unlike Orbán. Or should they accept the refugees? Should they choose that route, Orbán will be rid of them and domestic pressure will rise in both Austria and Germany. It is a win-win situation for the Hungarian prime minister. A short time earlier, Orbán posted "Toi, toi, toi Hungary" on his official Facebook page. The message, of course, was meant for the Hungarian national team ahead of its match with Romania, but other interpretations are possible.
Shortly after 9 p.m., Goslar
Sigmar Gabriel, German vice chancellor and leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Merkel's coalition partner, is with his family in his central German hometown of Goslar when his mobile phone rings. It's the chancellor, asking for Gabriel's endorsement to bring between 7,000 and 8,000 refugees to Germany from the Budapest train station. Foreign Minister Steinmeier, likewise a senior SPD member, has no objections, she continues, adding that she has spoken with him at length and that the Foreign Ministry is looking into the legal situation.
The discussion lasts just five minutes and is more of a briefing than it is a strategy discussion. Gabriel says he sanctions the move as long as it remains an exception, whereupon Merkel assures him that that is her intention as well. They speak of the images from the Budapest train station and about the refugees who are walking to Austria along the highway. Then she hangs up.
Gabriel then immediately calls Steinmeier, who is still in Luxembourg at the meeting of EU foreign ministers. Steinmeier says that Merkel merely informed him briefly and that he can't remember a lengthy discussion. He confirms that the Foreign Ministry is checking into the legal details.
That evening, Steinmeier's legal experts indicate that prevailing European law includes a sovereignty clause allowing EU member states to allow as many refugees into their country as they want.
9:50 p.m., Highway M1, Kilometer 27
The news from Budapest that buses are on their way to drive them to the Austrian border begins circulating among the refugees on the highway. Cheering erupts and Mohammad Zatareih is also excited — but others are skeptical. Can it really be true? Or is it just another trick from the Hungarian government? Everyone here knows about the train that didn't travel to Vienna as promised but was stopped in Bicske instead.
Around 10 p.m., Berlin
Angela Merkel, who herself admits that she can't make decisions until she has thought things through to the end, must act quickly and under significant pressure. Moreover, she doesn't have even the slightest idea about the consequences.
Orbán's announcement is essentially an ultimatum. In just three or four hours, by the time the buses full of refugees arrive at the Hungarian-Austrian border, it must be clear whether they will be allowed to cross into Austria.
The chancellor would rather wait to open the border until the next morning so as to slow things down and have more time to prepare. But Faymann told her on the phone that he can't wait that long, that there are too many people underway. He essentially beseeched Merkel to assent that night.
And what options does she have? Merkel and her people are convinced that the marchers could only be stopped with the help of violence: with water cannons, truncheons and pepper spray. It would be chaotic and the images would be horrific. Merkel is extremely wary of such images and of their political impact, and she is convinced that Germany wouldn't tolerate them. Merkel once said that Germany wouldn't be able to stand the images from the dismal conditions in the refugee camp at Calais for more than three days. But how much more devastating would images be of refugees being beaten as they try to get to Austria or Germany? Images of blood, injuries and perhaps even of deaths.
Who exactly was coming — whether Assad henchmen or Islamic State terrorists were among the new arrivals — none of that played a role in the discussions.
10:15 p.m., Luxembourg, Cercle Cité
The 28 foreign ministers are eating scallops, salmon and char for dinner, accompanied by Pinot Gris from the Mosel region. But the menu is about the only part of the original agenda that has come off as planned. The refugee march has long since become the primary subject of discussion here too and Frank-Walter Steinmeier has left the meeting hall several times in the past several hours to talk on the phone. Now, dessert is being served, but Steinmeier, his Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz and the Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó have retired to a separate room, with work still to be done. Together, they have been tasked with formulating a text that will serve as the official announcement of the acceptance of the refugees from Hungary.
After 10 p.m., Berlin
Then, late in the evening, after the chancellor has been on her feet for more than 16 hours, something happens that cannot be precisely reconstructed. The descriptions are simply too divergent.
Undisputed is that Merkel sends Horst Seehofer, governor of Bavaria and head of the CDU's powerful Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), a text message to inform him of her decision. It is also clear that Seehofer does not reply. The CSU boss is at his holiday home in Schamhaupten, 35 kilometers northeast of Ingolstadt, and he will later say that he had already shut off his mobile phone, as he always does when on holiday.
Merkel then asks Altmaier, who is already in Evian, to inform Seehofer by way of his office manager Karolina Gernbauer, head of the Bavarian state chancellery. She too tries to reach Seehofer, but is unable.
The result is that the path to Bavaria is opened for thousands of refugees without the chancellor having exchanged even a single word with the Bavarian governor.
The chancellor, Merkel's people will later say, did all she could to reach Seehofer. They would also say that there were more important things to do that evening that to speak with Seehofer. His input was not important for the decision-making process, they would say, he was merely to be informed, just as Gabriel was. And perhaps, they would intimate, Seehofer knew that he wouldn't have been able to change anything and thus preferred not to answer.
Seehofer, though, insists that if Berlin had really wanted to reach him, they could have sent the police to his house — and if Karolina Gernbauer had known how urgent the situation was, she wouldn't have hesitated for even a moment in calling the Schamhaupten police. That method, after all, has been used to reach politicians in urgent situations before, such as when Thomas de Maizière, who was hiking in a forest near Dresden, needed to be reached so he could replace a seriously ill Wolfgang Schäuble at an important euro crisis meeting in Brussels.
Who informed whom and when — or not — would not be particularly important if Merkel and Seehofer had any trust in each other on this issue. If that were the case, a communication problem like this one could be solved within the space of two sentences. But the two are not on the same page on the refugee issue and their conflict has only worsened in the last several weeks. As such, the lack of communication that evening will become politically meaningful.
After 11 p.m., Vienna
Faymann reaches Orbán. He informs the Hungarian prime minister that the refugees will be allowed to enter Austria.