Luxembourg’s foreign minister has called for Hungary to be thrown out of theEuropean Union over its increasingly hostile approach to refugees, as campaigners accuse Viktor Orbán’s hardline government of whipping up xenophobia to block a European plan to relocate asylum seekers.
Jean Asselborn said Hungary should be temporarily or even permanently expelled from the EU for treating asylum seekers “worse than wild animals”.
In an interview with German daily Die Welt, he said: “Anyone who, like Hungary, builds fences against refugees from war or who violates press freedom and judicial independence should be excluded temporarily, or if necessary for ever, from the EU.”
Asselborn called for EU rules to be changed to make it easier to expel Hungary as this was “the only way of preserving the cohesion and values of the European Union”.
Hungary’s foreign affairs and trade minister Péter Szijjártó dismissed Asselborn as “an intellectual lightweight” and his comments as “sermonising, pompous and frustrated”.
He said only Hungarians have the right to decide who they wish to live with, adding that no Brussels bureaucrat can deprive them of this right.
In a statement issued by the Hungarian government, Szijjártó added: “It is somewhat curious that Jean Asselborn and Jean-Claude Juncker – who both come from the country of tax optimisation – speak about jointly sharing burdens. But we understand what this really means: Hungary should take on the burden created by the mistakes of others.”
Human Rights Watch also called on Europe to use its “enforcement powers” against Budapest after documenting abuse of asylum seekers that it says breaches Hungary’s legal obligations under European and international law.
It is also alarmed by an anti-migrant campaign orchestrated by Orbán’s government to resist an attempt to impose binding quotas for resettling asylum seekers in member states.
On 2 October, Hungary is due to hold a controversial referendum on the relocation plan, which involves sending 1,294 asylum seekers to Hungary. Orbán’s government has sent an 18-page booklet to millions of Hungarian households urging citizens to reject the plan because it says “forced settlement endangers our culture and traditions”.
Lydia Gall, HRW’s Budapest-based researcher on eastern Europe, dismissed the booklet as “government sponsored xenophobic anti-refugee propaganda rubbish”.
She accused the EU of being “virtually silent” in the face of such rhetoric. But she said Asselborn’s call to expel Hungary from the EU would “probably do more harm than good”.
In an email to the Guardian, Gall said Hungary should instead be prosecuted. She wrote: “The EU has good tools to address human rights problems in member states. The focus, rather, should be on generating the political will to use those mechanisms to hold Hungary to account including, if necessary, through the court of justice.”
Hungary’s booklet includes an image of migrants and asylum seekers queuing to enter Europe, similar to the much-criticised “Breaking Point” poster launched by former Ukip leader Nigel Farage during Britain’s EU referendum campaign.
The headline above the image of the queue says: “We have a right to decide who we want to live with”, according to a translation by the Budapest Beacon.
Gall said Hungary’s booklet was worse than the Ukip poster. She said: “While the Ukip poster was revolting, it doesn’t compare to the anti-migrant and anti-refugee campaign in Hungary in terms of scale.”
In a blogpost, she added: “The booklet contains distorted facts about Europe’s refugee crisis, portraying asylum seekers and migrants as dangerous to Europe’s future. It links migration to increased terrorism and refers to non-existent ‘no-go’ areas in European cities with large migrant populations, including London, Paris and Berlin, where authorities have allegedly lost control and where law and order is absent.”
She added: “Sixty years ago, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians obtained sanctuary from persecution in other parts of Europe and North America. If the Hungarian government reminded itself and Hungarians about that history, it might help create a more positive and welcoming attitude towards those from Syria and elsewhere seeking safety in Hungary today.”
Hungary’s hardline rhetoric on refugees left it isolated during the peak of the refugee crisis in September 2015, but in the year since, Orbán has become an increasingly pivotal figure in European policy. Austria, which initially followed Germany by responding compassionately to refugees, now stands with Hungary in calling for an Australian-style solution to the refugee crisis.
“In September, Orbán was the bad guy,” Gerald Knaus, head of the Berlin-based thinktank the European Stability Initiative, told the Guardian earlier this month. “Yet by the end of the year he was the leader of a coalition of states. And with Austria now taking the lead on arguing for an Australian-style system, it’s now Germany that is isolated.”
But Orbán’s vision goes far beyond simply repelling immigrants. In a speech made last year, Orbán hailed what he saw as the demise of liberal Europe. “We are experiencing now the end of an era: a conceptual-ideological era,” Orbán told supporters last autumn. “Putting pretension aside, we can simply call this the era of liberal babble. This era is now at an end.”
A week ago, Orbán continued this argument at a press conference with the rightwing Polish politician Jarosław Kaczyński, in which he called for Europe and its institutions to be reworked in favour of a rightwing vision. “We are at a historic cultural moment,” said Orbán. “There is a possibility of a cultural counter-revolution right now.”