Hungary’s Orban faces off against refugees

Hungary's firebrand leader has earned few friends in Europe with his tough approach to the refugee crisis, but tied by EU asylum rules and with the far right biting at his heels, analysts say he is faced with few good options.

Hungary's Orban faces off against refugees
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. Photo: Photo: Barna Burger/Hungarian Govt

Prime Minister Viktor Orban was never much of a liberal. A former US ambassador recently quoted him as saying: “All this talk about democracy is bullshit” after one too many lectures regarding his authoritarian ways.

Yet even by his own reactionary standards, the building of a heavily fortified fence along the country's southern border, patrolled by sniffer dogs and possibly the army, looks like an extreme step — particularly in a country with vivid memories of the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain.

The UN's refugee agency said new laws due to come into force next week, threatening three years in jail for anyone breaking through the barrier, “could lead to chaos”, while French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called the fence a breach of “Europe's common values”.

Orban has dismissed the criticism and ridiculed EU calls to distribute refugees around the continent.

“As long as we can't defend Europe's outer borders, it is not worth talking about how many people we can take in,” he said in a speech this week.

Taking the law into their own hands

The heavy-handed tactics may be unpopular in Brussels, but there is nonetheless a recognition that Hungary is a victim of Europe's failed response to the migration crisis, which has seen more than 380,000 people enter the continent this year.

In particular, the influx may have put the final nail in the coffin of the EU's widely-derided “Dublin Regulation”, under which asylum seekers must register in the first country they reach, putting enormous pressure on Greece, Italy and Hungary.

“In practice, the Dublin regulations have already died,” Gauri van Gulik, deputy Europe director for Amnesty International, told AFP.

“The idea that you can stop people going where they want is ludicrous. What you see on the ground, especially in Hungary, is it's simply impossible for them to process all the people arriving and provide basic reception facilities, so people are taking the rules into their own hands.”

Hungary has already seen 162,000 people crossing its borders illegally this year, with most trying to reach Germany and Sweden to the north after an arduous journey through Greece and the Balkans.

'Doesn't look good for him'

Orban's tough stance is partly an attempt to undercut Jobbik, considered one of the most extreme of the emerging far-right parties in Europe, which won 17 percent of the vote in elections last year.

“Orban is stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Blanka Kolenikova, an expert on central Europe at IHS, a London-based consultancy.

“Whatever he does to slow down the traffic of migrants will be unpopular with human rights campaigners, but he faces domestic pressures and security concerns. Hundreds of people walking the highways does not look good for him.”

One of the most worrying aspects of the migration crisis, she said, is that it is bringing together far-right parties from Hungary and neighbouring Slovakia for the first time.

“It is incredible because they hate each other,” said Kolenikova.

“We are likely to see more protests by Jobbik, maybe backed by groups from Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. That will put extra pressure on Orban and make him even more explosive in his comments and actions.”

“Orban has lost control”

Supporters, such as Tamas Lanczi of pro-government think tank Szazadveg, say Orban is just a “useful scapegoat” for Brussels and that many EU leaders share his concerns about migrants.

But the bitter irony for Orban is that his ultranationalist rhetoric may come back to haunt him.

By fuelling anti-immigrant fears with claims that “tens of millions” are descending on the country, he now risks looking incompetent as the clampdown fails.

“Orban's inability to cope with this crisis effectively is a big problemfor him, and it plays well for Jobbik,” said Kolenikova.

The razor-wire barrier completed on August 29 has failed to stop any migrants, while the slow pace of fence-building apparently prompted the resignation of Defence Minister Csaba Hende on Monday.

“Orban has lost control of the situation”, said Budapest analyst Peter Kreko.

“He has tarnished the reputation of the government due to the chaotic
situation… and he has isolated himself at the international level.”


‘Discrimination’: Austria’s benefit cuts for immigrants ‘go against free movement’

Benefit cuts imposed by Austria on immigrants whose children live in their country of origin contradict EU law becasue they constitute "discrimination on the ground of nationality", a legal adviser at the bloc's top court said on Thursday.

A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg
A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg on January 13, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

The opinion is the latest legal hitch to befall a series of measures — imposed by a previous government that included the far-right — which sought to restrict benefit payments to foreigners.

Richard de la Tour, advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), said the cuts to child benefits constituted “an infringement of the right of free movement conferred on EU citizens”.

The specific case relates to reforms that came into effect in 2019 which indexed child benefits according to where the recipient’s children live.

This meant reduced payments for tens of thousands of eastern Europeans who work in Austria — notably in the care sector — but whose children remain in their countries of origin.

The advocate general’s advice is not binding on the court but it is seen as influential.

De la Tour found that the cuts were “indirect discrimination on the ground of nationality which is permissible only if it is objectively justified”, and that Austria had failed to do so.

They contravened the principle that “if a migrant worker pays social contributions and taxes in a member state, he or she must be able to benefit from the same allowances as nationals of that state”, he added.

In 2020 the European Commission, supported by six eastern member states, brought an action before the CJEU claiming Austria was “failing to fulfil its obligations”.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had said he hoped the cuts would save 114 million euros ($130 million) a year but in 2019 they recouped 62 million euros.

The former coalition also introduced benefit cuts for immigrants who failed to reach a certain level of German, but those measures were subsequently overturned by the Austrian courts.

The government that introduced in the cuts was brought down in a corruption scandal in May 2019.

It included the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), which is still the senior partner in the current government.

However their current coalition partners, the Greens, opposed the benefit cuts at the time.