A defiant Hungarian prime minister arrived in Brussels yesterday for meetings with the EU’s three top officials. Subject: the migration crisis that has put his country in the world’s spotlight.
True to form, Viktor Orban, the man who has become a thorn in the side in the European political establishment stirred controversy even before his arrival.
Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz – presidents, respectively, of the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament – awoke yesterday morning to a provocative article penned by the Orban in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper.
Criticising the EU's asylum policy, Orban echoed comments by Slovakia's prime minister, Robert Fico, last month. Fico had suggested that his country would accept only Christian refugees.
"Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims," Orban wrote in the German daily. "This is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity."
The anger stoked by his written remarks was evident in Tusk’s remarks in his joint press conference with Orban yesterday morning. “For a Christian, it shouldn’t matter what race, religion and nationality the person in need represents,” the former Polish premier said, while standing beside Orban.
Yesterday's intervention by Orban is the latest indication of deteriorating relations between the European Union and the Hungarian government.
At the Eastern Partnership summit in May, Juncker caused a brief social media stir when he greeted Orban with a salute and the words: “Hello dictator.” Though said jokingly, Juncker’s words were revealing.
, an EU member since 2004, has in recent year fallen foul of the European Commission as Orban’s government has moved more and more to the right. Changes to the constitutional court and judiciary as well as media law have fuelled concerns in Brussels.
A damning report by the Council of Europe this year criticised the prevalence of xenophobic and anti-Semitic speech in political discourse.
It also raised concerns about media freedom, noting that a right-wing journalist who had expressed racist views on the Roma minority was awarded the 2013 Tancsics journalism prize by the government.
Last year Orban was forced to withdraw a planned internet tax after tens of thousands demonstrated on the streets of Budapest.
In particular, the Fidesz party leader is becoming an increasingly problematic presence for the European People's Party (EPP), the centre-right political family to which Taoiseach Enda Kenny and German chancellor Angela Merkel belong.
The European Parliament has taken a bolder stance than the council. In June it passed a resolution condemning remarks made by Orban about possibly reintroducing the death penalty, following a combative address by the Hungarian leader in Strasbourg the previous month.
In May, a private EPP meeting between Orban and party MEPs was particularly tense, according to some present, with a number of MEPs raising their concerns directly with the Hungarian prime minister.
The continuing migration crisis is now beginning to strain relations at the council level. Already this week Budapest summoned the Austrian and French ambassadors over criticism voiced by Paris and
over the 175km fence erected by Hungary on its external border.
Orban’s assertion on Thursday that the migration crisis was a “German problem” is likely to inflame tensions between Budapest and Berlin.
It is now expected that next week’s permanent relocation proposal from the European Commission will include a plan to relocate migrants arriving in Hungary across the EU.
While ostensibly this is likely to appease Budapest, in fact it could frustrate Orban further. Hungary has consistently opposed any mandatory relocation system, arguing that border control should be prioritised first.
Hungary will now be faced with a situation where the EU is directly offering the country help, but through a system to which the government is strongly opposed.
Much of Hungary's response to the proposal will hinge on Friday's so-called V4 meeting between Orban and the leaders of Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia in Prague.
Orban is correct in his criticism of the lack of a unified EU policy to deal with migration inflows. But his provocative reference to the religious profile of the hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge in Europe will likely raise more concerns about his government’s commitment to the social and democratic values espoused by the European Union.