The European Union is seeking legal action against the government of Hungary for its treatment of asylum seekers, after threatening to do so for nearly three years. On Thursday, July 19, the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, announced in a formal letter that it planned to ask its highest courts to fine Hungary for not complying with several EU treaties that require member states to provide protection for foreigners seeking refuge. The decision could have fundamental implications for Europe as its nations struggle to reconcile their increasingly different ideas about democracy and human rights in an age of rising nationalism and strongman politics.
The European Union’s decision to take legal action is in direct opposition to Hungarian Prime Minister Orban’s hardline stance against immigration and asylum seekers. President Orban has relied on his nationalist and fear-based politics since 2015, a strategy that carried him to his third consecutive term earlier this year. Details of some of his anti-immigration policies include housing asylum seekers for months on end in remodeled shipping containers and installing a militarized wall along Hungary’s southern border. While Orban’s critics caution that he is neglecting the rule of law and encouraging neighboring countries, such as Austria and Slovenia, to do the same, Hungarian citizens have overwhelmingly endorsed his brand of politics.
According to EU policy, Hungary has two months to respond to the Commission before it begins assessing whether or not Orban and his government have violated any rules. In the meantime, the investigation may empower Prime Minister Orban by keeping public attention on him. This may help him with his plan to pass a constitutional amendment that would prevent the EU from forcing refugee settlement in Hungary. Since virtually none of Hungary’s opposition parties are willing to criticize the administration, the odds for the amendment successfully passing are in Orban’s favor. This is not the first time the EU has demonstrated concern over Prime Minister Orban’s legislation. In the past, he has also been criticized for discrimination against Roma children in schools as well as a lack of protection for pregnant women in the workplace.