Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said Hungary was violating the EU’s fundamental values, in reference to everything from its building of a razor-wire fence on its southern border to limiting press freedom and the independence of the judiciary.
“We cannot accept that the basic values of the European Union are being so seriously breached,” Asselborn said in an interview with German newspaper Die Welt.
“Anyone, like Hungary, who builds fences against war refugees or breaches press freedom and the independence of the justice system should be temporarily, or if needed, forever excluded from the EU.”
The attack sparked a sharp rebuke from his Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto, who said his country had defended Europe throughout its history and claimed Asselborn showed himself to be “condescending, uppity, and frustrated”.
The government of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has been accustomed to attacks from Asselborn.
“As early as 2012, Mr. Asselborn was already criticising Hungary, saying the new constitution resembles a dictatorship, he compared Hungary to Belarus and he already wanted to strip Orban of his voting rights,” recalls Edit Inotai, senior follow with the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy in Budapest.
“Last year, as the refugee crisis broke, he was saying he was ashamed of Mr. Orban as a member of the European Union, he said he caused a lot of damage and hoped he would not be a reference or an example for other countries.”
Referendum on EU quotas of asylum seekers
The spat comes ahead of a 2 October referendum on an EU quota system to distribute asylum seekers across the bloc.
Orban’s government is advising voters to reject it and has also launched a huge publicity campaign to drum up the required turnout, as more than half of eligible voters have to cast ballots in order for the referendum to be valid.
Rights defenders have warned this has amounted to bombarding Hungarians with anti-migrant messages.
“A huge taxpayer-funded billboard campaign you can see all over the country” has been bolstered with “4.1 million anti-migrant, anti-refugee and quite xenophobic booklets, with distorted facts about the refugee crisis,” says Lydia Gall with Human Rights Watch in Budapest.
“They don’t even mention these people as being asylum seekers or refugees but rather illegal immigrants” and present them as though “they don’t abide by our laws or our norms, they don’t adhere to our traditions and they pose a danger to European society.”
Divisions apparent ahead of EU summit
Ahead of an EU summit where leaders are under pressure to display cohesion within the bloc, other countries weighed in with more diplomatic tones, with foreign ministers of Germany, Latvia and the Czech Republic all saying calls to exclude member states were not particularly helpful.
But at very least, the spat shows how divided the bloc remains when it comes to refugees.
“We are all aware of the pretty big divisions between Western and Central Europe, especially the Visegrad countries, concerning the burden-sharing in the refugee crisis,” says Edit Inotai.
“[Asselborn’s remarks] are an indication there are countries keen on pushing the quota system, but I would be surprised if there was any progress on this issue in Bratislava.”
The spat also risks plays into Orban’s own argument that eastern countries are singled out in ways western ones are not.
“It’s quite useful for Mr Orban, helping to make the point that the countries of Visegrad, or the countries between the Baltics and Greece, are pointed at for a bad reason,” says Paul Gradvohl, a historian specialising in Central Europe at the University of Lorraine in eastern France.
“I suppose it’s an attempt to build up a position inside Luxembourg and Western Europe, but it doesn’t really make sense in order to prepare the summit in Bratislava.”