The Hungarian government walked away from the negotiating table as discussions with the European Commission broke down over Hungary’s asylum policy. In a defiant statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office on Wednesday, the government insisted that “Since the … negotiations were unsuccessful, Hungary’s government does not wish to change the rules concerning immigration, and if the Brussels commission launches legal proceedings, we stand ready to fight the legal dispute.”
With this, the government has given up on all negotiations with the European Commission over its asylum policy, and openly invited the EC to take legal action. The government’s statement made clear that it would not budge on the existence of the so-called “transit zones” erected along Hungary’s southern border, designed to hold asylum-seekers in detention and house them in shipping containers while their asylum applications are being processed.
The Commission opposes the existence of these transit zones, arguing they break EU rules that prohibit the detention of persons based solely on their request for international protection. The EU Commissioner for Migration was sent to Budapest immediately after Hungary passed the new asylum laws in early March, and met Justice Minister László Trócsányi and Interior Minister Sándor Pintér. The ministers assured the EC that they were willing to openly negotiate the policies, and a joint working group was established between EC and Hungarian officials to discuss how to bring Hungary’s new rules into line with European law.
But those negotiations officially and abruptly reached a fruitless end on Wednesday when the government issued its surprise statement, indicating that the appearances of willingness to negotiate had never truly been in earnest.
The joint working group last met on Tuesday, where the EC delegation reportedly presented its proposals for how Hungarian asylum law could be brought into compliance with EU rules. The EC, in addition to its opposition to the closed transit zones, also raised concerns over Hungary’s policy of holding unaccompanied minors over the age of 14 in the zones along with adults.
The Hungarian government, in its only ostensible attempt at compromise, proposed placing those minors in closed, guarded “youth camps” after being subjected to a DNA test to confirm their age. The proposal was rejected by the EC.
According to index.hu, such a DNA test cannot reliably determine a person’s age: researchers at Belgium’s Leuven Catholic University concluded in 2015 that approximation of age through such tests often results in inaccuracies of plus or minus four years, meaning a 16-year-old asylum seeker could be deemed to be 20, or vice versa. The unreliability of such tests suggests the government’s proposal could not have been made in seriousness.
No compromises were proposed from the Hungarian side concerning the detention of refugees in transit zones. A March decision by the European Court on Human Rights found that such detention, among other elements of Hungary’s asylum policy, is in violation of EU law. In addition to the Strasbourg court’s decision, the EC issued a letter in late March taking issue with five points of the policy. But rather than immediately initiating an infringement proceeding (as it did in the case of Hungary’s new higher education law, Lex CEU) the Commission sought negotiations with the government over the policy’s unlawful elements.
Hungarian officials at Tuesday’s meeting of the joint working group reportedly did not inform the EC delegation that they would be pulling out of further talks. After five weeks of talks, Wednesday’s government statement was the first the EC heard of the end of negotiations.
The good fight
The government’s exit will likely result in the European Commission initiating an infringement proceeding against the country. Such negotiations were the only chance to bring the policy in line with EU and international law, and of complying with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights. In its Wednesday statement the government all but invited such a legal reprisal from the EC, and pulling out from the joint talks makes such action inevitable.
As 444.hu points out, drawing Hungary into a legal battle with Brussels on its asylum policy appears to be a calculated move meant to give credibility to the government’s repeated claims that it is being attacked by the European Union. The latest National Consultation, mailed to over 8 million Hungarian citizens, insists that “Brussels wants to force Hungary to let in illegal immigrants,” and an infringement proceeding against Hungary for its unlawful policies would lend convenient support to that claim.
But such statements, like many of the government’s contrived battles, are disingenuous. The EC has opposed Hungary’s asylum policy only where it is in clear violation of EU and international law. Hungary’s obligation to settle 1,294 asylum-seekers from the EU’s two most overburdened states (Greece and Italy) has nothing to do with “illegal immigrants,” as refugees and asylum-seekers, under international law, cannot be considered illegal. Coercing the EC to take legal action against Hungary’s illegal policies plays nicely into the narrative that “Brussels” is on the attack.
Adviser to the Prime Minister György Bakondi claimed on Wednesday that it became clear during the course of joint negotiations that the EC found Hungary’s border fence to be “completely unacceptable.” But according to sources in Brussels, neither the EC nor its delegates in the joint working group in Budapest even raised the issue of the fence.
As the Fidesz government ramps up its anti-EU rhetoric and attempts to shore up its support ahead of next year’s elections, what the EC may not yet understand is that its actions against the asylum policies and higher education law might be the intended responses to a ploy by the government, and play right into the government’s hands.