Giulia Laganà / Mar 2017
Cartoon: Peter Schrank
Brussels and capitals across Europe breathed a sigh of relief on 15 March as Dutch centre-right premier Mark Rutte’s party appeared to halt the populist tide surging over the continent by defeating the anti-Islamic, xenophobic Geert Wilders in national elections. The optimism following Rutte’s victory is premature, however.
Rutte based his campaign on an increasingly hardline stance on migration, echoing many of Wilders’ own statements when he urged newcomers who “didn’t like it” in the Netherlands to “just leave”. Some 1,400 kilometres from Amsterdam and a week earlier, a European government enacted laws to force migrants to do just that—leave—or better still, stop them from entering the country in the first place.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is reported to have said in private that to wrong-foot the EU on illegal measures, you need to be “fast and furious”. This seems to be the tactic in his government’s crackdown on refugees and migrants, whom he routinely labels as “invaders” seeking to overrun the country. On 7 March, the Hungarian Parliament gave the green light to a bill which foresees indefinite detention in container camps behind razor wire fences for all asylum seekers, including children travelling with their families and those on the move alone above the age of 14. The UN refugee agency has labelled the law a violation of “Hungary’s obligations under international and EU laws.
The move should not come as a surprise. The 7 March law follows draconian provisions rolled out last summer which resulted in Hungarian border guards expelling migrants apprehended near the border with Serbia. NGOs such as the Hungarian Helsinki Human Rights Committee and Doctors Without Borders have documented dozens of cases in which the Hungarian authorities have beaten and abused migrants trying to cross into Hungary, including by setting dogs on them.
Back in 2013, when the government first tried to pass the migrant detention bill, the European Commission made it clear they would take action. The Hungarian government promptly withdrew its proposal. This time the European Union has remained resolutely silent. So what has changed?
In those four years, public discourse and the EU’s approach to migration have shifted. Orbán can now present himself as the gate-keeper of Europe, who is able to “protect the EU’s external borders” — unlike Southern European countries like Italy and Greece. The panic over reducing the numbers of people coming into the EU now seems to overshadow the prospect of detaining men, women and children fleeing violence and persecution in containers or violently driving them back to Serbia. Are the European Union and other member states really prepared to regard such inhumane treatment as an acceptable price to pay for limiting the numbers of migrants and refugees reaching Europe?
On 14 March the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Hungary in a case involving two asylum seekers who were unlawfully detained in the transit area in 2015. New cases may be brought before the Strasbourg-based court to verify whether the ruling applies to the new law. The European Commission may eventually decide to launch formal proceedings against it on the basis that it is not in line with EU legislation, but both these processes will be slow.
In the meantime, Orbán will use the resounding silence emanating from Brussels, Berlin and elsewhere to push ahead with other elements of his plan to reshape Hungary’s political and constitutional system. The government is about to submit a bill that would put additional burdens on “foreign-funded” NGOs, including organisations that provide help to asylum seekers. The government is no doubt gambling on a similarly muted reaction to this latest repressive measure as to the asylum law.
The government’s aim may be twofold: to bring civil society fully under its control and also to intimidate NGOs that remain among the last critical voices about Hungary’s mistreatment of people seeking refuge in Europe.
Bad treatment of migrants does not happen in a vacuum; it is often followed by attacks on the fundamental freedoms of all citizens. Other EU members may see Orbán as uncontrollable, but they should not expect illiberalism to stay confined to Hungary. Geert Wilders’ party, the PVV, has increased its seats from 15 to 20, and his rhetoric is being echoed by centrist politicians in the Netherlands and elsewhere. As mainstream parties chase votes that are going to the right, other politicians will be tempted to follow the lead of FIDESZ, Orbán’s party, and undermine the rule of law in the EU. If Brussels fails to react, expect to see more, not less, undermining of EU norms and laws.