BERLIN/BUDAPEST Hungary should be excluded from the European Union for anti-migrant policies that undermine EU values, including erecting a razor-wire fence, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said, provoking a scornful riposte from Budapest.
The unusually strong attack came three days before a crucial summit intended to project the bloc's unity after Britain's shock decision to leave.
"We cannot accept that the basic values of the European Union are being so seriously breached," Asselborn told German daily Die Welt in comments published on Tuesday.
"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 direct call for the exclusion of a fellow EU member state was unprecedented, and underscored the extent of Europe's divisions over sharing responsibility for the more than 1 million migrants and refugees who reached its shores last year.
Asked about the remarks by reporters in Moscow, Asselborn said he had wanted to stress that the EU had to protect its core values, and he was not picking on one country.
"We can resolve the problem of Brexit but we can't resolve the problems of the survival of the EU if we lose the essence of the EU. So what I told the German newspaper is not directed against one nation, it's aimed at better understanding the essence and values of the EU," he said.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said his country had defended Europe throughout its history, and described his Luxembourg colleague as "condescending, uppity, and frustrated."
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has angered many of his EU partners with his tough rhetoric on migrants and by fortifying his borders to keep them out. He is urging the nation to vote in a referendum next month against future EU quotas stipulating how many refugees each country should take.
The EU could not tolerate such behavior, and exclusion was "the only possibility to preserve the integrity and values of the European Union," Asselborn told Die Welt. Humans fleeing from war were being treated almost worse than wild animals, he added.
"The fence that Hungary is building to keep out refugees is getting longer, higher and more dangerous. Hungary is not far from issuing an order to shoot refugees," he said.
In response, Szijjarto told state news agency MTI only Hungarians could decide who they were willing to live with, a right that neither Brussels bureaucrats nor the Luxembourg foreign minister could take away.
He said it was strange that Asselborn, who came from the land of "tax optimization", and another Luxembourger, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, were talking about shared burdens.
"We understand what it means, though: Hungary has to pay the piper after other people make mistakes," he said.
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka sharply criticized Asselborn's comments, saying calls to exclude member states were "nonsense". German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he could understand impatience with Hungary. "However, it is not my personal approach to show a European member state the door."
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Andreas Rinke and Gederts Gelzis in Riga and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)