BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A rap on the knuckles from the EU’s top court will not end Hungary’s opposition to accommodating asylum seekers, and may even help Prime Minister Viktor Orban in his campaign for re-election next year.
Rightwinger Orban has been one of the bloc’s most vocal opponents of attempts by Brussels to force member states to take in quotas of mainly Syrian refugees, and the fence that Hungary built on its southern border to keep them out has been criticized by other governments and rights groups.
But that unapologetic stance has gone down well with voters at home and, with Orban’s Fidesz party already firmly ahead in opinion polls, initial responses from Budapest to Wednesday’s ruling suggested the legal setback would help keep the issue of migration high on the domestic political agenda.
Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the European Court of Justice’s dismissal of appeals by Hungary and Slovakia against the migrant quota system the European Union launched in 2015 was “entirely unacceptable”.
“The real battle only starts today,” he told a news conference. “I want to assure all citizens ... that the Hungarian government will do everything it can to protect Hungary and the Hungarian people.”
Hungary argues that the obligatory relocation of asylum seekers arriving in Greece and Italy from the Middle East would undermine its sovereignty and social fabric, and Orban’s government held a referendum in 2016 on whether to accept any future EU-wide migrant relocation quotas.
More than 3 million Hungarians, an overwhelming majority of participants, rejected the EU initiative then - and Orban would win a third term in office next April with their support alone.
“Orban could use a rejection of Hungary’s claim (by the court) to fuel his electoral campaign with anti-EU-arguments,” said Professor Hendrik Hansen, an expert on international and European politics at Budapest’s Andrassy University.
“The migration issue is a winning point for the Orban government independently of what the European court decides,” added Tibor Attila Nagy, of the Centre for Fair Political Analysis said ahead of the court ruling.
The square in front of Budapest’s Eastern Railway station was a focus of the world’s media when thousands of migrants camped there in September 2015, hoping to scramble on to trains bound for Austria and Germany.
On a bright late summer morning two years later its flagstones are eerily quiet, but locals hurrying to work have not forgotten the days when Hungary was the main transit route for hundreds of thousands of refugees from war and poverty en route to richer western states.
Many remain opposed to the country taking in migrants.
“The fence is very good (to have) as it protects us from the explosions and violence and everything,” catering worker Ilona Nagy, 55, told Reuters. “I would vote for Fidesz, only Fidesz.”
“It was only Hungary which did what it had to do and protected the Schengen borders, and this is still the case,” said pensioner Peter Lazar, 73, another Fidesz supporter.
But some preferred to focus on other matters.
“I believe the whole migration crisis is government propaganda nothing more,” said Karoly Szenasi, 50.
Monika Fenyvesi, 33, out walking with her child in a stroller, said the scenes at the station had been “scary” and it was good that Hungary had imposed controls.
But issues such as support for families, healthcare, taxation, and wages would determine which party got her vote. “It will be hard to decide but it will not be the current government.”
Additional reporting by Gergely Szakacs; editing by John Stonestreet