Hungary defends referendum on EU migrant quotas, raps Brussels 'ivory tower'

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary said on Thursday its planned referendum on EU-mandated migrant resettlement quotas will cover only future proposals, not a separate one-off quota decision, but it rejected criticism of the vote as coming from an “ivory tower” in Brussels.

Migrants walk along Hungary's border fence on the Serbian side of the border near Morahalom, Hungary, February 22, 2016. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Hungary has been at odds with the European Commission and some fellow EU countries over how to handle a large migrant influx into the bloc, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban proposed a referendum on Wednesday to see whether Hungarians accepted the quotas, something his government firmly opposes.

The referendum plan may clash with an agreed EU-wide strategy to handle the refugee crisis, the European Commission said on Thursday. A spokeswoman withheld further comment pending clarifications from Orban, who set no date for the vote.

Along with Slovakia, Hungary challenged in court a majority decision by EU governments in September to redistribute 160,000 migrants among member states over a period of two years according to one-off quotas. Szijjarto said that move was “made with a disregard to EU rules”.

“We do not think that matter is resolved because the European Court has yet to rule on it,” Szijjarto told a news conference alongside Slovak counterpart Miroslav Lajcak, another staunch foe of quotas and Hungary’s partner in the European Court challenge.

“We think that decision, or move interpreted as a decision, is invalid... Hungarians reserve the right to be heard on any potential future decision that would make such a set-up systemic,” he said.

Szijjarto also rejected as anti-democratic criticism from Brussels, where diplomats have said Hungary’s combative attitude and its referendum were “not helpful” to efforts to find a coordinated, EU-wide solution to the migrant crisis.

“Not helpful in what? Asking for people’s opinions in an important matter does not help? I don’t get this attitude,” Szijjarto said.

“In the ivory tower of Brussels they may not like people expressing their views on important European matters but we think this is important enough that we don’t decide without hearing what our voters have to say first.”

He rejected the concern by some legal analysts who said referendums could not be held on obligations arising from an international treaty, like the one signed by EU members.

“We never signed any treaty that would allow anyone to tell us who we must or must not let enter our country. This is a matter of sovereignty,” Szijjarto said.

Slovakia’s Lajcak, whose government faces an election on March 5, also said quotas were a misguided approach that did nothing to solve the crisis.

“If your roof leaks, sanity dictates to fix it, not try to ferry the water around the house in buckets,” he said. “Fix the roof, then deal with the water in your house.”

Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Mark Heinrich