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EU steps up legal procedure against Hungary for criminalising support for migrants

BRUSSELS/BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The European Commission said on Thursday it was taking its legal procedure against Hungary to the next step after Budapest criminalised support for migrants, moving the case closer to a possible ruling by the European Court of Justice.

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Hungary was the first country in Europe to take a hard anti-immigration line in 2015, when more than a million immigrants arrived, about half of them transiting Hungary en route to Western Europe.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made anti-immigration a cornerstone of his politics, ordering razor wire fences to be set up and migrants to be held in detention zones while their asylum cases are dealt with - nearly all of which are turned down.

The EU says Hungary’s tough stance has breached EU law, a charge that Budapest denies, defending what it calls its sovereign right to determine its own immigration policy. Hungary also says its tough position ultimately defends Europe.

“The European Commission has today decided to send a reasoned opinion to Hungary concerning legislation that criminalises activities that support asylum and residence applications and further restricts the right to request asylum,” the EU executive said in a statement.

If the matter is not resolved after the Commission issues a reasoned opinion, it can then decide whether to refer the case to the ECJ.

The Hungarian government did not immediately answer a request for comment.

In the long legal and political dispute between Budapest and Brussels, several EU requests that Hungary bring its law into line with EU norms have gone unheeded; the legal procedure could ultimately lead to financial sanctions on Budapest if the court confirms the commission’s line.

Brussels says the Hungarian authorities have failed to provide effective access to asylum procedures for migrants and holds asylum seekers in “transit centres” for longer than the maximum four weeks mandated under EU law.

Orban’s Fidesz party was re-elected with a two-thirds parliamentary majority last year after a campaign attacking U.S. billionaire George Soros, whom he accuses of encouraging mass immigration in order to undermine Europe. Soros denies that charge.

Orban, in power since 2010, has led eastern European resistance to EU plans to share out some of the large numbers of mostly Muslim migrants, who he says threaten Europe’s Christian civilisation.

Reporting by Robin Emmott and Marton Dunai; Editing by Hugh Lawson