The Hungarian government is in breach of the EU’s charter of fundamental rights over a law that criminalises people who help asylum seekers, the European commission has said.
The commission, the guardian of EU law, announced on Thursday it had sent the Hungarian government a letter of formal notice over the “Stop Soros” law. The letter is the first step in a legal process that could lead to Hungary being taken to the European court of justice (ECJ) and told to change the law.
Separately, the commission said it was referring Hungary to the ECJ for breaking other EU asylum rules, linked to the country’s detention camps for asylum seekers.
The announcements are a sign of the deepening standoff between Brussels and Viktor Orbán, who was re-elected in April for a fourth term as Hungary’s prime minister, after a campaign dominated by charged rhetoric against migrants.
Weeks after Orbán’s resounding victory, Hungary passed laws making it a criminal offence for individuals and non-governmental organisations to help asylum claimants and migrants. Known informally as the Stop Soros law, the government wants to draw a link between migrants and the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who is demonised by the ruling party, partly for his funding of NGOs.
Last month the Council of Europe’s Venice committee of constitutional experts raised the alarm about the law, saying it lacked precision and meant organisations were at risk of prosecution “even if they acted in good faith” in line with international law.
The law was also deemed contrary to the European convention on human rights on the grounds of freedom of expression, because of provisions that criminalise “preparing or distributing informational materials”.
Following this negative opinion, the commission’s decision was a foregone conclusion. It found the law in breach of several EU laws and the EU’s charter of fundamental rights.
Hungary’s government has two months to respond to the charge sheet and it could be referred to the ECJ if the dispute is unresolved.
That outcome looks very likely, underlined by the commission’s announcement that it was referring Hungary to the court over a separate dispute on asylum law. It said the majority of its concerns had not been met.
Hungary has built a steel fence along its southern borders and has kept asylum seekers in converted shipping containers while they wait for their cases to be heard.
EU law does not ban such centres, but the commission said Hungary was breaching the EU’s maximum processing time of four weeks and failing to provide effective asylum procedures. Asylum seekers risk being returned to their country of origin even if they face persecution there, in breach of the non-refoulement principle of international law.