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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

ECJ to fine Hungary €1m a day until it complies with EU refugee laws

Close-up headshot of Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, with a European flag behind him
The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, said the court’s ruling was ‘outrageous and unacceptable’. Photograph: Leonhard Föger/Reuters

Hungary has been ordered to pay a €200m (£169m) fine for its refusal to uphold the rights of asylum seekers in what was described as an “unprecedented” breach of EU law by the bloc’s highest court.

The European court of justice in Luxembourg also ordered Budapest to pay €1m a day until it complies with EU laws guaranteeing refugees the right to claim asylum inside Hungarian borders.

In a major judgment issued on Thursday, the court said Hungary had shown “deliberate evasion” in applying EU policy, which it described as “an unprecedented and exceptionally serious infringement of EU law” and “a significant threat to the unity of EU law and to the principle of equality of the member states”.

The fine was higher than sought by the European Commission, the EU executive, which took Hungary to the Luxembourg court. Judges also identified “aggravating circumstances”, including the repeat behaviour that contributed to the severity of the fine.

Responding to the judgment, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, described the court’s ruling as “outrageous and unacceptable”, adding: “It seems that illegal migrants are more important to the Brussels bureaucrats than their own European citizens.”

The legal ruling comes less than three weeks before the Hungarian government takes charge of the rotating presidency of the EU council of ministers. It highlights the profound challenge to the bloc posed by anti-EU, nationalist leaders at a time when far-right forces made advances in European elections in France, Germany and Austria, and are expected to join the government in the Netherlands.

The judgment relates to a 2020 ruling that found Hungary had broken EU migration law by limiting the rights of refugees and migrants to claim asylum in numerous ways, including by holding asylum seekers in transit camps at Röszke and Tompa on its border with Serbia.

Hungary closed the container camps and argued it had complied with the ruling. In 2020 it passed a law requiring asylum seekers to make a “declaration of intent” at a Hungarian embassy in a non-EU country before entering the country.

As a result, almost no one can claim asylum in Hungary: authorities received just 30 applications in 2023. In comparison, Cyprus, with a population 10 times smaller, received 12,000 applications that year, according to the EU Agency for Asylum.

In its latest ruling, the court said Hungary’s 2020 migration law was in breach of EU asylum law and the underlying Geneva conventions that guarantee the rights of refugees, including non refoulement, not being returned to danger.

The court identified other ways Hungary failed to comply with EU law: the “unlawful removal” of people denied asylum without observing safeguards, as well as not allowing people refused the right to asylum to stay in Hungary pending an appeal.

Hungary’s non-compliance with EU law “undermines in a particularly serious manner” the rights of non-EU nationals and stateless people by making it impossible for them to make an application at the border, the court concluded.

Judges also criticised Hungary’s decision that it would not comply with the 2020 ruling until it had received a verdict from its national constitutional court, a profound challenge to the supremacy of EU law that Budapest agreed on entering the bloc.

Hungary’s conduct had the effect, the court said, of transferring to other EU member states the responsibility and financial costs of managing asylum applications. As such, Hungary “seriously undermines the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility”, the court said.

The reference to an “unprecedented” breach of EU law is understood to stem from Hungary’s implacable refusal to amend its policy after the 2020 ruling, and is reflected in the fine.

Daniel Freund, a German Green MEP and fierce critic of the Hungarian government, said the judgment made Orbán “the most expensive prime minister in Hungarian history”.

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