By Michael Peel
Brussels has stepped up its fight with Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary, rebutting what it branded as a campaign of false claims by Budapest over the EU’s migration policies.
The European Commission said Mr Orban’s government was distorting the truth and trying to “paint a dark picture of a secret plot” to draw immigrants to Europe.
Mr Orban, who has made political capital at home out of hostility to migration, has launched an election campaign that targets Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission president, as well as George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier.
The campaign alleges that Brussels wants to weaken member states’ rights to defend their borders, cut funding to countries that oppose immigration, and impose mandatory quotas to resettle people from outside the EU.
On Thursday the commission published an unusual point-by-point rebuttal to denounce the campaign.
“The claims made by the Hungarian government are at worst downright factually incorrect or at best highly misleading,” the four-page riposte said. “And none of it has anything to do with George Soros.”
Brussels fears multiple bitter battles with self-styled anti-establishment parties in Europe in the run-up to EU elections in May. The Hungarian campaign has attracted attention because Mr Orban and Mr Juncker belong to the same centre-right EU political group, the European People’s party.
“The Hungarian government campaign distorts the truth and seeks to paint a dark picture of a secret plot to drive more migration to Europe,” the commission said. “The truth is that there is no conspiracy.”
The EU has been racked by internal disputes over how to manage migration since a 2015-16 influx of people that triggered almost 2.5m first-time asylum applications in the bloc.
Hungary has been the most vocal of a group of countries that have rejected efforts to agree mandatory quotas to relocate asylum-seekers around the 28 member states.
The commission move sparked an immediate combative response from Budapest. Zoltan Kovacs, Hungarian government spokesman, said a commission proposal for a beefed-up EU border force to work with increased powers in countries at the bloc’s external frontier “should set off warning bells throughout the EU”.
Mr Kovacs said in his blog that the commission’s rhetoric was “strikingly similar” to a previous statement on refugees by Mr Soros, a Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist who has been targeted internationally by anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s foreign minister, said on Thursday that he hoped EU institutions would adopt an “anti-migration and strongly pro-European position” after the European Parliament elections. The Brussels bureaucracy denies its “intention to continue allowing immigration to the continent,” he said.
Analysts say Hungary’s leaders appear to be attempting to force to a head a long-running spat over whether the EPP should expel Fidesz from its ranks.
“They seem to be deliberately crossing red lines as if to make a point and demonstrate their political power,” said Zselyke Csaky, research director for Europe & Eurasia at the Freedom House think-tank. “They are staking out migration as the topic and saying ‘It is my way or the highway’.”