Hungary Approves Immigration Crackdown as Orban Ignores EU Alarm

(Bloomberg) -- Hungarian lawmakers approved a law cracking down on immigration, a show of defiance by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who’s ignored threats from his European allies of being expelled from their political group.

Parliament passed a law Wednesday that imposes jail terms of up to a year on anyone deemed to be helping immigrants enter the landlocked European Union country of 10 million people. Legislators also passed a constitutional amendment removing the Supreme Court’s oversight over public administration courts, which critics say is a further step at extending Orban’s influence over the judiciary.

A ringleader of European populist forces, Orban is going on the offensive as his political allies across Europe gain ground. Most recently, Italy elected an anti-establishment government, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition is wobbling after her junior partners gave her an ultimatum to harden her immigration policies. Orban will host the anti-immigrant leaders of Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic on Thursday, ahead of an EU summit aimed at bridging differences over the issue that’s polarized the bloc.

“Orban is definitely riding high,” Attila Tibor Nagy of the Center for Fair Political Analysis in Budapest, said by phone. “Political developments across Europe are going his way.”

On Saturday, the Hungarian leader told the European People’s Party, the biggest bloc in the European Parliament, to shape up before legislative elections next year and ditch an attempt to create an “anti-populist front.” The EPP’s leadership last month threatened to oust Orban if he crossed “red lines,” including by continuing with a crackdown on non-governmental organizations.

The criticism initially pushed Orban to remove a 25 percent levy on groups seen as helping “illegal” immigration from the draft bill. The government has dubbed the legislation the “Stop Soros law” after Hungarian-born billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, a main funder of NGOs outside of Orban’s control.

The cabinet said Tuesday that it would re-introduce the levy in a separate tax law. The cabinet also disregarded objections from the Venice Commission, an inter-governmental rights watchdog, reversing earlier pledges to take into account its observations before passing the “Stop Soros” law.

The steps are likely to exacerbate criticism over the erosion of democracy under Orban, who won a third consecutive constitutional majority in April elections following eight years of concentrating power. The European Parliament is currently debating whether the changes warrant the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights in the EU for democratic backsliding.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.