The European Commission, the European Union’s legal institution, on Thursday sent a formal letter of notice to Hungary, the first step of an infringement procedure, over the government’s “Stop Soros” law.
The law, named after Jewish Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, threatens aid workers and human rights advocates working with asylum-seekers with up to a year in prison, and was approved by parliament last month along with a set of constitutional amendments.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban has objected to the organization’s calls for greater tolerance of refugees and migrants. The move comes as Orban visits Israel, where he has been feted by the government, but faced protests.
Soros’ Open Society Foundations says it has spent over $400 million in Hungary since 1984, promoting “independent journalism, fighting corruption, supporting civic participation, and combating discrimination.”
Orban and far-right activists have attacked Soros for well over a year, waging a campaign that has involved billboards and other advertisements. Many, including Soros himself, say the campaign is anti-Semitic.
In May the foundation announced it was closing its operations in Hungary and relocating to Germany in response to the “repressive” policies of Orban’s government.
The letter is the first stage of a process by the commission which could lead to Hungary being told to change the legislation, and came on the day the Hungarian leader visited Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as part of his controversial trip to Israel.
Separately, Hungary has also been referred to the European Union’s highest court for perceived failings to comply with the bloc’s asylum rules, and is facing censure for legislation criminalizing the support of asylum-seekers by civic groups.
In a statement Thursday, the EU’s executive arm said it made the decision to turn to the courts — the last stage of a procedure that began in December 2015 — because it considered “the majority of the concerns raised have still not been addressed.”
Among other points, the European Commission considers Hungary’s asylum procedures too restrictive, with reception conditions for asylum-seekers also breaching EU rules.
Relations between the EU and Hungary have been strained in part by the strict anti-migration and anti-refugee positions of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.
Orban, re-elected earlier this year, has been at the forefront of keeping migrants from war zones such as Syria out of Europe since the crisis became particularly acute in 2015.
The EU also objected to Hungary’s procedure of rejecting asylum-seekers, saying “it fails to ensure that return decisions are issued individually and include information on legal remedies.”
As a result, it said migrants “risk being returned without the appropriate safeguards and in breach of the non-refoulement principle,” which forbids the return of asylum-seekers to places where they could be at risk of persecution.
Orban’s Fidesz party has rejected the EU infringement procedure, saying it “confirms that Brussels favors migration and protecting the Soros organizations.”
In a statement, the party said Hungary’s anti-migration laws “evidently bother all those who want to flood Europe with migrants.” It said it considered the current procedure as a “new political pressure on our homeland and proves that Soros has his people in the commission in Brussels.”
Amnesty International called the EU decision “a clear and unambiguous message that Hungary’s xenophobic policies will not be tolerated.”
Hungary built fences on its southern borders to divert the flow of migrants in late 2015 and Orban has said repeatedly that the influx into Europe of mostly Muslim migrants must be stopped or the continent’s Christian values, lifestyle, and culture will be lost.
The United Nations, the Council of Europe, and other international bodies also have been highly critical of Hungary’s anti-migration rules, comments which Orban’s government usually dismisses as biased and unfounded.