Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Tuesday vowed to defy EU pressure to soften his hardline anti-migrant stance, condemning what he called the "blackmail" of his country.
"Whatever your decision will be, Hungary will not accede to this blackmail. Hungary will protect its borders, stop illegal migration and defend its rights," Orban told the European Parliament, which is deciding whether to start steps that could lead to political sanctions against Hungary.
With his fierce rhetoric and anti-immigration measures, Orban, 55, has alarmed critics at home and in Europe while bolstering his populist domestic support and attracting far-right fans internationally.
A European Parliament vote is expected Wednesday on a report that said Hungary is at risk of a "breach" of basic EU values.
If the vote backs the report's findings, the "nuclear option" of Article 7 will be triggered, a procedure that could lead to the suspension of Hungary's voting rights on EU legislation.
The report, written by Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini, lays out a lengthy list of concerns about Orban's government since it came into power in 2010, including democratic backsliding, ill treatment of asylum-seekers, undermining NGOs and widespread corruption.
According to Hungarian officials, however, Sargentini's report is "riddled with factual errors, lies and half-truths".
"This report does not give respect to the Hungarian nation," Orban told the lawmakers. "You think you know better than the Hungarian people what the Hungarian people need."
Orban said that political sanctions being considered against Hungary would be the first time in the EU that "a community condemns its own border guards".
"I reject that the European Parliament's forces supporting immigration and migrants threaten, blackmail and with untrue accusations defame Hungary and the Hungarian people," he said during a feisty speech.
Checks and balances
Elected with a powerful two-thirds majority in 2010, Orban unleashed a legislative whirlwind that included restrictions on the constitutional court's powers and an overhaul of public media.
The report said that the reforms increased government influence over judges and weakened the judicial system's ability to keep a rein on government power.
State television and news agencies have become government propaganda organs, while large portions of the private media sector have been bought up by pro-Orban oligarchs.
Most media in Hungary now follow the government line and focus on anti-migrant content while corruption scandals are reported by a dwindling number of online outlets.
Sargentini's report expresses concern over the press reports of widespread corruption, such as conflicts of interest, inaccurate asset declarations by politicians, and public contracts – including funds from the EU – routinely awarded to Fidesz party cronies who charge inflated prices.
The report says the changes to electoral laws since 2010 have also rigged the system in favour of Orban's right-wing Fidesz.
It cites international bodies like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which said that "excessive" government spending on advertising and the dominance of pro-Orban media created an "adverse climate" before the last election in April.
Around half of the electorate voted for Fidesz in April, handing Orban his third consecutive landslide win and a two-thirds super-majority.
The government hailed the result as a fresh mandate to carry out anti-immigration policies that Orban says reflect the "will of the people".
Orban's hard line on Europe's migrant crisis, excoriating German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "open door" policy and refusing to take migrants from elsewhere in the EU, has gained him admiration from nationalists and nativists abroad.
In 2015 his government erected razor-wire border fences and enabled police to physically "push back" migrants across the border into Serbia.
Rights groups cited by the Sargentini report say Orban's treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers falls well short of minimum international standards.
Budapest is also accused of not doing enough to stop – and in some cases facilitating – discrimination against Roma, Muslims and Jews, says Sargentini.
With the number of migrants slowing to a trickle, in recent years Orban has blamed George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier, for plotting to flood Hungary and Europe with immigrants.
But taxpayer-funded billboards erected nationwide and government leaflets sent to households warning Hungarians about Soros contained "factually incorrect or highly misleading" claims and "induced hatred" against migrants, says Sargentini.
A "Stop Soros" legal package passed in June targets human rights groups that Orban accuses of being a front for migration and includes a special tax on NGO activities and even potential jail terms for staff deemed to be helping illegal migrants.
The clampdowns restrict the basic freedom of civil society and of individuals to voice criticism of the government's policies, says the report.
Among other basic rights restricted by the government, according to the report, is the academic freedom of the Budapest-based Central European University founded by Soros.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)