Hungary’s prime minister announced that a referendum will be held on EU plans for a system of mandatory quotas, while Austria remained unrepentant in the face of continued criticism from Greece.
Viktor Orbán has used harsh anti-migrant rhetoric since the migrant crisis escalated last year and gained notoriety for erecting a steel fence along Hungary’s southern border to keep out migrants – a policy now adopted by other Balkan countries.
He said the plebiscite, the first of its kind in Europe, would be a major test of European democracy.
Orbán’s government opposed the quota proposal and he previously said the plan would redraw the ethnic, cultural and religious map of Hungary and Europe. “Nobody has asked the European people so far whether they support, accept, or reject the mandatory migrant quotas,” he said at a news conference.
“The government is responding to public sentiment now: we Hungarians think introducing resettlement quotas for migrants without the backing of the people equals an abuse of power.”
Orbán did not say when the referendum would be held. He said he was aware of potential wider ramifications of such a referendum, especially if Hungarians say “No” to quotas.
“We had to think about the potential impact on European politics of such a proposal, but that was a secondary consideration,” he said.
Meanwhile, Austria brushed aside criticism from EU peers, including Greece, as it hosted a meeting with Balkan states on the main migrant route into Europe, saying it needed to coordinate national border restrictions in the absence of European measures.
Greece filed a rare diplomatic protest with Austria for excluding Athens officials from Wednesday’s meeting of foreign and interior ministers in Vienna, held a day before an EU-wide interior ministers’ meeting in Brussels.
Austria, the last stop on the way to Germany for hundreds of thousands of migrants who have flocked to Europe in the last year, has set off what it calls a “domino effect” of national restrictions limiting the flow of people towards it.
Those measures, from Austria’s frontier with Slovenia to Macedonia’s border with Greece, have left hundreds stranded in Greece. Today, migrants cradling young children blocked a motorway in central Greece demanding onward passage to Macedonia, part of a growing bottleneck.
Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas said that a decision by Balkan states to limit the flow of migrants through the region was creating a “mini humanitarian crisis” in Greece.
But Austria was unrepentant, despite criticism from Germany which is pushing for a much-delayed European response to the crisis, including the processing of migrants as they reach Greece and an agreement with Turkey to slow the flow of people.
In somewhat of a reversal of the current state of play, a chartered airplane carrying 125 Afghan refugees left Germany and landed in Kabul, with officials on hand to assure the returnees that they have a future in Afghanistan.
The refugees returned voluntarily, in what is expected to be the first of many such flights coordinated between the governments in Kabul and Berlin as well as the International Organisation for Migration, according to the German embassy in the Afghan capital.
Seeking to escape the violence and economic malaise that continue to grip their home country, Afghans make up a major portion of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been pouring into Europe, which has struggled to find ways to accommodate the arrivals.
Officials in Kabul greeted the returning refugees with signs saying “Welcome back, Afghanistan needs you.”