In a challenge to European leaders before a summit that aims to tackle a refugee crisis, Hungary unilaterally suspended an EU asylum programme yesterday, saying it was overburdened by illegal migrants.
s Italy said its ships had rescued 3,700 migrants at sea since Monday and Libya threatened military action against EU moves to curb human trafficking, prime minister Viktor Orban's government demonstrated Budapest's frustration with proposals to spread asylum seekers around the continent by refusing to take any more migrants sent there under EU regulations.
With EU leaders expected to debate a new scheme to relocate Mediterranean migrants landing in Italy and Greece, the European Commission demanded an immediate explanation after Hungary stopped accepting foreigners returned there from other EU states for their asylum requests to be handled by Budapest.
The move, made by a government already at odds with Brussels over civil rights, was seen as a challenge to the Dublin Regulations which state that asylum claims be handled in the EU country where migrants first arrive or first request protection. The issue has this month sparked a row between Italy and France after Paris began stopping suspected illegal migrants at their normally open border.
Austria criticised the decision as "unacceptable" and warned of "negative" consequences. "Austria cannot tolerate that," Sebastian Kurz, the foreign minister, told his Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto in a telephone call.
The country summoned Hungary's ambassador yesterday and Vienna asked the European Commission to check if that action violates EU treaties, a foreign ministry spokesman said.
Hungarian officials have said an EU plan to relieve the strain on Italy and Greece fails to recognise their own problem with some 60,000 migrants who have crossed Hungary's EU land borders, mostly from non-EU Serbia. Mr Orban has said a commission proposal to force states to take a quota "borders on insanity".
A government spokesman said: "Hungary's asylum system is overburdened, the most overburdened among EU member states affected by illegal immigration."
Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU migration commissioner, spoke to Hungarian officials, seeking an explanation of a move the commission said Budapest described as "technical".
The Hungarian government said in a statement: "Hungary has used up the capacities at its disposal. The situation requires fast action; in this escalated situation Hungary needs to take a move ahead of EU decisions," it said.
Hungary last week announced plans to build a fence along its border with Serbia to stem the flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa who enter Europe through the Balkans.
Most eventually move on to wealthier Western Europe.
Meanwhile, neighbouring Austria said it was pushing to resolve the latest problem with Hungary.
Facing a growing crisis as hundreds of thousands of people every year risk their lives to flee civil war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, European leaders were pushed into action after some 800 people drowned on a single boat in April.
But the 28 member states of the EU are divided on a plan from the EU executive to oblige them to take a share of 24,000 Syrians and Eritreans now in Italy and 16,000 from Greece. Diplomats said they may compromise by accepting such numbers on a voluntary basis.
With voters increasingly hostile to immigration as the bloc continues to struggle with economic malaise that has pushed Greece to the point of bankruptcy, the Dublin system, dating from the 1990s, is widely viewed as deeply flawed.
There is little consensus on how to address the problem in the short term, but longer-term responses - such as boosting aid, discouraging economic migrants in Africa and accelerating the return of failed asylum seekers - are on the summit agenda.
Earlier this week, EU foreign ministers agreed a naval operation to combat people-traffickers who have carried thousands of migrants on perilous journeys across the Mediterranean.
But the air force commander of Libya's internationally-recognised government warned that any vessels entering Libyan waters without permission faced air strikes.
An initial plan was to disrupt the traffickers' business and to capture and destroy their ships, possibly even in Libyan waters.