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24th Jul 2021

Stakes grow in Hungary's migration referendum

  • “We send a message to Brussels, so that they understand it too,” says the government-sponsored billboard (Photo: Miklos Szabo/Nepszabadsag)

Hungary’s referendum aims to steer EU migration policy away from mandatory quotas and to bolster the government’s domestic support, but its political consequences could be more far-reaching.

Hungary announced Tuesday (5 June) that it would hold its referendum on migration on 2 October.

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“The government is asking the people of Hungary to say no to mandatory relocation and to Brussels’ immigration policy”, Antal Rogan, prime minister Viktor Orban's cabinet chief, said.

The plebiscite was first announced in February, with a government-financed campaign that started in May pasting billboards up and down the country that said: “We are sending a message to Brussels, so that they understand it too”.

Emboldened by the Brexit referendum and by the Dutch vote on Ukraine, Orban is hoping that his referendum will make him more powerful both in Europe and at home.

The question to be put to the 8 million Hungarian voters, 50 percent of whom have to show up at the ballot boxes for the outcome to be valid, asks: “Do you want the European Union to be entitled to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?”.

It refers to a European Commission proposal on the reform of the EU asylum system that includes permanent quotas for distributing refugees based on member states’ size and wealth.

A previous EU decision on a one-off mandatory quota to help Greece and Italy is being challenged by Hungary and by Slovakia, the current EU presidency, at the EU court in Luxembourg.

'Madness'

Hungary’s opposition parties, with the exception of the far-right Jobbik, which supports the referendum, have urged voters to boycott the poll.

European leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel and European Parliament head Martin Schulz have also condemned it

Merkel told the ARD broadcaster in February: “It is a matter of principle, I can do nothing else, but reject this procedure”.

Schulz also in February called it “a populist and nationalist response to a global challenge”.

Csaba Toth, the director of the Republikon Institute, a liberal think-tank in Budapest, told this website the main reason for the referendum is to strengthen Orban’s grip on power.

“It is essential for the ruling Fidesz [of PM Orban] party to keep the migration issue top of the political agenda. If the general dissatisfaction with health care or education were to take centre stage, Fidesz’s popularity would decrease,” Toth said.

Last year, Orban turned around a slide in popularity by focusing on the migration issue.

But Balazs Orban (who is not related to the PM), the director of Szazadveg, a government-affiliated think-tank in the Hungarian capital, rejected Toth’s analysis.

"It is a European debate where the Hungarian government wants to have the strongest possible mandate aided by the referendum," he told this website.

“The government's primary goal is to influence the discussion on migration in Europe and to have a political impact on the discussion about the future of Europe," he added.

Other commentators warned that the stakes have become too high.

Hungarian socialist MEP Istvan Ujhelyi told this website that the referendum is “madness.”

He drew comparisons with Britain, where an internal feud on Europe in the ruling Conservative Party spiralled into the UK leaving the EU.

“This campaign is about agitating against Brussels, and has nothing to do with migration … The end of the story will be that Hungary’s EU membership could be called into question,” Ujhelyi said.

At last week’s EU summit, Orban defended the referendum in his familiar bellicose style, saying that he is holding the vote precisely to avoid the bigger question on EU membership itself.

He said the lesson from Brexit was that Europe needs to get a grip on migration.

“We need to give some sort of guarantee to people that Brussels hears their voice and that it is possible to achieve a migration policy here in Brussels which fits people’s needs and doesn’t make it unavoidable that the only way they can protest against the migration policy is to risk EU membership,” Orban said.

But Ujhelyi said the PM is delusional if he thinks he can so easily control the anti-EU feeling that he himself whipped up in recent years.

Hungarian citizens still overwhelmingly support the country’s EU membership, but in recent weeks some senior Fidesz politicians voiced doubt on how they would vote if Hungary held a UK-style In/Out poll.

It’s the politics

The Hungarian referendum is not legally binding.

A European Commission spokeswoman told this website that the “decision making process agreed to by all EU member states and as enshrined in the treaties” would “remain the same” no matter how people voted in October.

But Zoltan Kovacs, the Orban government spokesman recently told journalists in Brussels, that the outcome of the vote “cannot be disregarded by the European Commission”.

“The political implications are going to be considerable,” he added.

Slovak prime minister Robert Fico, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, also told press on Wednesday (6 June) that every EU leader has a sovereign right to call a referendum.

He warned that if the EU does not reform itself swiftly enough, member states, backed by angry societies, could start to pick and unpick EU policies.

“My fear is that if over the next five to six months we are not successful in finding a solution for the functioning of the EU, then there would be an increasing … possibility of referendums in different areas,” Fico said.

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