Tuesday

16th Jan 2018

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.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

“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.

Hungary to hold referendum on EU migration plan

Hungary's government has initiated a referendum on the EU's migrants quota plan, PM Viktor Orban said Wednesday. Hungary, along with Slovakia, has already challenged the plan at the EU's top court.

UN concerned by Hungary's migrant push-backs

UN refugee agency has voiced concerns over new Hungarian rules leading to push-backs of asylum seekers and urged authorities to investigate reports of violence.

Hungary steps up campaign on migration referendum

Hungary's government has unveiled six billboards linking the migration crisis to terrorism and crime in an effort to win backing for its referendum on the EU's migration policy.

New Polish PM visits Hungary in snub to Brussels

In his first official bilateral visit since taking office, Poland's new prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki travels to Budapest, which vowed to defend Warsaw from any EU sanctions over its judicial reforms.

Magazine

Macron: Hegelian hero of EU history?

The election of the 39-year old newcomer injected new hope and dynamism. But the French president still has to find solid allies in the EU and deliver his ambitious agenda at home.

News in Brief

  1. Spanish anti-mafia prosecutor targets Russian officials
  2. Madrid to continue direct rule if Puigdemont re-elected
  3. Major variations in online banking take-up across EU
  4. No second EU referendum, says Corbyn
  5. German ministry warns against EU parliament's Dublin reform
  6. Vienna marches against far-right FPO party
  7. UK should pay more for Calais migrants, says French minister
  8. Portugal opposition elects new leader

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ILGA EuropeFreedom of Movement and Same-Sex Couples in Romania – Case Update!
  2. EU2017EEEstonia Completes First EU Presidency, Introduced New Topics to the Agenda
  3. Bio-Based IndustriesLeading the Transition Towards a Post-Petroleum Society
  4. ACCAWelcomes the Start of the New Bulgarian Presidency
  5. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li and President Tusk Stress Importance of Ties at ASEM Summit
  6. EU2017EEVAT on Electronic Commerce: New Rules Adopted
  7. European Jewish CongressChair of EU Parliament Working Group on Antisemitism Condemns Wave of Attacks
  8. Counter BalanceA New Study Challenges the Infrastructure Mega Corridors Agenda
  9. Dialogue PlatformThe Gülen Community: Who to Believe - Politicians or Actions?" by Thomas Michel
  10. Plastics Recyclers Europe65% Plastics Recycling Rate Attainable by 2025 New Study Shows
  11. European Heart NetworkCommissioner Andriukaitis' Address to EHN on the Occasion of Its 25th Anniversary
  12. ACCACFOs Risk Losing Relevance If They Do Not Embrace Technology

Latest News

  1. Macron's Chinese 'game of influence'
  2. EU's 'old men' must pressure on Poland on abortion rights
  3. Commission to float anti-'fake news' proposals in spring
  4. Sweden raises alarm on election meddling
  5. Bulgaria's corruption problem mars EU presidency start
  6. No new dawn for Europe under German coalition
  7. Bulgaria takes over, Germany's SPD votes This WEEK
  8. German coalition deal aims for 'Macron-lite' EU renewal

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFMake the Digital World Safer for Children & Increase Access for the Most Disadvantaged
  2. European Jewish CongressWelcomes Recognition of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel and Calls on EU States to Follow Suit
  3. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Boost Innovation Cooperation Under Horizon 2020
  4. European Gaming & Betting AssociationJuncker’s "Political" Commission Leaves Gambling Reforms to the Court
  5. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Applauds U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital City
  6. EU2017EEEU Telecom Ministers Reached an Agreement on the 5G Roadmap
  7. European Friends of ArmeniaEU-Armenia Relations in the CEPA Era: What's Next?
  8. Mission of China to the EU16+1 Cooperation Injects New Vigour Into China-EU Ties
  9. EPSUEU Blacklist of Tax Havens Is a Sham
  10. EU2017EERole of Culture in Building Cohesive Societies in Europe
  11. ILGA EuropeCongratulations to Austria - Court Overturns Barriers to Equal Marriage
  12. Centre Maurits CoppietersCelebrating Diversity, Citizenship and the European Project With Fundació Josep Irla