Tuesday

22nd Aug 2017

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 and get 40% off for an annual subscription. Sale ends soon.

  1. €90 per year. Use discount code EUOBS40%
  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.

Opinion

Setting course for strong and focused EU

From strengthening the internal market to completing the energy union, the prime ministers of Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland set out their vision for the EU.

News in Brief

  1. Austria has begun checks at Italian border
  2. Slovenian PM: Brexit talks will take longer than expected
  3. Merkel backs diesel while report warns of economic harm
  4. UK to publish new Brexit papers this week
  5. Macedonia sacks top prosecutor over wiretap scandal
  6. ECB concerned stronger euro could derail economic recovery
  7. Mixed Irish reactions to post-Brexit border proposal
  8. European Union returns to 2 percent growth

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressEuropean Governments Must Take Stronger Action Against Terrorism
  2. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceDoes Genetics Explain Why So Few of Us Have an Ideal Cardiovascular Health?
  3. EU2017EEFuture-Themed Digital Painting Competition Welcomes Artists - Deadline 31 Aug
  4. ACCABusinesses Must Grip Ethics and Trust in the Digital Age
  5. European Jewish CongressEJC Welcomes European Court of Justice's Decision to Keep Hamas on Terror List
  6. UNICEFReport: Children on the Move From Africa Do Not First Aim to Go to Europe
  7. Centre Maurits CoppietersWe Need Democratic and Transparent Free Trade Agreements Says MEP Jordi Solé
  8. Counter BalanceOut for Summer, Ep. 2: EIB Promoting Development in Egypt - At What Cost?
  9. EU2017EELocal Leaders Push for Local and Regional Targets to Address Climate Change
  10. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceMore Women Than Men Have Died From Heart Disease in Past 30 Years
  11. European Jewish CongressJean-Marie Le Pen Faces Trial for Oven Comments About Jewish Singer
  12. ACCAAnnounces Belt & Road Research at Shanghai Conference

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ECPAFood Waste in the Field Can Double Without Crop Protection. #WithOrWithout #Pesticides
  2. EU2017EEEstonia Allocates €1 Million to Alleviate Migratory Pressure From Libya in Italy
  3. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen's Message on the Anniversary of the Coup Attempt in Turkey
  4. Martens CentreWeeding Out Fake News: An Approach to Social Media Regulation
  5. European Jewish CongressEJC Concerned by Normalisation of Antisemitic Tropes in Hungary
  6. Counter BalanceOut for Summer Ep. 1: How the EIB Sweeps a Development Fiasco Under the Rug
  7. CESICESI to Participate in Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee on Postal Services
  8. ILGA-EuropeMalta Keeps on Rocking: Marriage Equality on Its Way
  9. European Friends of ArmeniaEuFoA Director and MEPs Comment on the Recent Conflict Escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh
  10. EU2017EEEstonian Presidency Kicks off Youth Programme With Coding Summer School
  11. EPSUEP Support for Corporate Tax Transparency Principle Unlikely to Pass Reality Check
  12. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Improves the External Investment Plan but Significant Challenges Ahead