Sunday

21st Jul 2019

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

“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.

Merkel and Macron split over Weber presidency

EU heads of government have their first face-to-faces discussions after the European elections on who should lead the EU commission. They are unlikely to decide quickly - with the parliament also divided over the candidates.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  5. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  7. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  8. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  9. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  10. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North

Latest News

  1. EU goes on holiday as new UK PM arrives This WEEK
  2. Survey: Half of EU staff 'don't know' ethics rules
  3. Von der Leyen signals soft touch on migrants, rule of law
  4. Timmermans: von der Leyen will be tough on rule of law
  5. Timmermans trolls 'idiot' Brexit negotiators
  6. Rudderless Europe: Will real Germany please stand up?
  7. PiS & Fidesz claim credit for von der Leyen victory
  8. Von der Leyen faces gender battle for commission posts

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  4. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  7. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  12. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us