Hungary’s Referendum About Refugee Quotas: A Legitimate Demand or a Case of Skillful Manipulation?

‘An abuse of power:’ this is what Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán called the introduction of European Union refugee quotas on 24 February, upon announcing that Hungary would be holding a referendum about them. According to Orbán and his party, Fidesz, the imposition of the relocation quotas exceeds the EU’s scope of authority. Nevertheless, the proposition poses two main questions. Firstly, whether holding a referendum would be in accordance with EU, or, indeed, national law and secondly, if the government actually hopes to counter an EU decision, or use the announcement as a mere communications trick.

Image courtesy of Europa Pont, 2011. some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Europa Pont, 2011. some rights reserved.

According to Minister of Justice László Trócsányi, the referendum is a ‘just and lawful way’ to attack the quotas; he argued that other states (including the United Kingdom and Greece) have used this method against EU decisions before. Hungary was also among the countries that opposed the relocation plan in September 2015, which would require it to accept 1294 refugees by September 2017. The state then filed a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice (ECJ), demanding it to rule out the quota system, but no decision is expected to be made in the case before the end of the year. Until then (or if Hungary loses the lawsuit), the implementation of the quotas is legally binding under EU agreements. Balázs Lehoczki, a spokesperson of the ECJ said that if the referendum results in the non-implementation of EU decisions, the ‘European Commission can bring a lawsuit before the European Court of Justice’. In the long run, this could even result in the suspension or withdrawal of EU funds, which are crucial for the Hungarian economy.

Furthermore, experts have claimed that the current wording of the referendum (whether ‘you are in favour of the EU being allowed to make the settlement of non-Hungarians obligatory in Hungary even if the parliament does not agree’) is illegal according to the Hungarian Constitution. Attila Mráz from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union argued that national referendums can only be held about issues decided by the Hungarian parliament and can have no influence on European decision making. This view is supported by Article 8 (3) d) of the Hungarian constitution, which states that no such plebiscite may be held on ‘any obligation arising from international treaties’. However, with a government known for making frequent amendments to the country’s fundamental law, it would not be surprising if it was modified again in order to ensure the legality of the plebiscite.

While Orbán expressed his wish to change the current legislation regarding referendums during the press conference announcing the plebiscite, he did so in response to an incident that happened the day before at the National Election Office, when a group of skinheads physically prevented socialist politician István Nyakó from filing a referendum question on Sunday shop closures. The men were revealed to be employed by the security company of Fidesz’ managing director and were helping the wife of a former Fidesz politician to submit a referendum application about the same question – worded significantly differently. The situation resulted in outraged reactions from the press and all opposition parties; while Fidesz politicians deny any connection to the event, their statements sound unconvincing to many and the story continues to be cited as a proof of undemocratic practices in Hungary. The fact that Orbán came up with the idea of the anti-immigration referendum straight after this scandal may mean that he only intended to distract media attention from the controversy and make headlines with a topic that would automatically increase his popularity among voters (according to a Median poll about the crisis from October 2015, 63% of Fidesz voters agree with the statement that ‘Muslims will eventually force their culture on Europeans’ and in general, perceive immigration as a negative phenomenon).

As Martin Schultz and Angela Merkel both argued, holding a plebiscite about approximately 1300 refugees clearly shows that Orbán’s decision is based on ideological reasons, rather than a lack of sources or capacity. Merkel added that if Hungary actually accepted the 100.000 Ukrainian refugees mentioned by Orbán, it could have asked for a reduction in quota numbers. However, the government remains reluctant to share any data about these people arriving from Ukraine. Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office János Lazár nevertheless stated that they are subject to ‘different rules’ than those coming from North Africa, as they ‘have a Hungarian identity’; a claim that can be deemed controversial, at the very least.

Regardless of whether or not Orbán goes ahead with the referendum, its prospect is likely to yield him short-term political benefits; the date of the vote has not been set yet, but he is already successfully forming his image as the leader of the anti-quota movement within the EU and nationally. Further, while the issue at hand is migrant policy, it would be simplistic to reduce it to the question of the migrant quotas. As Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi affirmed, the Visegrád Four states should not expect to benefit from the financial contributions of the larger countries (such as Italy, Germany and Austria) without accepting any migrants. This can be interpreted as a warning sign regarding the future of the whole EU; if it allows one state to disregard its duties, there is nothing that would stop others from following the same path. At a time when the Brexit referendum is already posing a great challenge to the unity of the organisation, such a chain effect could cause a serious damage to the legitimacy and efficiency of its system.

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