Hungary seeks limited post-Brexit message with migrant quota referendum

Hungary seeks limited post-Brexit message with migrant quota referendum
President Ader and other institutions within Hungary's system of checks and balances have passed PM Orban's referendum project
By bne IntelliNews July 5, 2016

Hungary will hold a national referendum on the EU’s migrant quota system on October 2, the Office of the President of the Republic announced on July 5.

The Fidesz government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban will hope that the vote will help boost support and dominate the media agenda, which has been focused recently on the scandal over the central bank’s spending and protests by teachers. The PM will also seek to make as much hay as he can for his campaign to raise his profile as a European heavyweight leading efforts to "reform" the EU.

The announcement of the referendum date comes almost two weeks after the shock Brexit vote. October 2 will also see a re-run next door of the Austrian presidential election, in which the far-right Freedom Party will hope this time to triumph on an anti-immigration platform.

At the same time, Budapest is likely betting that handing the population the chance to let off steam over the EU's immigration policy – which is already all but abandoned in reality – will staunch any serious calls for Hungary to follow the UK with a vote on EU membership itself. The country benefits hugely from EU funds.

"Given that the idea of refugee quotas has already been abandoned on the EU level, the referendum serves purely domestic political agenda," says Otilia Dhand at Teneo Intelligence. "Specifically, the ruling Fidesz party wants to keep the refugee issue in the headlines to divert attention from controversial domestic matters and to maintain its popularity. Meanwhile, an EU exit referendum in Hungary remains unlikely."

Orban’s hardline stance on immigration began early, and helped revive support for Fidesz through 2015 after corruption scandals and a confrontation with the US sent the government's approval ratings sinking the previous year. However, when the far-right Jobbik proposed a referendum on the EU's mandatory quota system for migrants last October, Fidesz was opposed.

"The issue is connected to obligations arising from international treaties, thus it cannot be voted on at a referendum, according to the Fundamental Law,” the party's faction leader, Lajos Kosa, argued at the time.

Fidesz, however, expressed no such concerns when Orban announced a few months later his referendum plans. In May, Hungary’s supreme court – the Curia – also gave the green light

The question that will be put before voters translates as: “Do you want to allow the European Union to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?”

Precarious balance

Hungary has so far accepted none of the 1,294 refugees it was allocated to host under the EU relocation quota system. The Visegrad countries, including Hungary, all reacted with fury in May as the European Commission proposed reform on EU rules that would open a way to impose fines - €250,000 per refugee - on countries that refuse to take refugees under revised EU asylum laws.

In the wake of Brexit, leading government officials were not slow in linking the shock of the vote for a UK exit from the bloc to its own stance on migrants. Orban argued on June 24 that "the question of immigration was decisive” in the debate about UK’s membership.

That ignores, however, that it was immigration from other EU states – and the likes of Hungary and Poland in particular – that offered the Brexit campaign the greatest momentum. The argument that continues to dominate the headlines in Britain as discussion over the likely scenarios for the UK's departure and future relations with the EU gets going.

Yet Orban has a challenge, it seems, to keep the debate balanced on the ‘right’ side of the line, even within his closest circle. Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office Janos Lazar said that he could not vote in support of continued EU membership of Hungary "wholeheartedly”. Government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs admitted that “seeing the EU’s recent migrant politics, I would vote to leave the EU in case of a referendum”.

That is not in the master plan, however. These statements should rather “be understood as political manoeuvring rather than actual preparation to hold such a referendum,” Dhand asserts.

That was certainly the line pedaled by German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she sought at a press conference to dismiss concern that Hungary's move could further destabilize the EU. Berlin is working hard to calm the situation following the Brexit vote.

"The Hungarian prime minister’s opinion about asylum seekers is clear, so in this sense I do not expect the referendum to alter the current situation," Merkel said.

“The referendum itself will have no binding legal consequences, and therefore the government will only likely use the results to signal to EU partners that its stance on the refugee issue has strong domestic public backing,” the analyst points out. “Orban will also likely use the referendum as an opportunity to point out the perceived dysfunction of the EU and call for its reform.”