The Hungarian government will call a referendum on the EU's mandatory quota system for migrants, Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced on February 24 at a hastily called press conference.
Orban was an early mover on the migrant crisis. The Fidesz government raised the issue in early 2015 as it sought to take back ground from the far-right Jobbik, which became Hungary's biggest opposition party last year. While support for Fidesz grew at home, the government's linking of refugees with terrorism raised a chorus of criticism internationally, as did barbed-wire fences erected on the country's southern borders.
The subsequent turn to the right across the EU since the summer has, however, nudged Orban's views – previously seen as extreme – further towards the mainstream. Opposition members and analysts tell bne IntelliNews that the PM feels his moral authority now extends far outside Hungary's borders.
"The government is responding to public sentiment now, we think that introducing resettlement quotas for migrants without the backing of the people equals an abuse of power," Orban told reporters, according to Reuters.
Drawing a new line, the PM claimed the EU's migrant quotas, which seek to redistribute 160,000 asylum seekers from countries including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq across the bloc by the end of the year, would redraw the ethnic, cultural and religious map of Hungary and Europe. To date, Orban has pushed security and cultural concerns; this was the first clear reference to ethnic concerns.
The step towards explicit rejection of migrants along racial lines appears to reflect Orban's growing confidence. Government officials and media in Budapest have recently claimed that the majority of EU states now accept Hungary's stance is the right one.
While Hungary has become a major point of entry for migrants to the EU, with tens of thousands reported to have arrived via the Western Balkans route in 2015, few, if any, hope to stay. According to EU figures, Hungary has so far accepted none of the 1,294 refugees it was allocated to host under the EU relocation quota system.
The referendum comes on top of a legal challenge by Budapest to the quotas. The Smer government in Slovakia, which has also ridden the migrant crisis to revive support ahead of elections on March 5, has launched its own lawsuit against the European Commission, helping provoke criticism of the wider group of Visegrad states, which also includes Poland and the Czech Republic – both of whom also largely oppose accepting migrants.
However, beset by protests in the healthcare and education sectors, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico now appears to be running out of juice. According to opinion polls, Smer is limping towards the vote.
Large protests have also been held recently by Hungarian teachers, apparently inspired by events next door to attempt to pull the focus back onto failings in education in their own country. Orban's referendum, which appears largely academic amidst popular opposition to accepting refugees, could be seen as a reaction to that.
Orban, who does not face a major election until 2018, did not say when the referendum would be held. Hungarian media suggest the earliest possible date to hold the vote would be in the autumn.
Hungarians will be asked: “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?” the prime minister said, according to MTI. Cabinet chief, Antal Rogan, has already submitted the question to the National Election Committee for approval.