Win some, lose some: The Hungarian refugee referendum

Rafael Labanino – Although the Hungarian referendum on refugee quotas didn’t succeed, it seems that prime minister Viktor Orban will make a victory out of it.

The Hungarian referendum on binding EU refugee quotas was invalid, however, 98 percent of those who voted rejected them. The international press seems to agree that the invalidity of the referendum is a clear defeat for the confrontational Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán. However, the Hungarian government says it will initiate a constitutional amendment that would violate EU rules. Did Orbán really lose, and what are the implications for the EU?

Hungary, a small, and relatively poor, Central and Eastern European member state of the European Union stood in the centre of international attention last Sunday as the country’s more than 8 million eligible voters were expected to vote on the EU’s mandatory refugee quotas. Or were they? The Hungarian government called for a referendum to be held on October 2, 2016 in February supposedly on the mandatory resettling of migrants within the EU. However, there was never such a thing to begin with. The Hungarian government emphasized that the referendum is not about the 2015/1601 European Council decision, according to which Hungary should take over 1294 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece for the period of their asylum process, the only such scheme to date. Secondly, the EU has a common refugee policy, and the Hungarian National Assembly does not have the authority to override EC decisions, nor cannot it refuse future ones.

40 Millions for a blow

After spending – according to estimates – an unprecedented nearly 40 million Euros of tax payers’ money on an openly racist campaign for “no”, the turnout of 43.57 percent is clearly a disappointment for the government. Moreover, 6.27 percent of the votes were invalid, a very high number, which is explained by a private donation based campaign by a satirical mock party. Is this outcome a defeat for Viktor Orbán and his populist, xenophobic agenda? Yes and no. Orbán’s over proportionate influence in EU politics seems to have received a blow. Had his referendum been valid it could have given a boost to other right wing populists, perhaps even sparked similar referenda in other member states, and perhaps most importantly, it could have buried any viable reform of the common EU refugee policy.

On the other hand, Orbán succeeded to gather more than 3.2 million no votes. Even if it almost exactly equals the votes his party, Fidesz and the extreme right wing Jobbik received on the last elections combined, it is a huge number. In domestic politics, that is, he is as strong as ever. As there are no independent political institutions or an opposition that could challenge his rule, and most of the press is either directly controlled by the government or effectively muzzled, he will not have to face any real political consequences.

On Tuesday Orbán announced that the government will initiate four amendments to the Hungarian constitution. The most important amendment is the one that would render the settlement of any non-EU citizen in Hungary to the decision of Hungarian authorities, and ban “group settlement” of migrants (quotas, that is). At the moment the amendment seems more like a communication stunt for the domestic audience, as mandatory quotas were abandoned and the other provisions are in line with the existing rules. However, one has to wait for the actual amendment, which could be worse (it would not be the first time). Orbán’s EU level stance might have been weakened but he is determined to continue to fight on. Considering the state of the Hungarian economy, the historically low level of investment and high level of corruption, the falling living standards, the collapsed health care or public school systems, in lack of a better idea he does not really have another choice.

Rafael Labanino is Research Assistant at the Institute of Political Science (University of Berne).

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Bildquelle: Délmagyarország/Schmidt Andrea  CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41777594