Bursting the Bubble

Hungary’s lose-lose referendum

30 September 2016 | by

Hungarians will be casting ballots in a controversial referendum on EU migrant quotas this Sunday. Or so the government of the country’s outspoken conservative prime minister, Viktor Orbán hopes. In an attempt to gain further political momentum, the ruling Fidesz party has put enormous efforts into mobilising voters in order to reach the 50% turnout threshold for validity. At a time when the idea of mandatory refugee resettlement quotas seems to be politically dead, the question itself makes little sense legally or substantively speaking. Nevertheless, Fidesz has been running an overwhelming scaremongering campaign for months, depicting the referendum as a matter of life or death. What is Sunday’s ballot all about, and what does it mean for Europe?

“Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?” – The question posed to Hungarians goes. Besides the fact that the sentence itself is a leading question full of inaccuracies about how EU decision-making or the quotas work, it is also absolutely meaningless.

From a legal point of view, a referendum cannot change a country’s obligations under international law. According to last year’s relocation decision agreed by EU heads of state and government in the European Council, Hungary would have to take in 1,300 refugees. While the number itself is not exactly whopping, the government has been refusing to deliver on it, and there seems to be little ability or willingness to enforce the decision. Furthermore, even PM Orbán admits that this decision cannot be reversed and argues instead that the plebiscite will give him a strong mandate to oppose any similar future plans.

But there is no political appetite across Europe to continue with an obligatory scheme. It was Council President Donald Tusk who first proclaimed that such solutions cannot be forced upon Member States. Then Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also backtracked from the idea in his State of the Union speech, saying that solidarity cannot be enforced. The unpopular obligatory quota was then officially put to its grave at the Bratislava summit earlier this month. In the Slovakian capital EU leaders put on their best smiles to project unity following the Brexit referendum, and clearly spoke about the safeguarding of external borders and cooperation with third countries – such as Turkey – as the solution to the refugee crisis. Other Eastern leaders that are usually keen to join in for some EU-bashing were satisfied with the outcome. Both the Polish and the Slovak Prime Minister welcomed the recognition that quotas are a thing of the past.

In light of all this, is it not clear what the Hungarian government is asking empowerment for. Besides murky mentions of amending the constitution, there is no clear objective or any next step outlined. Despite all this Fidesz has been on a full-blown offensive, linking terrorism and criminality with migration, and playing on instinctive fear. The campaign is estimated to have cost taxpayers HUF 10 billion or around €32 million.

Why so important then?

It comes as no surprise that the real drive behind the referendum is scoring political points domestically. Firstly, it allows the government to control the political agenda and divert attention from issues that have been an important source of popular discontent, such as corruption, education or the state of the healthcare system. It is also fertile ground for war rhetoric, which is undoubtedly one of Orbán’s main strengths. The belligerent Prime Minister has verbally fought multinationals, banks, Brussels bureaucrats and liberals, and this is yet another opportunity when he can pose as the defender of national interest, and the last bastion of defence of European culture.

It is also about demonstrating power. The question is phrased in a way that goes to the heart of sovereignty, and everyone daring to call for a boycott or a ‘yes’ vote is accused of nothing short of treason. As a result of a year of government-fuelled scaremongering, many Hungarians are genuinely concerned about how migration will affect their lives. Voters from all across the political spectrum are siding with the government on a question that essentially asks if the national Parliament should have a say in decisions over migration. The questions is simplistic and misleading, and as such it is difficult to answer differently. Consequently, Fidesz is hoping to collect votes from both sides of the political divide to seem way more popular than it is.

For the same reasons, it has been a successful strategy for confusing and further dividing a weak opposition. The far-right openly sided with the government, while leftist parties failed to put forward a coherent position altogether and have been following the campaign from the sidelines. The fact that the only opposition movement came from the crowd-funded campaign of the satirical Two-Tailed Dog Party is telling itself.

The referendum is also about campaign for the sake of campaigning. The governing conservative party is already testing its electoral machinery ahead of the 2018 general elections. All prominent figures have been involved on the ground, organising forums to speak directly to their electorate. The party’s system of activists was put to full use, and according to reports, even lower ranking ministerial officials were required to call and convince citizens. Finally, the unparalleled campaign also served as an opportunity to channel further public money both to state-owned and friendly media organisations.

No good result

It has been a dishonest and malicious campaign. It was aimed at stirring up emotions and planting groundless fear for no other reason than political gain. The propaganda of the Hungarian government stigmatised people that are running for their lives. It not only divided a nation, but will also create tensions far beyond the borders and will further fracture the European Union.

At a time when the EU might be more fragmented than ever before, Mr Orbán’s government misused a serious problem to stabilise its domestic position rather than make the faintest effort to contribute to solving any of the issues that Europe is faced with. When the North and the South are still at odds over issues such as bank bailouts and budgetary rules, when one of the largest Member States has just decided to leave the European Union, when migratory pressure is cracking solidarity, a cooperative approach is the absolute minimum for finding some kind of unity. But the Hungarian referendum undermines and pre-empts any meaningful European discussion about one of the most serious global crises, further fueling anti-EU sentiments across the continent.  No matter the outcome, Hungary and Europe have already lost this referendum.

What do you think?