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The Deliberate Misinterpretation of Hungary’s Referendum on Migration

| July 19, 2016

As EU and UK leaders struggle to determine next steps following the Brexit referendum, we see a new story emerging, a tale heavy with political spin. A number of sources have been trying to paint the coming referendum in Hungary on the EU’s migration policy as a “Huxit,” they couldn’t be further from the truth.

Hungary’s referendum – now scheduled to take place October 2 – has nothing to do with leaving the European Union. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has spoken unequivocally about the government’s support for a strong EU, and stated quite publicly his hope that the United Kingdom would remain.

Hungary’s referendum puts Brussels’ compulsory migrant resettlement quota system before the voters. We see the policy as a mistake. It will be a pull factor for migrants and will turn more citizens against the EU. Neither of these would benefit the European project. By holding the referendum, Hungary wants to save the EU from going down a path that will further destablize the EU and member state governments.

“Why are we in? Because we believe in a strong European Union,” Prime Minister Orbán said in a radio interview the day after the Brexit vote. He was referring to the motto from Hungary’s EU Presidency in 2011. He emphasized that “Europe can only [remain] strong if, regarding issues with huge significance like migration, it can give answers that do not weaken it, but strengthen it. The EU [prior to Brexit] failed to give these answers; moreover, it gave contrary answers.” After June’s EU Summit on the heels of the British referendum, the prime minister said that migration and EU membership are separate issues.

Could it have been any clearer? Despite the straight talk from Budapest, we saw otherwise serious media outlets like ExpressBloomberg and Quartz purposefully blurring the two issues of migration and membership.

That is not the first time Hungary has warned that Brussels’ failures and disrespect for Member States jeopardizes the EU’s unity. On March 15th, in a speech celebrating the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, PM Orbán said,

“The time has come to prevent the destruction of Europe, and to save the future of Europe. To this end, regardless of party affiliation, we call on every citizen of Hungary to unite, and we call on every European nation to unite. The leaders and citizens of Europe must no longer live in two separate worlds. We must restore the unity of Europe. We the peoples of Europe cannot be free individually if we are not free together. If we unite our forces, we shall succeed; if we pull in different directions, we shall fail. Together we are strength, disunited we are weakness.”

Last year, during a November radio interview with Hungary’s public broadcaster, he was even more direct.

“[T]he widening gap between European leaders and the common sense of the European people is increasingly destabilizing Europe. I think this is a very serious threat… Under these circumstances, there is a continuous rise in the popularity of radical, extremist political forces outside the current mainstream.”

He was repeating thoughts he had been saying well before Brexit. Europe, a continent of hundreds of millions, is and must be able to face challenges and solve them alone, without outside help. That starts with European leaders finding the courage to defy the stifling constraints of political correctness.

What’s more, popular referendum is by no means alien to the European Union. Whether it’s a matter of further integration or enlargement, popular vote has been more than just about legal approval, it’s also about political legitimacy to the given issue.

Though several referenda on European matters were used to punish governments, the one in Hungary will not be one of those. Nor is it about an issue beyond the grasp of a regular citizen, like a European Constitution or an EU agreement with a third country (like the one that took place in the Netherlands earlier this year). The issue on October 2nd in Hungary is very specific. It is about one element of migration policy: should migrants received in the EU be forced upon societies against their will (and in very many cases against that of the migrants, too)? Shouldn’t the national parliaments have the final say on such an issue?

The European Commission’s plans on handling the migration crisis have been under detailed scrutiny with legal, moral and practical considerations. There is no point in repeating them. It should suffice that the (legally questionable) decision on quotas taken last year is not well respected. Even those governments who voted in favor fail to respect it, and the European Commission cannot enforce it.

Hungarian citizens will not need to assess the answers to the migration crisis as a whole, only pronounce their will on a single aspect of it, the most controversial one.

Debate on the migration crisis and on further elements of the European response will certainly continue, in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe. The European Commission did not hesitate to put a price tag on each migrant by proposing a fee for each one refused admission by a member state. On the other hand, the new European Border and Coast Guard seems promising. Dragging a failed idea about mandatory quotas any further is pointless and damaging. It should have been dropped already. We need to focus on ideas that can materialize and on issues we have been neglecting, like separating economic migrants from refugees, establishing a viable return policy and identifying where and how to care for those who really need our protection.