Europeans have not talked so much about European affairs as they have since the summer of 2016. After the clap of thunder generated by Brexit, another storm is building up and heading towards Brussels. Indeed, another EU member state is speaking out against EU politicians leading to a situation seen equally as the EU attempting to defy the sovereignty of its member states and vice versa. In just a matter of weeks Hungary will hold a referendum on October 2, with ruling fight-wing Fidesz, asking Hungarians if they accept the migrants relocation mechanism created by the European Commission under the head of Jean-Claude Juncker.
It is no surprise that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is generally described as a populist and constantly on the outlook for scapegoats, uses the tool of referendum to legitimize its decisions rather epically. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, also announced that she would be consulting the French volk more often if she would be elected in the 2017 presidential election (Kettle, 2016).
In a period when people are not trusting their politicians, referendums do appear to propose a solution to directly involve the citizens of a given state but such mechanisms have also garnered a great deal of negative attention. To some, referendums remain a risky political tool wielding the danger of potentially self-inflicted harm.
However, direct democracy is a virtuous goal to reach, at least in principle, though one should note that referendums stand as latent threats to governance. In 2005, France’s population rejected the Lisbon Treaty due to the ghost fear about the Polish plumbers invasion. Populations tend to use their say in referendums to express rage toward authorities rather than expressing politically informed views on the actual matter asked of them (The Economist, 2016).
Though, the legality of organizing this referendum is not questionable, its outcome could be. The European Council has, through a narrow majority, approved the migrant relocation mechanism, which has been created to relocate about 160,000 migrants per year through the 28 member states by means of quotas – a plan that was formulated in 2015 as part of the EU’s migrant crisis response.
President János Ader stated that the following question would be posed to Hungarians: “Do you want the European Union to be entitled to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?”
The resettlement program has been made to be biding over its participants (Le Monde, 2016). Subsequently, if Hungary were to vote against this program and that its government were to confirm the vote, Hungarians would risk being in breach of EU law. Nevertheless, beyond the legal perspective, if Hungarians were to reject the relocation mechanism they would essentially be in breach of the European value of solidarity toward other European states such as Italy and Greece, two states at the fore of the migration crisis (Pasquier, 2016).
More importantly, the referendum might open the door to a cold breeze in the corridors of the Berlaymont (Head Office of the European Commission). Like Brexit, by organizing this referendum and more importantly by hypothetically rejecting it, Hungary would open a Pandora’s box for other Eurosceptics like Czech Republic ad Slovakia to mimic Hungary’s posture (De Amorim, 2016). Consequently, the EU might once again fall short of a common plan urgently needed in response to the migrant crisis, which resulted in more than 4,176 dead since last year (UNHCR, 2016).
During the 2015 migrant influx, which brought twice the number of people as in 2014, over a million people arrived and were counted in Germany’s “EASY” system. They came principally from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Many more from Kosovo, Albania, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Iran, and Ukraine sought new lives in Europe (Eurostat, 2015). Hungary recorded approximately a quarter-of-a-million migrants transiting through the country in 2015.
Today the presence of migrants in Hungary is virtually nil. Using Hungary as a transitory route was precluded largely because of the security fence constructed last summer and the presence of security personnel patrolling the border areas. What transpired last summer included a culture clash and the generation of fear compounded by misunderstanding of the migrant problem, including its scope. That continues today.
While no rapes were reported in Hungary by migrants in 2015, reports of verbal assaults against European or Hungarian women revealing skin were plentiful, especially by women whose lifestyles and cultural choices departed radically from the restrictive Islamic religion – which according to many is incompatible with European laws and values.
Insults against European women helped cultivate a greater sense of fear among Hungarians, and concerns related to the migrant “incursion” from the Middle East and elsewhere. In Germany as elsewhere in Western Europe, rapes and sexual assault cases perpetrated by migrants were reported in record numbers.
In Hungary, the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP or the Hungarian Socialist Party) would like Hungarians to abstain from voting in Hungary’s referendum. If too few take part then the referendum will be void. Such an outcome would, according to MSZP, lead to an ebb in Fidesz’s power.
The message from Fidesz is that the EU does not have the authority to settle thousands of migrants in Hungary. According to some Hungarians interviewed in Budapest and rural Hungary, the country is currently plagued by problems and the Roma population is seen as one of them. In one interview, the concern that migrants will become a new Gypsy population surfaced. In a country of 9 million people, the youth unemployment rate in 2013 has been slowly descending from 26.6% to 20.4% in 2014, but still sat uncomfortably at 17.3% in 2015 (Eurostat, 2016). The homeless rate in Hungary is among the highest in Europe and the statistics are often adjusted by Fidesz to reflect a model society. In 2015, 840,000 struggled to pay their bills reported The City Belongs to Everyone (A Város Mindenkié Alipítvány, 2016), an NGO headquartered in Budapest.
The fear is they will not “act Hungarian” nor will they “be European.” Thus, the scepticism and worry is built on the platform that integration will prove too difficult for the new migrants in Hungary, and that migrant values still remain largely incompatible with (European) values. “Over 500 years of Gypsy life in Hungary has led to deep divides in Hungarian society. Why should we expect anything different from the migrants,” argued one interviewee.
After 1956 many Hungarians fled their country with some having made it to Austria where they stayed for nearly a year. From Austria they were sent to other countries but the process went fairly, smoothly, painstakingly slow, but smoothly. In 2015, in a refugee camp near Szeged, migrants attempted to escape, claiming that life in Hungary is not good enough. During the heyday of the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, migrant signs in Budapest read, “We want Germany,” “We are under siege.”
Are Hungarians offered a choice in this referendum? The answer is unequivocally no. Many see the referendum as a positive move for Fidesz rather than the ruling party extending Hungarians a voice in the direction of their country. The view is largely contested. This referendum, however, concerns from at least one of many perspectives that the referendum is about reinforcing Fidesz’s power, not that of the people Fidesz governs.
During one interview, a government worker was informed that failure to vote favorably in Fidesz’s referendum could lead to disciplinary recourse including being removed from her job. For some Hungarians depending on where they work and for whom they work, the element of choice exists, while for others the referendum does little in connecting Hungarians with the future of their country.
One of the prevailing feelings in the country is that Hungarians simply feel trapped between Fidesz and the EU. They do not feel the present of any power for them nor do they see any choice leading to Fidesz opposing the EU and its decision to force settle migrants in their country. In Hungary, Fidesz is being blamed for lack of power and the EU is being blamed for a lack of caring what either Fidesz or the Hungarian people think.
October’s referendum is a response to a problem that in one sense no longer exists in Hungary due to austere but fruitful security measures. Power and popularity are the residual themes of the forthcoming referendum. Nowadays we are beginning to speak more of global over population in the context of security threats and measures. 20 years from now we will likely look back, coveting the days when only a million migrants made their way to Europe. For now certain measures have contained the problem though the government of Hungary continues to use the problem of the previous year to fuel power and popularity today.
Hungarians simply prefer not to be the puppets of Orbán’s party. If the referendum were truly about what Hungarians want, a no vote would likely prevail, though since its not, a strong sense for the need to abstain is apparent. Hungary has not any choice in this referendum and is likely to remain the black sheep country of the EU, facing penalty either by its ruling party or by the EU.
Scott N. Romaniuk is a PhD Researcher in International Studies (University of Trento). His research focuses on asymmetric warfare, counterterrorism, international security, and the use of force.
Benoît Masset holds a Master’s in European Governance from the University of Luxembourg. He specializes in European and International Affairs, Human Rights and Southeast Asia, and Mediterranean States.