The EU’s Next Referendum: Hungary and the Migrant Relocation Mechanism

Commentary by Danaë LAZARI

The Brexit referendum has dominated EU media for many months, but upcoming referendums in other EU Member States also have the potential to uproot the conventional policies of those states, with significant consequences for the EU. On Tuesday, it was announced that the Italian referendum on constitutional reform will take place on 4 December – a referendum whose result will simultaneously decide the political fate of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who has promised to resign in the event of a ‘no’ vote. Meanwhile, Hungarians will go to the polls this Sunday to vote in the long-anticipated, yet largely under-reported, referendum on the European Commission’s migrant relocation mechanism.

In September 2015, the European Council adopted an Emergency Response Mechanism which promised the relocation of 160,000 asylum-seekers under a quota system. Hungary was to relocate 1,294 refugees, but was opposed to the quota system and, along with Slovakia, brought it to the CJEU.

kremlin-ru-licensed-under-cc-by-4-0
Viktor Orban is notorious for his anti-immigration ideas – By Kremlin.ru, licensed under CC BY 4.0

The question Hungarians will answer on Sunday is ‘Do you want the EU to be entitled to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?’. The result is expected to be a resounding ‘no’, but in a sense the question is no longer relevant to Hungary. The country has not relocated any refugees, and immigration is at a relatively low level, due in part to security fences erected along its borders with Serbia and Croatia this time last year. The referendum, rather, is seen more as a power-reinforcing exercise by the Hungarian government, and specifically the notoriously anti-immigration Prime Minister Viktor Orban. A ‘no’ vote in the referendum would strengthen PM Orban’s hand when negotiating with Brussels at a time when the EU is increasingly vulnerable and when smaller, newer Member States, such as the ‘Visegrad Four’ (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) are becoming more vocal in their opposition to the implementations of an EU-wide liberal approach to immigration.

Opponents of the referendum criticize it for fostering nationalist, anti-immigration feeling in a country that views its Roma population as a nationwide problem. The Hungarian Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Part) have indicated that they would like Hungarians to abstain from voting, as too-low turnout would render the referendum void.

However, about two-thirds of the electorate are expected to reject the migrant relocation mechanism on Sunday. This may put Hungary in breach of EU law and would certainly put its compliance with the EU principle of solidarity into question. Although it would not rattle the EU to the same extent that the last referendum to take place in the EU did, a ‘no’ result would show a clear divergence between the Hungarian and the wider EU approach towards migration, making it difficult for the EU to reach a common approach to the migration crisis, as outlined in President Juncker’s State of the European Union speech earlier this month. A failure by the EU to address and improve the migration crisis would harm the Union’s credibility and further prolong the crisis at a time when EU solidarity is needed more than ever.

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