Hungarian poll further blow to EU migrant dispersal plan

By on 03/10/2016 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Hungary’s National Election Office website

Despite overwhelming domestic support for the Hungarian government’s anti-migrant stance, low turnout rendered its referendum on Sunday invalid, permitting campaigners on both sides of the debate to claim victory.

More than 98% of voters backed the government, which spent 10 billion Hungarian forint ($36m) on a campaign to persuade the population to oppose an EU proposal to ease pressure on Italy and Greece by reallocating 160,000 refugees across the bloc. But turnout was only 40%, according to Hungary’s National Election Office, falling short of the 50% threshold required to validate the poll.

The country’s populist prime minister Viktor Orbán has said he intends to honour the referendum result anyway, pushing through a law to make EU migrant quotas dependent on parliamentary votes.

“Brussels or Budapest, that was the question, and the people said Budapest,” he told supporters in the Hungarian capital on Sunday evening.

So far Hungary has refused to accept any of the 1,294 refugees it was assigned by the EU; alongside Slovakia, it filed a court challenge to oppose migrant quotas in December 2015. In advance of the referendum, EU leaders had already started backpedalling on quotas at last month’s Bratislava summit of 27 heads of state.

Orbán’s critics claim that the decision to hold a referendum was actually an attempt to boost his grip on power ahead of parliamentary elections in 2018, deflecting attention away from the government’s failures.

Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, told Global Government Forum that the referendum result was unsurprising, given that the government’s opponents tactically decided to boycott the referendum or to spoil their ballots.

“For the EU’s migration policy this will not have major immediate consequences,” he added. “Many governments now recognise that the relocation decided by qualified vote in September 2015 was a mistake and that burden-sharing can only be pursued through voluntary schemes.

“In the longer term, however, the flawed Dublin rule that puts all the burden on the countries of first arrival will have to be replaced by arrangements providing for solidarity among all Schengen countries. This can only happen if the Visegrad countries [Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia] can be convinced to come on board.”

Ahead of Hungary’s referendum, the Austrian foreign minister called on the EU to drop the plan to share out refugees across the bloc.

The referendum question was: “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?”

In 2015 Orbán, who claims to be leading a counter-revolution against EU centralisation, controversially erected a razor wire fence along Hungary’s southern border to keep out migrants.

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About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

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