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Referendum on EU migrant redistribution quotas disputed

July 11th, 2016

Left-wing and liberal pundits interpret the Hungarian government’s referendum against migrant quotas as a vote against the EU. Pro-government columnists, on the other hand, argue that the referendum is not about Hungary’s EU-membership.

On Tuesday, President Áder announced that the referendum on mandatory EU migrant redistribution quotas will take place on 2 October.

The referendum is not about quotas, but Hungary’s EU membership, Róbert Friss claims in Népszava. The left-wing columnist fears that the Orbán government wants to use the anti-quota referendum to prepare Hungary’s exit from the EU. To stop this, all pro-Europe Hungarians should stay at home on 2 October, Friss writes.

In Népszabadság, András Dési contends that the referendum may have severely negative implications. If the government’s anti-quota referendum is successful, other member states may follow suit and incite fear in order to oppose any decision by the EU, the left-wing commentator believes. Concerning Hungary, Dési thinks that the referendum will push Hungary even more to the periphery of Europe.

Writing in the same daily, Zoltán Lakner thinks that the government wants to use the referendum to influence the future course the European  Union will follow. The left-wing political scientist thinks Mr Orbán wants a Europe where events are decided through bargaining between the strongmen of the member countries, rather than envisaging leaving the EU.

Magyar Narancs goes so far as to describe the logic of what it considers the scenario of Hungary’s exit from the EU after the referendum. The quota referendum has no real legal implications, the left-wing liberal weekly writes, since EU rules are determined by the European Parliament and the European Council. Therefore, Magyar Narancs suspects, the referendum will be used by PM Orbán in order to lead Hungary out of the EU. The weekly speculates that the Prime Minister will refuse to implement the mandatory quotas, triggering thereby an 80 billion Forint EU fine (or ‘solidarity tax’ as the European Commission described it) which will help Orbán convince undecided voters that Hungary should indeed leave the European Union.

It was a mistake to call the referendum, András Stumpf writes on Mandiner. The conservative analyst points out that the Hungarian referendum is not binding for the EU. It is a well-known fact that Hungarians are against quotas, and thus the referendum will add little to the Hungarian government’s arguments against the introduction of mandatory EU-wide migrant redistribution. Stumpf recommends that instead of the pointless referendum, Hungary’s government should find allies in the EU so that the redistribution quotas will be rejected in the European Council. Stumpf dismisses left-wing speculation that the referendum is about Hungary’s EU membership. He fears, nonetheless, that it may strengthen anti-EU sentiments, as happened in the case of the Brexit vote. Taken all together, Stumpf writes that he may rather stay at home on referendum day, even if this is what the left-wing parties are asking their followers to do.

The referendum is a useful tool to strengthen the feeling of the population that they are in control, Tamás Lánczi reacts to Stumpf’s column on the Mozgástér blog. The pro-government analyst dismisses any suggestion that the referendum is about Hungary’s EU membership. He admits that it is not binding for the EU, but it will nonetheless help the Hungarian government to make its point and reject the quotas. He concludes by adding that those who do not vote will actually support the introduction of migrant redistribution in the EU.

Writing on Mandiner, Gábor Bencsik also thinks that it is important to vote in the referendum against the quotas. The clear rejection of migrant redistribution would make it very hard for the EU to impose the quotas, the conservative columnist remarks, adding that it is irresponsible to stay away from the ballot box, particularly because the referendum has no implications concerning Hungary’s EU membership.

In his response to Lánczi and Bencsik, Stumpf reiterates his opinion that the referendum is pointless. He notes that it is peculiar in the first place that the referendum has been called by the government rather than people. Although Stumpf agrees that the EU should not impose quotas on member states against the will of their populations, he does not want to participate in an empty referendum the only possible result of which would be to strengthen the government’s legitimacy.

In Magyar Idők, Miklós Szánthó also dismisses any suggestion that the referendum is about Hungary’s EU membership. Citing previous decisions by the Constitutional Court, the conservative constitutional lawyer argues that according to the Hungarian Basic Law, if the referendum rejects quotas, the EU will have no right to impose them on Hungary. Szánthó thus contends that the referendum will not provide a political trump card for the Orbán government, but it will make it de facto impossible to introduce quotas in Hungary without violating the Basic Law.

On Saturday, the Publicus pollster company published a survey according to which two-thirds of Hungarians would join the EU if they were to decide today, and 70 per cent of the respondents said that they EU membership had been beneficial for the country. The poll suggests that Hungarians have become more pro-EU in the last year. To the question whether they would participate in the anti-quota referendum, 75 per cent replied they would, and 64 per cent of them said they would vote against the introduction of mandatory migrant redistribution.

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