To JRS Europe on the referendum in Hungary

Dear Readers!

Many were asking about the possible interpretations of the „quota-referendum” in Hungary. You can see that the „quota-referendum” in Hungary was not valid even if it was dominating the media for the last two months. Of course, now all political parties are giving their very different interpretations.

Take first the facts:

  • The question of the referendum 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?”
  • The results: 43% of eligible voters voted; of those who voted, 6.3% cast invalid ballots and 1.6% voted Yes. 92% voted No. (The majority of invalid ballots can be seen as protest votes: the ratio is unusually high, and there were campaigns by some groups encouraging people to do this.)


The low voter turnout for us tends to suggest some interpretations:

  1. Legal frames: Regarding the law of referendum it is important to know that in the last two decades it was changed twice. In 1997 the Socialists made it more difficult to get easy political gains when they increased the minimum number of those who have to sign the proposal the referendum’s topic before it can be started. (Nevertheless at this time only 25% participation was enough to get a valid referendum.) In 2013 the Orban government set the rate of the minimum validity rate higher, to 50%. Therefore this referendum is now invalid.
  2. Less fears? Still, there is suspicion and fear of migrants. It is quite understandable in the context of Hungary’s history and culture, and of recent events. Nevertheless the clear majority of Hungarians could not be mobilized by fears. It might cut in the future any further extreme political play with the “migrants’ cards”.
    However, the results also showed that the Hungarian society is divided (and not necessarily along the political party-lines) as regards the fear of immigrants. For us, this confirms the need for further social dialogue with the wider society about the question, about the possible integration of refugees.
  3. EU? The majority of the voting and the silent society might wait for and hope yet in joint European solutions in the crisis. It means that there is a mainstream view that it is not enough what up to now have been done by the EU but surely to work at national level could not be enough. The expectation is that the security and freedom should be secured similarly in the EU. (You can read a good international analyse below which was written by one of our colleagues.)


  1. JRS and others? For those who are working with and for the migrants the result helps to know that they are not alone in the society. Therefore the JMSz is happy that the JRS Europe supports the efforts of those who continue to assist refugees.

Budapest, 4. Oct. 2016.




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Feledy Botond dr.


What the Hungarian referendum taught us about the migration issue in the EU

Nations such as Hungary are using the migration issue to challenge the power and competences of the EU in the name of national sovereignty.


Hungarians went to the polls on Oct. 2 to give their opinion on a referendum question that each political side interpreted in its own way. The turnout remained well below the necessary 50 percent of all valid votes, although 98 percent of voters – more than three million people – said they wanted the Hungarian parliament to have a decisive say about any future quota-based redistribution of asylum-seekers inside the EU.


Ambiguities in the wording of the referendum

The referendum and its campaign had two separate goals. First, the ruling Fidesz party had to test the loyalty of their political camp; thus they tried to redefine classical political fault lines and checked on the unity of the opposition. Secondly, Prime Minister Viktor Orban used this occasion to bring forward his arguments about reshaping the competences of the European Union, especially the European Commission itself.

The referendum question has been thoroughly debated ever since it was published, as it reflects both of the above goals. The question asks: „Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent?”

Of course, political and civil groups were enabled by the ambiguous wording of the question to focus on significantly different interpretations. Neither the Constitutional Court nor the National Election Committee declared the question invalid, despite the fact that it raised concerns among experts. The constitutional rules within most member states declare that no national referendum should be held on issues already regulated by international treaties, such as the Treaty of Lisbon.

As a way of getting around this fact, the government later claimed that the referendum did not concern the decisions of mandatory quotas already decided at the level of the European Council – it would only concern future possible decisions.


Debating the competency of the EU

Clearly, the European Council is required to give the final word in any such case of quota-based distribution of resettlement or relocation among EU member states, in any case where Hungary has a way to raise its own voice or to build a blocking coalition. The Hungarian government decided to go against the quota system after the Council’s decisions of last autumn. Slovakia and Hungary went to the European Court in Luxembourg to dispute the legality of the measure.

This was the final point where the Hungarian government turned the migration crisis into a sovereignty question. It had started in the official government rhetoric already after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, but the referendum question undoubtedly raised the stakes of the debate. It is not anymore about whether migrants or refugees should be welcomed or not, the opinion of the government focuses on the competence of the European institutions – whether they can, in theory, enforce population-related decisions on member states.


The Hungarian position is openly on the side that the quota system violates the sovereignty of member states and unnecessarily forces a non-solution instead of paying attention to securing the external borders of the Schengen area. This has been the argument already since last summer, when hundreds of thousands of refugees crossed the country and the Balkan route towards Germany.

First, the borders must be secured, because if member states start the redistribution mechanism, the political pressure for a sustainable solution at the border protection level would dissipate and Hungary would be left with an ever-growing influx of uncontrolled immigration.

The EU-Turkey deal seriously decreased the number of asylum-seekers arriving in the Balkans, though the Mediterranean route remains open and Italy is under growing pressure again. Hungarians have not seen masses of migrants since last September when the government sealed the southern Hungarian borders with a razor-wire fence. Despite this measure, the government continued to communicate a permanent threat of uncontrolled migrants throughout the campaign.


The momentum of vox populi in the EU member states

While Pew Research and other polls do not put the Hungarian electorate among the friendliest towards foreigners from other cultures, it is still a member of the community of European values. Hungarians came up with a very positive response through civil society last summer during the crisis at the Eastern Train Station in Budapest, where medical and social services as well as food was provided by NGOs, volunteers and churches to the tens of thousands stranded asylum-seekers. Not one single organized attack was carried out against the people on the road, while in Germany, safe homes and groups have been attacked in the hundreds.

Hungarians are, of course, not resistant to strong government messages that resonate, but the invalid referendum gave proof that the will of the government is not enough in itself to completely reshape the perception of the electorate. While xenophobia has risen to a new high in the population, it is still not the general attitude of the average voter. Hungarians live in their own reality, facing economic hurdles and challenges, caring about how to make a living in a country where the average salary is about the half of the minimum wage of France.

The government campaign focused largely on classic media platforms: billboards, public and pro-government television and radio channels, leaflets in the mailbox. It was significantly weaker on social media, where youngsters remain a relatively disaffected group.

The number of invalid votes – those who put their paper in the ballot box but did not pick any of the choices – together with the more than 50.000 voters who actually decided to take home the ballot instead of casting it at all, hit a record. Altogether, well over 250,000 voters sent the message that they did not want to reply to such a question.


The referendum must be dealt with at the European level

The Hungarian referendum enters into the long-running history of the Budapest-Brussels battle that the second Orbán-government (2010-14) started right around the country’s European Council presidency in 2011. The referendum’s signature motto was “Let’s Tell Brussels” what Hungarians want, implying that EU bureaucrats (technocrats) are not representing the interests of nation states.

This argumentation to adopt Brussels as a scapegoat is not unknown in other capitals of Europe either. Actually, the truly diverse community of the 27 member states have their national sensitivities elsewhere. For Central Europeans, demography and population policy (i.e. migration) is a pivotal question, especially for their nation-state minded governments.

For Ireland, their sovereignty over Irish tax policy is a cornerstone issue, in which they do not wish to have the support of the EU institutions against Apple. The German constitutional court in Karlsruhe has declared itself against EU legislation in some instances over the last few decades.

So the legal battleground among member states and EU institutions is an old one, which is an organic part of the history of European integration. Popular referenda are another thing entirely. Greece tried to acquire some weight by its last vote on credit conditions, with only limited results. Referenda on the European Constitution in France and the Netherlands were also serious failures.


Quickly shifting geopolitical background

This migration topic has been turned into the most successful glue among the Visegrad states. Anti-migrant messages have been strong in Slovakia, bringing a sharp election victory and a colourful coalition for Robert Fico and in the Czech Republic, especially by the pro-Russian president, Milos Zeman. Finally, the new right-wing government of Poland also claimed sovereignty over migration, though often in a less harsh voice, as a rule of law procedure has been opened in Brussels investigating the situation in post-election Warsaw.

This coalition seems to be broken up by the Slovakian presidency of the Council, where Bratislava had to take the position of honest broker. Prague also approached Berlin on several questions and the government took a step back on this question.

After Bratislava, the European context for quota-based solutions shifted anyway. Powerful member states also put the accent on the protection of external borders and the cooperation on the front against terrorism. Besides Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, it seems that others have taken the redistribution issue off the political agenda.


The Hungarian government might now claim victory – it couldn’t do it in Bratislava a few weeks before the referendum. The Prime Minister allegedly weighed the option to go forward with a European Citizen Initiative in case of a successful referendum at home. However, it might not be an option anymore.

Diplomatic rumours spread last week in Budapest that an informal German-Hungarian agreement promised to be less harsh on migration in exchange for Berlin’s support to close the infringement inquiry about the planned Russian enlargement of the Hungarian nuclear power plant in Paks.

Chancellor Angela Merkel definitely entered a different reality after the state-level elections in Germany this fall. At this point, she does not need an adversary in Central Europe that has been welcomed warmly at several Christian Social Union (CSU) meetings.

Some patterns of Russian strategic deception might change as well as a result of the invalid Hungarian referendum. While a high number of news sites and social media platforms, that are supposed to be connected to Russian interests, reproduced anti-migrant content on a daily basis, these channels may look for other social issues to complement their message that can stir disharmony in the respective societies.


The shift in the European political discourse about migration is an important one: it is less and less framed as a social issue and has been turned into a security question. As soon as it is considered to touch upon the national security of EU member states, the Russian involvement in Syria and other active measures influencing the movement of asylum-seekers might become more critical for European military and other law enforcement actors. This could drive to new tensions if the sides are not taking into account the new context of communication.