“Do you want the European Union to be able to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian nationals to Hungary even in lack of the consent of the National Assembly?”[i] – this is the question Hungarian voters will be asked to respond to on 2 October 2016. Speculations and verbal sparring have been strengthening about what may lie ahead, and not without reason. It appears that the possible legal and political implications of a valid vote could be broader than usual. At the least, referenda should pose concrete questions which invite an answer giving political institutions a well-circumscribed mandate. They should not give national governments a blanket authorisation and a political salvus conductus to freely choose what the will of the people requires. This contribution will look at how these principles fare in the upcoming referendum on the migrant quota and what the broader implications may be for both Hungary and the Union.
Fitting the trend?
Roughly a year ago, the unprecedented influx of migrants through, amongst others, the Balkan route prompted the EU to adopt a comprehensive package of proposalson a quota-system for their EU-wide distribution. Hungary opposed the plan harshly despite the fact that it included also the relocation of masses of migrants from its territory to other Member States. Often criticising the speed and appropriateness of EU action, the Hungarian Government launched a large-scale campaign, a petition to ‘protect the country’, fenced Hungary’s southern border to divert future migration, enforced illegal border crossing with criminal penalties and made other changes to its legislation on migration.
By now, the overwhelming majority of migrants left Hungary. Nevertheless, the country just very recently extended the state of emergency due to mass immigration until 8 March 2017. The poster-campaign of the Government rages on and on in the last moments before the referendum. Facts and possible consequences concerning ‘Brussels’ intentions’ are cherry-picked and distributed on posters into every corner of the most frequented public spaces. Hungarian voters are presented with what seems to be a coherent story, summarised by the dedicated homepage of the Hungarian Government explaining the context of the referendum. The website weaves a unitary narrative, emphasising the extent of the threat, the steps taken by the Government and the financial sanctions that could be imposed by Brussels on non-compliant Member States.
At first sight, the question of the referendum indeed responds to the EU proposal and the complicated set of earlier events. It is easy to come across headlines calling the Hungarian vote ‘Brexit-inspired’ or stating outright that it is a covert referendum on the exit of Hungary from the EU (using the term ‘Huxit’). Whatever the extent and toll of calling out causal connections, it pays to isolate this referendum from the circumstances and focus on its more unique characteristics …
This is an extract from a blog written by Márk Némedi for the European Law blog