News analysis

Hungarian PM's fight to stop migrants is not over

Viktor Orban's push for a referendum backfires but he is winning the EU battle

Members of a local election commission start counting votes after the polling station closed in Budapest, Hungary, Oct 2, 2016.
Members of a local election commission start counting votes after the polling station closed in Budapest, Hungary, Oct 2, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

Jonathan Eyal European Union (EU) officials don't even bother to hide their delight that an anti-immigration referendum held in Hungary has flopped due to a low turnout that rendered it invalid.

The episode is regarded by the EU as an indication that European electorates are getting tired of the anti-migrant rhetoric peddled by populist politicians.

But Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who initiated the referendum in his country, vows to continue the Europe-wide fight against immigration. And despite his referendum setback, he is actually winning.

In theory, the Hungarian referendum sought an answer to a very narrow question: whether the EU had the powers to operate a compulsory system of quotas, allocating refugees and asylum-seekers to all the EU's nation-states on a proportional basis according to the size of each country. The European Commission claimed that it did, and that the quotas were necessary to ease migration pressures in a continent which received 1.2 million refugees last year alone. Hungary denied this claim, refused to accept any migrants allocated by the EU and sought the support of its electorate for this stance.

In practice, however, the Hungarian vote was a broader gesture of defiance against the very idea that Europe needs to have a centralised immigration policy or that the continent needs to be open to migrants. Mr Orban was the first European leader to order last year the construction of fences around the eastern borders of his country.  

And he frequently claims that Hungary is fighting to defend "European identity rooted in Christianity" against the "radically different" and largely Muslim migrants reaching the continent.

As far as he is concerned, zero immigration is Europe's best policy, although he makes an exception for ethnic Hungarians from other European countries.

Mr Orban's tactic of holding a referendum in order to prove that he enjoys his nation's backing on immigration backfired: 98 per cent of those who voted did support his stance, but only 43 per cent of the electorate cast their ballots, well below the 50 per cent threshold required by Hungarian law for the referendum to be legal.

This is a stinging defeat for a man who rose to prominence after the fall of communism during the 1990s, and who has dominated Hungarian politics virtually unchallenged since the start of this decade. Still, Mr Orban's fight against migration is far from over. And neither is his trademark brand of anti-migrant populist rhetoric.

Having first claimed that he required his electorate's support in order to resist pressure from the EU to admit more immigrants, Mr Orban has now decided he can achieve the same objective by simply changing the Constitution.

"I will submit a proposal to amend the Constitution in the next couple of days," he told lawmakers in Budapest at the start of this week.

And although Mr Orban has lost his national referendum bid, he has actually won the battle against the EU on this matter. For the European Commission has tacitly abandoned its plans to relocate refugees throughout the continent after only 6,000 out of the planned 160,000 asylum-seekers included in the scheme last year were accepted by various member states.

By fighting openly against the EU immigration plans, Mr Orban has at least been honest in his dealings with the bloc; most other European leaders killed the relocation scheme by simply ignoring it.

And there is no question that the Hungarian leader's outspoken anti-immigration stance is still in the ascendancy in Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who threw open her country's frontiers to migrants last year, now accepts that this was a mistake. Mr Thomas de Maiziere, her interior minister, announced this week that his country now wants to return to old European arrangements, under which refugees are obliged to remain in the first EU country they landed in. Effectively, that confines asylum-seekers to Greece and Italy, the first points of entry for the migration wave into Europe. And it also indirectly vindicates Mr Orban's fence-building border strategy which seeks to keep migrants away from his territory.

So although EU officials may currently enjoy the rare sight of Mr Orban being humbled by his own electorate, it is the Hungarian leader who still gets to have the final laugh.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2016, with the headline 'Hungarian PM's fight to stop migrants is not over'. Print Edition | Subscribe