Yesterday, the Hungarian people voted on a referendum on whether to oppose the European Union plan to resettle some refugees to the country. Those who voted – which at 45% is not much short of half of the Hungarian population – overwhelmingly rejected the refugee resettlement: 98% of voters voted against the resettlement plan.
In order for the referendum to come into effect, voter turnout had to pass 50%. Even if the referendum took effect, EU law trumps state law. Thus, the legal standing of this vote was questionable, and it is more comparable to a symbolic vote. This explains perhaps why media coverage may have been lower than one would expect.
But the referendum is an important symbolic act, which epitomizes the current trends in Hungary. As Prime Minister Victor Orban was quick to point out: more Hungarians voted against the resettlement of any refugees into their country than had voted to join the EU (3.249 million votes were cast against refugees, while in 2003, only 3.056 million votes in favor of joining the EU.) This vote is an important marker of the mood in a country, which is at the front-line of Europe’s protectionist tendencies.
Since I cannot write a lengthier analysis of the matter, I wanted to briefly contextualize why the vote matters, and link to some excellent articles for you to read further. I intent to write several detailed posts on my findings in Hungary from my research trip soon.
So what is it all about?
The referendum, as it translates into English, asked voters: “Do you want the European Union to be able to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary even without the consent of Parliament?" The language, wordy and vague as it is, is hardly neutral.
This was a referendum on the EU plan to relocate 1,294 migrants to Hungary. Last fall, the EU adopted an Emergency Response Mechanism, which set the quota based on a country’s size, economy and current refugee population (the EU designed a calculus that weight these as such: 40% of the size of the population, 40% of the GDP, 10% of the average number of past asylum applications, 10% of the unemployment rate). Hungary's responsibility was rather small. With a population of 9,875 million, the effect of integrating a 1300 people on Hungary's culture, cohesion and economy would have been minor.
The vote matters for several reasons. One is that the vote epitomizes how the government has successfully led a powerful campaign, which build on and deepened xenophobia, nationalism and a strong opposition to immigration among the Hungarian population.
The Hungarian President has launched a government sponsored campaign against any refugee resettlement that cost Hungarian tax payers $40 million against migrants. The fact that so many tax payers money is re-routed away from much needed social project into a symbolic campaign speaks volumes on the current political situation in the country.
The campaign is ever-present in the country. When I was in Hungary this summer, it was impossible to take a 20-minute walk without a huge billboard advertising stretches of the truth at best, and lies about the refugees at worst. I am adding some pictures, which I took, and one, which a journalist took, but which shows the amount of billboards better than mine do:
The two pictured here translate into “The Paris attacks were committed by immigrants” and “Brussels wants to resettle a city-full off illegal immigrants in Hungary.” The Paris attacks were actually committed by French and Belgian nationals, who had an immigrant background. A city usually refers to a setlement of 50,000, not a 1000. But the truth hardly matters in this tax-funded government campaign. For a whole list of the billboards and translations, check out the Daily News Hungary’s translations.
When I spoke to Hungarians, many noted that this misleading campaign has permeated Hungarian daily lives. One person mentioned how her children told her now that in Kindergarten, migrant was used as a swear word. Hungary exemplifies the sociological processes, when a government is using massive propaganda that, in my opinion, can be equated to hate speech.
Beyond the local significance, the vote matters regionally. On the EU level, the vote affirms Orban’s determination to lead the Visegrad countries – Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – in their opposition to any EU efforts to distribute the refugees, thus blocking reforms to Dublin System. In my previous post, I briefly outline the Dublin regulations, and why they are dysfunctional in the face of the current crisis.
So why this opposition?
This question was driving my summer research. I have many thoughts on why Orban’s government is securitizing the migrant issue, and utilizing much needed tax payer money to foment xenophobia and fear. I plan to write many of these thoughts soon. But in the meantime, I wanted to share with readers some insightful pieces of analysis that are currently available, which get to the root of some of the dynamics that underlie the vote: