Business as usual: Riding the wave of anti-Brussels sentiment

Photo of the uhngarian flag and the european flag
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The hungarian position towards the EU is driven by the populism of its Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

While Great Britain’s future departure from the European Union is a sizable loss to Hungary in both political and economic terms, the Hungarian government is trying to cash in on increasing popular dissatisfaction with Brussels.

Reversing his previous position that Britain should stay in the EU, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán cast the British decision as the island nation’s rejection of “preaching and paralysis” from Brussels. Orbán referred to Brussels’ “failed migration policies” as the main reason for Brexit, as if the Vote Leave campaign’s focus has been Syrian migrants rather than Eastern European labourers, including Poles and Hungarians. One of the most important conclusions drawn by the Hungarian government is that Brussels “must listen to the voice of the people”, with which they are trying to generate domestic political capital for Hungary’s anti-quota referendum on 2 October. Although the Hungarian referendum concerns an officially non-existent future quota mechanism, the government are attempting to showcase it as a symbol of EU decision-making that has become so distant from what the people desire. The referendum question is as follows: “Do you want to allow the European Union to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?”

A divided opposition advances the government’s aims

Considering that – partly as a result of the government’s powerful anti-immigration campaign – 82% of respondents in recent surveys are against any kind of migration quotas, the referendum’s outcome is a foregone conclusion. An open question, however, is whether 50% of the population will participate in the referendum and cast a valid ballot, which is necessary for a conclusive result. This is because the migration issue is no longer as palpable a concern as it was before the border fence was built, when there were tens of thousands of illegal immigrants in the vicinity of Keleti Railway Station. Most of the left-wing opposition (MSZP, DK, Együtt, PM) have asked their supporters to boycott the referendum, as they want it to be invalid. An exception is the Gábor Fodor-led Hungarian Liberal Party (MLP), who are trying to turn the vote into an anti-government referendum on Hungary’s membership in the EU. As such, the MLP is the only actor campaigning for a “yes” vote. MLP is polling at less than 1%, however, so the main goal of the campaign is to justify the party’s existence; if there are a few thousand “yes” votes, the Liberals will be able to claim that they can mobilise voters. Politics Can be Different (LMP) has taken the middle ground; they are not opposed quotas in theory, but they would keep the regulation of migration as a national competence, and have declared that every Hungarian is able to decide whether or not to participate in the referendum. Although Jobbik is not actively seeking a Hungarian exit from the European Union, they have strengthened their anti-EU rhetoric in the wake of Brexit in an effort to make the party more appealing to the masses, and, like the government, they are campaigning against quotas. Jobbik has also recently revisited the idea of renegotiating Hungary’s accession treaty, which would be ratified following another referendum. The fact that the opposition is divided on the referendum issue and is unable to constitute a political counterweight will benefit the government during the campaign.

No political basis for a “Huxit” referendum

Although the referendum in question is not legally binding in any way, the government would benefit from the symbolic political significance of a “no” result. In connection with Brexit and the Hungarian referendum, a debate on Hungary’s EU membership began after Minister for the Prime Minister’s Office János Lázár and Government Spokesman Zoltán Kovács told the Hungarian press that they were in favour of a “Huxit”. In response, the Hungarian left accused the government of using the quota referendum to lay the groundwork for Hungary to leave the EU. In reality, the ruling party Fidesz and the government are using their well-known dual strategy: by means of anti-establishment, populist rhetoric they are both attacking the European Union’s elite and making arguments in favour of staying in the EU, mainly emphasising the financial benefits of Hungary’s membership. The divisive statements made by Lázár and Kovács may also serve to motivate apathetic voters and to direct public attention towards EU policies, since the issue of migration has receded into the background. Needless to say, as long as the government are able to keep migration on the agenda in a way that benefits them politically, they can divert attention away from the corruption scandals connected to Fidesz. The Huxit referendum has no political basis right now anyway. According to the latest surveys, more than 70% of Hungarians would vote to keep Hungary in the EU.

A fake debate about the role of the European Commission

At the EU level, Brexit has been both a blessing and a curse for the Visegrád (V4) countries. Certainly, the weight of non-Eurozone countries and their ability to defend their interests against the EU core will decline. And any effort by the EU’s founding nations to promote deeper economic cooperation within the Eurozone could undermine the unity of the V4, as it is certain that Slovakia, a Eurozone member, would fall into line with the EU core countries on this issue. The current multispeed integration process within the Eurozone is satisfactory for the Hungarian government, as long as the option to join later remains open.

At the same time, Britain’s departure also provides Viktor Orbán and the Visegrád countries with political opportunities. The V4 are advocating stronger national sovereignty and fewer competences for the Commission, and they are likely to attempt to fill the vacuum left by the traditionally Eurosceptic British government. Among other things, this is what Polish Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was referring to when he said that even now, “the Visegrád countries represent the voice of reason, as Great-Britain has done for a long time in the Union”. As a consequence of its size and level of economic development, Poland could try to do this alone, but obviously Viktor Orbán would likely be willing to pose as a moderate Eurosceptic leader as well. Indeed, the recently launched debate on the future of the EU has given him a platform for promoting a viewpoint markedly different from the recently questioned direction taken by the European Union in the wake of the recent crisis. This is what his piece in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung signifies as well, in which he criticises the Commission over the British referendum and appeals to member states to take back competences from Brussels. At the same time, it is unclear how Orbán intends to achieve this goal, as he, unlike the Poles, opposed amending the EU treaties after the British referendum, notwithstanding the fact that deeper integration since the Maastricht Treaty has come about through stronger cooperation between member states and not through the Commission. Most likely, Orbán’s strategy is based on the expectation that he may become even more prominent on the European political scene in view of the fact that far-right, anti-EU parties are leading the opinion polls in several European countries with upcoming elections (France, the Netherlands and Austria). In any case, the present Hungarian referendum is quite dangerous at a moment when European pro-Russian radical parties from France to the Netherlands – seeing self-vindication in the British referendum – are demanding referendums on their respective countries’ membership in the EU, which portends its further disintegration.