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Jun 12, 2017 - Zoltán Kovács

Here’s what’s really behind the debate with Brussels over Hungary’s national consultation

As the government announced last week, preliminary results of Hungary’s national consultation are in, and the number of responses received sets a new record.

As the government announced last week, preliminary results of Hungary’s national consultation are in.

We received a record 1.68 million responses to the national consultation questionnaire addressing issues of migration as well as the regulation of taxes, wages and utility prices.

Putting that in perspective, the tremendous response is 60 percent higher than the number of responses the government received in the national consultation on migration in 2015. It is also 400 thousand more than the total number of votes received by Hungary’s leftist parties in the 2014 parliamentary election and 700 thousand more than the far-right Jobbik’s vote tally.

The strong rate of response testifies to the strength of Hungary’s democratic character and the Hungarian determination to not allow others to make decisions affecting them without their input. That “nothing about us without us” principal runs deep in the Hungarian character.

There are few examples among the member states of the European Union of the government providing citizens the opportunity to have their say like this. That’s why we found it a little surprising to see the European Commission putting up such deliberate opposition to our national consultation.

Several weeks ago, the Commission published a white paper – the Hungarian government issued a response (available here) – and it backed the effort with a surprisingly active Facebook campaign featuring a forum where Commission staff pushed back on counter arguments.

It was unusual to see the Commission actively opposing a member state in this way, and it was telling. At the root of this back and forth between Brussels and Budapest is a struggle far bigger than some policy debate about how to respond to migration or create fair pricing for utilities. At the heart of this is a power struggle, bureaucrats in a centralized European Commission challenging the authority of member nation states to decide on issues that are rightfully within their competence.  

To the careful reader, the Commission’s white paper seems more than a little disingenuous. The paper focuses on existing and approved policies, conveniently ignoring new policies under discussion or in preparation. It’s precisely because of the prospect of these new policies, new powers that could infringe upon the sovereignty of member states, that the Hungarian government has sought the opinion of the citizens. Popular opinion matters, especially in the coming months when these issues will become the subject of debate in Brussels.

Let’s look at a few of the details of the white paper. The “European Union is fighting irregular migration and is helping Member States to manage their external borders,” the Commission says, and the Hungarian government is wrong in suggesting otherwise. Fact is, however, Illegal migration into Europe through Hungary stopped because of the Hungarian government’s physical and legal barriers, which Europe’s common border protection agency, Frontex, found effective. But the reinforcements on the southern border of Hungary – external border of Europe’s Schengen Area – did not come about with the help of the European Union. Furthermore, Hungary continues to endure criticism for opposing an unlimited migrant redistribution quota plan under preparation in the Commission.

The Commission denies, according to the comments on the Facebook campaign page, that NGOs have been abetting illegal migration and colluding with criminal smuggling networks at the external borders of Europe. They claim that NGOs have been “the most reliable and valuable partners in dealing with the refugee crisis”. Frontex seems to disagree. According to the risk analysis report of the EU’s border protection agency, some pro-migration NGOs “help criminals achieve their objectives at minimum cost, strengthen their business model by increasing the chances of success.”

On the subject of energy policy, the Commission claims that, by adopting their Energy Union proposal, competition would reduce prices, whereas, their own investigation on energy prices in the EU between 2010 and 2015 pointed to a different trend: electricity prices increased by 20 percent during this period, while gas prices went up even more.

The list goes on for seven long pages.

When talking about the EU’s future, the debate between the government of Hungary and the European Commission over specific policy questions is only the tip of the iceberg. The real debate is about whether we should allow additional powers to be exercised by a European super-government that is not directly accountable to the citizens or whether we should guard these as a national competence.

As committed Europeans, we believe in the European Union, but we also believe strongly that the future of Europe should rest on strong nation states. Where certain parts of the European Commission push for greater powers, we turn to one of the basic principle of the European Union: subsidiarity, the idea that says decisions should not be taken on a higher level than absolutely necessary.

No matter what the direction, these questions should be decided by the people and not Eurocrats. The government of Hungary turns to the people to take decisions affecting their future. The Commission should do the same and it should refrain from criticizing a member state government that conducts a national consultation to let the voice of the people be heard.