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Sep 02, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

Q&A on Hungary’s Upcoming Referendum, October 2

With the national referendum slated for October 2nd, Hungary is the only country in the European Union that is giving citizens the opportunity to vote on one of the most significant issues of the day: the mass migration challenging the stability of Europe and, specifically, the EU’s attempt to impose compulsory resettlement of migrants.

The referendum question reads: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”

Whatever the outcome may be, the referendum will have impact far beyond Hungary.

As the date of the referendum approaches, it’s important to know the facts. Here are a number of basic questions and answers on the upcoming vote and the issues at stake.

Q: What is this referendum ultimately about?

A: The referendum is a response to the European Union’s efforts to impose upon member states plans for the compulsory resettlement of migrants.

More fundamentally, this referendum is about retaining our right to decide on an important issue. Immigration policy – to decide who enjoys the right to live in our country – should not be dictated to us, or to any member state, by Brussels. We aim to keep the right to decide on that for ourselves as a matter of national interest.

Q: But the migration crisis has become a major international problem, particularly for Europe, so it calls for a European Union response.

A: The European Union has no common immigration policy and has no authority to impose one. Brussels has not been given that power by the member states. Immigration policy remains a national issue to be decided by each country for itself. We decide who should be given permission to live in our country.

We’ve put forth some of our own proposals about what the European Union should do (see below), but its role should not be to impose compulsory resettlement quotas.

Q: Critics claim that this is a Hungarian version of Brexit, a referendum on EU membership. Is it?

A: The referendum is not about Hungary’s EU membership. That question was resolved in a national referendum back in 2003, EU accession winning an overwhelming majority and unequivocal support from today’s ruling party, Fidesz.

“The destiny of the Hungarians,” Prime Minister Orbán said recently, “has become intertwined with that of Europe’s nations,” and he has always been clear about the fact that Hungary’s proper place is in the EU. The question is what kind of Europe will we live in in the future. We want it to be a Europe of nations, a political community that its citizens value because their voices count.

Q: But the so-called quota system for the compulsory resettlement of migrants is already in place. A member state cannot have a referendum on an existing policy. So what’s the point?

A: That’s not completely accurate. More precisely, we have seen more than one decision on migrant quotas.

Back in 2015, the European Council took a decision – which was supposed to be a one-time, temporary measure – to resettle a specific number of migrants in member states according to a quota. Let me repeat: that was to be a one-time, temporary decision. Hungary is challenging the legality of that decision at the European Court – and we are not the only EU country to do so.

The October 2 referendum challenges all subsequent, mandatory quota decisions, particularly the so-called “quota package.” The European Commission has taken a series of decisions that would establish in the EU a permanent quota system for the resettlement of migrants. EU leaders make statements about how every member state should take part in the resettlement of migrants. The Commission has also talked about imposing a fine on member states for each migrant they refuse to accept, essentially attaching a price tag to each migrant.

They imposed a quota once, and there is obviously an intention among some institutions and European leaders to do so again. This is a clear case of Brussels overstepping its bounds.

“We cannot let Brussels place itself above the law,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has said. “We cannot let them force us to import their failed migration policy,” and force decisions where they have no legitimate authority to do so.

Q: Critics have pointed to the border fence and what they claim is an inhumane response to a refugee crisis. Isn’t this referendum in fact targeting Muslim refugees?

A: Are we targeting a particular group of refugees? No, of course not. But there are several points there that merit a response.

Firstly, we use the word migrant for a reason. The notion that all the illegal immigrants that were let into Europe over the last year – and those that are still attempting to cross the EU border – are refugees is simply not accurate. Some are refugees but some are economic migrants.

Regarding the border fence, Hungary’s border is an external border of the European Union’s Schengen Area and Hungary, under the Schengen Agreement, has an obligation to protect and secure the EU’s external border.

A refugee seeking asylum may approach an official border crossing and ask for asylum, and that’s still true at Hungary’s frontier. The case must be reviewed and that takes time, but those are the rules under international law. By the way, according to the Geneva rules of asylum, an asylum seeker has to request asylum in the first safe country he crosses. Once a migrant has reached the southern border of Hungary –the EU’s external border – that migrant has passed through several countries that should be considered safe.

And no, we are not targeting a particular group of refugees. However, the Orbán Government differs sharply from some other European governments on immigration policy. We do not look to immigration as a source of cheap labor or a solution to demographic problems.

The preservation of our culture and our national identity is a priority for us and that shapes the way we look at immigration. We want to keep the right to decide who is granted permission to live here, and we believe that the referendum results will show that the voters feel the same way.

Q: So you admit that there are refugees among the migrants. How can you continue to ignore the plight of the refugees?

A: We are not ignoring it. The government of Hungary has said that the EU should support those countries immediately affected by the movement of migrants, countries like Turkey and Jordan. To help the people in need, we must be able to identify those who are really in need, to keep our own freedom of movement within the Schengen zone and to halt the business of human traffickers. To do that, we have to strengthen the external Schengen borders and set up asylum hotspots outside the EU borders, in the crisis zones to receive migrants and process asylum claims. Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, should be beefed up to help those countries that struggle to secure their borders. Hungary has accepted many refugees suffering persecution in the Middle East as well as refugees from war-torn Ukraine. We were the first ones to send medication and doctors to the crisis zone in Greece.

This referendum, however, is not about how the EU or particular member states should help. The referendum is about respecting the rules already in place – the Geneva rules on asylum, the Schengen rules on the freedom of movement and the Dublin Criteria on border management – and the decisions that belong to member states. Anything else we’d like to do through the European Union we have the right to agree on it first.

Q: It looks like the government has already taken a position. So why put it to referendum?

A: The core European value is democracy. The citizens should have a voice in a decision that can have such far-reaching impact on the social fabric, culture and economy of the country. This is the way it works in Europe. Nothing about us, without us.

And in making sure that the people’s voice is heard, “the purpose of the whole referendum,” as Prime Minister Orbán has said, “is to give the Hungarian government a powerful mandate in the battles that are expected to take place in the EU.”