During this period of uncertainty following Brexit a few fundamental points remain clear from a Hungarian point of view: the result of the referendum carries serious weight and the appropriate lessons must be drawn; the interests of Hungarians studying or working in the UK must be protected; and the EU must listen more closely to the voice of the people as it draws up plans to respond to the migration crisis. With the UK’s decision to leave, Hungary has lost an important ally in the community.
“We shall return to the idea that member states and not EU institutions provide the basis of the European Union,” Prime Minister Orbán said at a press conference at the closing of the EU Summit. “[T]he EU is not in Brussels, but in the twenty seven – yet still twenty eight capitols,” he added.
Assembled in part to deliberate on next steps after the referendum calling for the United Kingdom, the fifth largest economy in the world, to leave the EU, the meeting was strange indeed.
“The mood was emotionally tense, everyone felt the weight of the issue,” PM Orbán said, characterizing the meeting. “In the room we had sadness, solidarity, disappointment and uncertainty present at the same time.” It marked the first occasion that talks covered a member state’s plans for leaving and not a new member state joining.
Upon arrival in Brussels on Tuesday, PM Orbán emphasized that the legal framework is clearly regulated in the Lisbon Treaty regarding the departure of a member state, but the political consequences have yet to be drawn. “[Prime Minister Cameron] will officially notify us after the decision of the British parliament and the British government, but that will not happen today. Let me repeat: nothing extraordinary will happen. There is no doubt that the situation is serious, but from a legal point of view every detail of this crisis situation is taken care of. So there is no reason to believe that there are any unresolved issues,” PM Orbán said. However, political tensions were simmering in the background.
Politico Europe’s coverage of the summit reported on a clash between the European Commission and the European Council on who will lead the negotiations with the United Kingdom concerning its departure and that last night’s Council meeting was emotional and awkward. Unfortunately, we’ll probably see much more of these unpleasant politics in the months to come. But why did the UK referendum turn out the way it did?
Prime Minister Orbán offered a couple of explanations. Major decisions based on questionable judgment have not helped, like when the EU decided to push through a party candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, to lead the European Commission. Previously, member states decided on the nomination of this top EU office. But that wasn’t the only reason.
“[T]he most obvious conclusion and reality is that the decisive topic was migration,” said Prime Minister Orbán before the talks. “And if the European Union is unable to resolve the migration situation, challenges of this nature – such as the one we have experienced with the United Kingdom – will multiply.”
“Referenda are being proposed in more and more places,” the prime minister continued, “because people see that the European Union is unable to manage the migrant situation and that instead of appreciating the efforts of the countries managing the situation from their own resources, the EU criticizes them – and that is a bad policy,”
Antal Rogán, minister of the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, went a step further when he said that we cannot let Brussels sacrifice the unity of Europe and the future of Europe in the name of a few million migrants. In Minister Rogán’s words, Brussels’ flawed migration policy is responsible for the corrosion of European unity. The outcome of the British EU referendum also demonstrates that Brussels cannot turn its back on national sovereignty, he added.
If you take a look at the European Council Conclusions from yesterday’s meeting, you’ll see that Hungary’s statements are not without reason. The document hardly mentions the Brexit referendum, although reports suggest that the topic dominated yesterday’s discussion. But it does talk a great deal about migration and its language seems to reflect a shift. The document mentions “predominantly economic migrants” whose numbers should be reduced and that the business of the human traffickers should be eradicated. The days when Europe thoughtlessly labeled every single migrant a refugee before undergoing any proper asylum procedure seem long gone and rightly so. Europe finally may have realized it cannot afford such an imprudent response. The conclusions also call for the EU’s external borders to be protected. Read together, the language of the statement seems like a collection of the points that Prime Minister Orbán has been making all along.
Despite these seemingly positive shifts, there’s still a long road ahead. The Hungarian government must be able to “prove to the people that an EU migration policy, which is in line with the Hungarian national interest, is achievable,” the prime minister said at the post-summit press conference. Hungary has lost an important ally. Not just on issues related to the structure of the European Union, but also regarding economic policies. Great Britain, PM Orbán said, “is a country and a government that understood the logic of economy the way we understood it.”
On Monday, the ministers of foreign affairs of the Visegrád countries held a joint conference with their German and French counterparts in Prague. Following the meeting, Hungary’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó underlined five takeaways from the Brexit referendum. First, we have to discard Brussels’ migration policy, which is “endangering the unity of Europe” and, echoing the prime minister in his interview last Friday, that “European politics cannot be conducted in a way that disregards the opinion of the people of Europe,” since “Europeans want to decide for themselves about their lives and futures.”
Second, the will of British voters must be respected. Furthermore, the legal procedures of Britain’s departure must be conducted in a measured and responsible manner. The closing fourth and fifth points stated that “we should not push for the commencement of negotiations until we are clear on what the member states of the European Union want to achieve at the end of the exit negotiations,” and that the Central European standpoint must “also appear in the European Union’s final negotiation mandate,” especially regarding students and workers from the region working in the UK.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Orbán compared the EU’s loss of Great Britain to that of removing a knight from a game of chess. It certainly is a great loss, but not only that. It is also a pointless loss if conclusions are not drawn from the result of the referendum. As EU Council discussions continue, we hope Great Britain’s plan to leave the EU, although devastating news, is something from which Europe can finally learn.