Referendum on EU’s Mandatory Migrant Resettlement Scheme

Hungary will hold a popular referendum on October 2nd, 2016 on the so-called quota package, the plan whereby the European Union could relocate an unlimited number of migrants to the territory of Hungary and other Member States. “Do you want the European Union,” the referendum question asks voters, “to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”

Hungary and the Migration Crisis

The number of migrants attempting to enter Europe reached crisis levels in 2015. During the year, according to Frontex, 1.5 million first-time asylum seekers applied for international protection in the Member States of the European Union, a number more than double that of the previous year. Confronting this dramatic increase, Hungary was among the most exposed to the growing problem.

The so-called Western Balkan migration route, and specifically Hungary’s southern border, became the busiest transit route for illegal immigration into the EU, according to the EU’s border protection agency Frontex. “Compared with the population of each Member State,” Eurostat reported in May 2016, “the highest number of registered first-time applicants in 2015 was recorded in Hungary (17,699 first time applicants per million inhabitants), ahead of Sweden (16,016),” and the National Police Headquarters reported that Hungarian law enforcement took action against 391,384 illegal immigrants during the year.

Border Security and Europe’s Schengen Area

Hungary’s southern border is also an external border of Europe’s Schengen Area. That means that those who enter Hungary have entered an area of 26 European countries in which there are no internal passport or other border controls.

Those countries, like Hungary, whose borders form part of the external border of the Schengen Area have a responsibility under the Schengen Agreement to secure and protect Europe’s external border. In the face of this enormous influx of migrants attempting to cross illegally into Europe, Hungary built a fence along the border with Serbia and Croatia to prevent illegal crossings into the Schengen Area through Hungary.

Hungary also carried out its reponsibilities under the Dublin Protocols by attempting to have all migrants in Hungary register and make their formal asylum request, as the Dublin rules require, despite the fact that the migrants passed through several safe countries before arriving in Hungary. However, many migrants who succeeded in crossing the border into Hungary in 2015 refused to officially register and insisted on being allowed to move on to Germany or other European countries. In early September 2015, Austria and Germany decided on their own to suspend rules under the Schengen Agreement on the protection of external borders and the Dublin Protocol on registration of refugees, which sent hundreds of thousands of migrants traveling by any means possible to Austria, Germany and other EU destinations.

Hungary continues to reinforce its southern border, the Schengen Area’s external border, to stop illegal immigration into the EU through its territory.

Migration and the EU

The European Commission has put forward a proposal that would establish a mechanism in Brussels to relocate migrants to EU Member States without seeking the consent of the Member State or the consent of the migrant. According to the proposal, if a Member State refuses to accept the relocation, it could face a fine up to 250 thousand EUR per migrant.

The proposal is based on a similar quota rule adopted as a one-off measure last year. According to that measure, migrants who entered the EU in 2015, most of them illegally, are being relocated all over the EU based on a quota. The latest proposal from the Commission would change what was originally introduced as a one-off measure into an ongoing procedure with no upper limit. The relocation of such a large number of migrants to Hungary would have significant impact on the country’s economy, the social welfare system and cultural integrity and raises security concerns. The monthly costs associated with relocating a migrant would be higher than the minimum wage. In a decision that has such far-reaching impact on a country, the EU should be required to ask for the Member State’s consent.

The quota system would not do anything to address the root cause of the migration. It would serve as an open invitation for many others who would migrate to the European Union for economic reasons and could endanger the freedom of movement and borderless travel within the Schengen Area. According to reports, the potential number of migrants, including such economic migrants, could reach up to as many as 65 million people.

Democracy and the Popular Referendum

As one of the fundamental values of the European Union, Prime Minister Orbán said when announcing the referendum, democracy “means decisions, which significantly change their lives and affect the lives of future generations cannot be made over [the people’s] head.”

Hungary has a tradition of turning to popular referendum when the country faces a major strategic decision that would have long-term impact. The decision to join the EU was put to a referendum vote in 2003. Fidesz, then in opposition, staunchly supported it, as did 84 percent of voters. The country also voted in 1997 on a referendum on NATO membership, which 85 percent of voters approved.

On the subject of migration, as Prime Minister Orbán has said, “introducing the [mandatory] resettlement quota without the consent of the people is an abuse of power.” A plebiscite is a “European thing,” and the government “recommends it wholeheartedly to others,” he said, suggesting that other European countries follow Hungary’s example.

Europe’s Nation States Decide on Their Own Immigration Policy, not Brussels

European institutions and leaders do not have the authority to decide on a mandatory resettlement system against the will of the leaders of the Member States. That is why Hungary, along with other Member States, has opposed the initiative in the European Council and turned to the European Court of Justice to overturn the mandatory quota system after it was accepted over the objection of Hungary and others in 2015.

This is not a question of solidarity but a question of democracy and common sense. Hungarians have in fact shown solidarity in the migration crisis by protecting the southern border, an external border of the Schengen Area – bearing all associated costs in the national budget – unlike some other EU Member States that did little to uphold their Schengen responsibilities.

“The Hungarian government takes the view that neither the EU, nor Brussels, nor the leaders of Europe have the authority to do this. In fact, there is no European body or agency of any kind which has been vested with such authority,” Prime Minister Orbán said at the press conference announcing the referendum.

“To date no one has asked the European people whether they want, accept or reject the introduction of compulsory quotas. We, Hungarians, believe – and I am convinced that the government was yielding to the general desire of the public when it chose to call a referendum – that introducing compulsory resettlement quotas without the consent of the people is nothing less than an abuse of power. Therefore we shall ask the people of Hungary about this question, just as we asked them about Hungary’s accession to the European Union,” PM Orbán said.

Popular Referendum in Hungary

A popular referendum on the question would give broader authority to the government and the parliament to decide on the matter. Hungarian law says that a referendum is valid if more than half of eligible voters cast a valid vote and the referendum is successful if at least 50 percent plus one of those who cast a valid vote agree on one of the answers.