Immigration and the future of Europe
What just happened in Hungary? Ambiguous victory or ambiguous defeat?
The past couple of months have been rich in important events. Brexit in Europe, peace talks with the FARCs in Columbia, the enduring conflict in Syria, and… the referendum in Hungary. Last Sunday, Hungarians were called to cast their vote on the mandatory relocation of asylum seekers in Hungary. The results are puzzling. If 98% of the voters refused mandatory relocation, only 43% of the electorate voted. By way of law, a quorum of 50% of the voters is necessary for the referendum to be valid. Falling short on that front, Hungary’s Premier Viktor Orban announces he will give political effect to the referendum’s result, through constitutional change if need be (BBC Europe, 2016b).
A referendum with a strongly leaning question in a specific context
The question posed to Hungarians invited them to a specific vote to say the least. They were basically called to say No. Translated, the question in English was: “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?” (BBC Europe, 2016b). The question, but also the €32 million campaign for the No led by Orban’s Fidesz party (New York Times, 2016), struck a sensitive chord, that of sovereignty, in a very specific context.
Firstly, Hungary has witnessed unprecedented influxes of foreigners, thereby rushing the issue on the political and public agendas. As Livia Ortensi shows in a fact sheet released by Fondazione Ismu, Hungary received the highest relative number of asylum claims lodged in 2015 (see figure 2 below for the importance of public opinion in this respect). Secondly, the Brexit vote, but especially its campaign centring on immigration, likely gave momentum to parties across Europe already incline to rejecting the EU migration policy as a whole (see the example of Slovakia for instance a year ago; Reuters, 2015). Thirdly, the tensions between EU member states and the debacle with respect to the reshaping of an EU asylum policy does not call for much confidence in a reliable EU deal. The relocation of 160 thousand asylum seekers from Greece and Italy agreed in 2015 is as of yet stalling at a mere 5% completion, lagging far behind schedule (The Guardian, 2015). The recent deal stricken with Turkey, in a time a prolonged turmoil on Turkish territory, raises questions of feasibility but also of desirability of such a deal; (see more on how the migrant crisis divides Europe in BBC Europe, 2016a).
So, what just happened?
What happened in Hungary is an extremely low turn-out at the polls. If we consider only the valid votes, only 40.4% of the entire population expressed an opinion on the matter (National Election Office, 2016); this after a very expensive campaign in which the government spent a lot of energy in arousing fear with slogans such as “Did you know that the Paris terror attacks were carried out by immigrants?” printed on huge billboards (BBC Europe, 2016c). True, turn-out at referenda in Hungary over the years has not been much higher, as figure 1 shows. Also true, saliency of immigration shows an outstanding increase in Hungarian public opinion over the past year and a half (see figure 2). This contrasting picture begs a series of questions, at the top rank of which: what does this 98% figure actually mean?
The truth is, Orban’s referendum did not seduce as much as hoped for. It even found opposition in several forms; through official channels but also via civil disobedience. On the one hand, the way the referendum question was framed was challenged in front of the Constitutional court by the Liberal party (BBC Europe, 2016c), in vain though. On the other hand, a counter campaign, crowdfunded, was launched by the satirical Two-Tailed Dog party. The party mocked Fidesz’s campaign posters and invited voters to spoil their ballot. According to the Hungarian National Election Office (2016), more than 220 thousand ballots (6.27% of the voters) were spoiled, more than ever cast in Hungarian elections (EUObserver, 2016).
Indeed, this 98% figure is worrisome and does not herald anything good. But what it actually means remains to be explained. Notably, what does the silent majority think? Why did they not cast their vote?
Figure 1 – Turn-out in Hungarian referenda (in red) and general elections (in blue)
Source: own elaboration on National Election Office, http://www.valasztas.hu/en
Figure 2 – Public opinion and immigration in Hungary
Source: own elaboration on Eurobarometer data. Question: what do you think are the
two most important issues facing our country at the moment? (two answers possible)
- BBC Europe (2016a) ‘How is the migrant crisis dividing EU countries?’, BBC 4 March, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34278886 (accessed4 October 2016).
- BBC Europe (2016b) ‘Hungary PM claims EU migrant quota referendum victory’, BBC 3 October, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37528325 (accessed4 October 2016).
- BBC Europe (2016c) ‘Hungary poster campaign pokes fun at migrant referendum’, BBC Europe 10 September, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37310819 (accessed4 October 2016).
- EUObserver (2016) Barbed wire and penises mock Orban’s referendum, 4 October, available at https://euobserver.com/political/135332 (accessed4 October 2016).
- National Election Office (2016), National Referendum 02.10.2016, http://www.valasztas.hu/en/ref2016/481/481_0_index.html (accessed4 October 2016).
- New York Times (2016) ‘Hungary votes against migrants, but too few to clear threshold’, Europe 3 October, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/03/world/europe/hungary-to-vote-on-accepting-more-migrants-as-europe-watches.html?_r=0 (accessed4 October 2016).
- Reuters (2015) Slovakia files lawsuit against EU quotas to redistribute migrants, 2 December.
- The Guardian (2016) ‘EU refugee relocation scheme is inadequate and will continue to fail’, The Guardian 9 March, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/04/eu-refugee-relocation-scheme-inadequate-will-continue-to-fail (accessed4 October 2016).