Hungary’s refugee referendum aims to shake up EU politics

Hungary’s planned October referendum on the EU’s imposed migration quotas will boost Orbán’s efforts to challenge the European status quo and strengthen his power at home.

Photo: Peter Tkac

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán does everything he can to keep migration fresh on the minds of Hungarians, even though the country has not experienced a massive influx of asylum seekers 1 since fences were erected along the Serbian and Croatian borders last year.

Putting migration at the top of his agenda has helped Orbán reignite fading support for his ruling Fidesz party. 2 With corruption now engulfing the central bank, 3 and dissatisfied teachers and health care workers recently taking to the streets to protest government polices, Orbán called for a referendum to deflect some of the heat —  in yet another snub to the EU. 4

The October 2nd referendum ballot will ask eight million Hungarian voters whether the EU can force Hungary to take in refugees, basically putting EU decisions at odds with national determinations: “Should the European Union be entitled to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?” Even those who do not support Orbán, will be inclined to vote in favor of national sovereignty.

Although the vote is linked to migration, it falls in line with the debate about the appropriate balance between the EU’s powers and national sovereignty engulfing Europe following the recent Brexit vote. Against the backdrop of the UK’s referendum to leave the EU, and the Dutch ballot to reject the ratification of Ukraine’s EU association agreement, Orbán is targeting the “faceless bureaucrats” of Brussels once again to reinforce his position in Europe and at home.

A government-sponsored campaign in favor of the referendum was launched in May with billboards going up all over Hungary that said: “We send a message to Brussels, so that they understand it too.”

Orbán has not only been using the migration issue, but he has been bashing the EU as a means to rally support for years, at one point comparing its modus operandi to the diktats of Soviet-era Moscow. 5

Peter Kreko of the Budapest-based think tank, Political Capital, told the V4Revue that the referendum is, first and foremost, designed for internal consumption, adding that the government will have no problem securing a majority to formally reject Brussels refugee quotas, although it could be a challenge to mobilize voters.

Half of the voting-age population needs to cast a ballot for the referendum to be legally binding, and even still, Kreko points out that it will have no legal impact on the 27-nation bloc: “It will not necessarily have direct consequences on EU decision-making,” he claims.

But the political consequences – as in the case of the legally non-binding Dutch vote – could be significant, pushing the EU migration debate away from a quota system, and whipping up anti-EU sentiment in Hungary, where the majority of the population still overwhelmingly favors membership.

It also buttresses Orbán’s efforts to challenge the European status quo and consolidate his role as a shaper of EU politics.

Orbán defended the referendum in Brussels at the EU summit in June, saying the Brexit vote shows that if the EU does not get a grip on migration, EU membership could be called into question.

“We need to give some sort of guarantee to people that Brussels hears their voices; and it is possible to achieve a migration policy here in Brussels that fits people’s needs, and allows them a way to protest against the migration policy without risking their EU membership,” Orbán warned.

The Visegrad Challenge

Orbán has argued that the European Commission’s new plan to reform the bloc’s asylum system, would force Hungary to take in refugees, something he has refused to do in any European scheme thus far.

Last September EU ministers (with a qualified majority) agreed to distribute 120,000 refugees across the continent (in addition to another 40,000 already agreed on in the summer) in order to share the burden of caring for thousands of asylum seekers. Opposition from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia was overruled by the majority, 6 and it was decided that all countries would have to take in refugees based on a quota calculated by their population, GDP and other indicators. Hungary, a country of 10 million, was slated to take in some 1,200 people.

Hungary and Slovakia challenged the decision at the European Court of Justice, the EU’s top court. Budapest and Bratislava argue 7 that nobody can force Hungarians and Slovaks to accept refugees or determine who they live with. The EU institutions have said the decision-making process was fair, and reminded that solidarity is a cornerstone of the union. 8

When the deal was passed, it was meant to be a one-time relocation scheme, but the EU Commission’s ill-preparedness and the central European states’ overruling created a bad aftertaste, prompting a seemingly irreconcilable division between the EU’s east and west on how best to handle Europe’s refugee crisis. 9

Orbán has always suggested that the deal would not be the end of the relocation story, and claimed that it would eventually become an automatic mechanism. And he pledged never to agree to such a scheme.

In May, the Commission did come forward with the long-awaited proposal to reform the EU’s asylum policy. The new Dublin system maintains that the first EU country asylum seekers enter must deal with their requests, but it also includes an automatic relocation or “fairness” mechanism that kicks in, when there is a massive influx of people — an overflow equal to 150% of the amount of people countries should accept based on size and wealth. The proposal also states that those countries not willing to accept refugees will be fined. 10

Orbán called the fine imposition a “horse kick,” and a “punch in the stomach”; 11 and by Februrary had already announced that Hungary would hold a referendum in anticipation of any such proposal. “We think that introducing resettlement quotas for migrants without the people’s backing equals an abuse of power,” Orbán said. 12

The move was dismissed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a member of the European People’s Party, whose views on refugees are at the opposite end of the conservative European political party spectrum from Orbán’s.

“Viktor Orbán wants to hold a referendum on 1,294 refugees arriving to Hungary, while there are 160,000 refugees to relocate in Europe. Not to mention Hungary’s quota could be even be less, because the country is also dealing with Ukrainian refugees,” Merkel told ARD Channel in February. She added: “It is a matter of principle, I can do nothing else but reject this procedure.”  13

Shifting politics

The EU Commission, a supporter of Germany’s refugee policies, has been critical of the referendum push, claiming that it will not change how the EU makes its rules. “The decision-making process agreed to by all EU Member States, as enshrined in the Treaties in any case remains the same,” a spokesperson for the EU’s executive body told the V4Revue.

But Hungary’s actions could shift the politics.

While the referendum might not have a direct impact on the EU’s legislative process regarding the Dublin reform, it could once again shift the discussion about how the EU should handle the migration crisis from commonly agreed mechanisms, to national, unilateral solutions. And as Slovakia takes the helm of the rotating EU presidency in July, Hungary will also have a formative ally in its mission to stop the mandatory quota plan, especially if backed by the referendum.

Cecilia Wikstrom, a left-leaning member of the European Parliament, and the MP responsible for the EU’s asylum policy reform, told the V4 Revue that Orbán’s referendum is “a populist and nationalistic move”. But she warns of the political impact the referendum will have, saying it might reinforce the tough stances of the Visegrad countries, often viewed in Brussels as the “troublemakers” in the refugee crisis.

“I’m very much afraid of the effect it will have on countries and politicians,” Wikstrom says, citing examples of the Visegrad countries’ united front “on a xenophobic agenda” against migrants. “It could strengthen their position [in the council].”

And Hungary’s senior politicians have made sure the EU institutions are already feeling the heat and political pressure simmering from the planned plebiscite.

“This will be the first time that the people, not the political elites or Brussels institutions, will voice their opinion about one of the most crucial issues concerning the EU’s future,” Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told journalists in Brussels in May.

“The referendum cannot be disregarded by the European Commission and other European institutions,” Zoltan Kovacs, a government spokesman, recently said. “The political implications are going to be considerable. […] And there are debates about a referendum’s legal implications, but that’s still an open question,” he insisted.

Slovak PM Robert Fico commented carefully on the Hungarian referendum recently in Strasbourg. “My fear is that if we are not successful in finding a solution for the EU’s operations over the next five to six months, there will be increasing pressures in other countries for referenda in different areas,” he said. PM Fico said the focus should shift to issues that unite the remaining 27 EU member states in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Others are more outspoken.

“The Hungarian referendum could change the dynamics of the discussion, and move it toward a mechanism that is more suitable for everyone,” a source close to the Slovak presidency told the V4Revue, while adding that Hungary is not the only state opposing the quota proposal. “Spain and the Baltic countries are also reluctant on the mandatory quotas and France is not eager either.”

Challenging Europe

In a way, that political reality after Brexit underpins what Orbán has been saying for some time: that an alternative to a dysfunctional political union is needed.

Orbán says the vote, the first of its kind in Europe, will be a major test of European democracy. “I have not decided this to go against Europe, but to protect European democracy,” he told the German daily, Bild. 14

Orbán, who has seen his tough migration stance vindicated lately, could use the referendum as a tool to sustain a perpetual challenge to the EU’s status quo and leadership.

“Orbán thinks that the migration crisis will wipe away the current European liberal, politically correct, political elite,” says Peter Kreko, instead he, “wants a new European elite that is rooted in family values and Christianity, not in human rights, which he views with suspicion.”

“He wants the future EU to resemble more the V4 organization, where the common ground — with the exception to some extent of the Czech Republic — has been illiberalism and anti-migration,” says Kreko, who also points out that the pressure Orbán has put on the bloc over the migration crisis has served his desire to become a leading European actor.

And Europe’s growing appetite for referenda could give him the boost and the political momentum to shake up politics in the EU once again.


  1. Margit Feher, “Hungary Completes Croatia Border Fence to Keep Migrants Out,” The Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2015,
  2. Krisztina Than, “Orbán’s ratings rise as Hungarian fence deters migrant ‘invasion’,” Reuters, November 16, 2015,
  3. Zoltan Simon, “How Hungary’s Central Banker Funneled Funds to Friends, Family” Bloomberg, May 23, 2016,
  4. “Why Viktor Orbán called a referendum on resettling refugees in Europe,” The Economist, February 26, 2016,
  5. Krisztina Than, “Hungary’s Orbán accuses Europe of ‘Soviet-style’ meddling,” Reuters, July 5, 2013,
  6. Nikolaj Nielsen and Eszter Zalan, “EU forces ‘voluntary’ migrant relocation on eastern states,” EUobserver, September 22, 2015,
  7. Benjamin Oreskes and Joseph J. Schatz, “Slovakia defends its closed doors on migration,” Politico, December 24, 2105,
  8. Eszter Zalan, “EU asylum reform ideas hit wall of opposition,” EUobserver, April 6, 2016,; “Action brought on 3 December 2015 – Hungary vs. Council case at the European Court of Justice,” The Official Journal of the European Union, February 1, 2016,; “EU Commission communication on migrant relocation and resettlement,”
  9. Eszter Zalan, “Eastern EU states want migration ‘plan B’,” EUobserver, February 16, 2016,
  10. Valentina Pop, “EU Proposes Fines for Member Countries That Refuse to Take in Migrants,” The Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2016,
  11. Christian Keszthelyi, “Orbán: The EU’s plans are a ‘punch in the gut’,” Budapest Business Journal, May 6, 2016,
  12.  Marton Dunai and Krisztina Than, “Hungary to hold referendum on EU’s plan for migrant quotas,” Reuters, February 24, 2016,
  13. Viktor Orbán, “’Sovereignists’ versus ‘unionists’: PM Orbán on the struggle for Europe,” Hungary Today, February 29, 2016,
  14. Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, Decision to hold referendum ‘not against Europe, but to protect European democracy’,” Website of the Hungarian Government, February 25, 2016,
Eszter Zalán

Eszter Zalán

Eszter Zalan is a reporter at the Brussels-based EUobserver.