This morning I was surprised to find an “invitation” to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s press conference, to be held today at 13:00, in my inbox. I am, I presume along with many others, entitled to watch the press conferences of government officials and politicians. My first thought was “Orbán is giving a press conference? What’s so important?”
It turned out that the announcement was about holding a referendum that would allow the electorate to vote on the following question: “Do you want the European Union, without the consent of Parliament, to order the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary?” Orbán gave the press conference in the middle of a cabinet meeting, emphasizing the import of the announcement.
He focused on the ideas of loyalty and independence. Voting against this question will be a proof of loyalty to the country. “Because how could be someone be loyal as long as others decide the most important questions?” It doesn’t matter how hard I try to follow Orbán’s logic, I can’t see the connection between loyalty and the matter on hand. As for independence, all those who say no to this proposition “stand by the independence of this country.” Reuters noted that, in addition, Orbán claimed that the government is “responding to public sentiment” because “we Hungarians think that introducing resettlement quotas for migrants without the backing of the people equals an abuse of power.” Orbán gravely announced that he was aware of possible ramifications of the referendum, especially if Hungarians say “no” to the quotas.
Apparently the European Commission refused to comment on the announcement, saying simply that the Hungarian government should first clarify what this referendum is all about. A very wise decision because there is a possibility that the whole referendum announcement is a canard. Speaking out against the refugees who threaten the existing Christian order is a winning ticket, as the polls during 2015 clearly showed. Orbán would like to keep the Hungarians’ fear and hatred of the refugees alive. That’s why the government has been collecting signatures in the last few months against quotas preferred by Angela Merkel and that’s also most likely why he came up with the idea of a referendum on the subject.
There are all kinds of legal hurdles, taking months to overcome, before a referendum can be held. Even if Orbán’s faithful servants speed up the process at every level, I would be surprised if a plebiscite on the issue could be held before late summer or fall at the earliest. And even if all the legal hurdles are behind them, which is not at all certain, there is the new law on plebiscites that makes it almost impossible to hold a valid one. Half of the approximately 8 million voters would have to turn out, which, given the low level of enthusiasm of the Hungarian electorate for voting in general, is highly unlikely. In addition, the government would need a little more than 2 million citizens to vote against the proposition. Fidesz may boast about the 2 million signatures it collected against the quotas, but this achievement is irrelevant if other less enthusiastic voters simply ignore the plebiscite. Of course, it is possible, as Ildikó Lendvai pointed out, that Fidesz will change the law and restore the 25% minimum turnout for a valid referendum. Anything is possible. These people are shameless.
However, it is possible that there will never be a plebiscite on the quotas because it might be ruled unconstitutional. The new basic law of 2011 clearly says that “no national referendum may be held on … any obligation arising from an international agreement.” (Article 8) And even if it is ruled constitutional, Article 19 states that “Parliament may ask the Government for information on its position to be adopted in the decision-making process of the European Union’s institutions operating with the Government’s participation, and may express its position about the draft on the agenda in the procedure. In the European Union’s decision-making process, the Government shall take Parliament’s position into consideration.” In plain language, parliament has no direct jurisdiction over the dealings between Hungary and the European Union, at best an advisory role. It is the Hungarian government’s sole prerogative to negotiate with the institutions of the European Union. So, it’s no wonder that even the ever-faithful George Schöpflin, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament ever since 2004, bluntly told Népszabadság that “the Hungarian referendum has no legal influence on EU decisions, or at least he doesn’t know about such.”
But there are other problems as well. The text of the proposed question is sloppy and not at all clear. According Boldizsár Nagy, a very good legal scholar, the question is so badly formulated that it might not pass the first legal hurdle, the National Election Commission, unless the Commission is filled with “lackeys.” For example, “compulsory settlement” (betelepítés) doesn’t exist either in Hungarian or in EU law. The terms used in connection with refugee matters are “transfer” (áthelyezés) or “resettlement” (áttelepítés). So, just because of the inaccurate word usage, the Election Commission should throw the question out. But if by some miracle it gets through the Commission, the Constitutional Court will probably put an end to the story.
Yet even the constitutional hurdle could be overcome if Fidesz has the temerity to amend the constitution with the help of Jobbik, which seems to be a willing accomplice. Yesterday Jobbik submitted a proposal to change the wording of Article 8 from forbidding a referendum on “any obligation arising from an international agreement” to “any obligation arising from an international agreement, except matters that touch upon Hungary’s immigration policy or any other decisions that have an impact on it.” The question is whether Orbán and Co. will have the audacity to change the constitution again to force through a referendum serving Fidesz’s political agenda.
Foreign newspapers immediately picked up the story. The Guardian thinks that Viktor Orbán would win such a referendum “in a preemptive strike against the European commission and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who are pushing for a permanent EU refugee quota system.” I, on the other hand, would not be so sure that this referendum will ever be held, unless Viktor Orbán is ready to amend the constitution and change the law on plebiscites. Even then, the wrong-headed legal argument that places parliament in a decision-making position vis-à-vis the European Union makes the success of this latest Orbán move questionable.