Perhaps tomorrow we will know more about the plans of the European Commission regarding the revision of the so-called Dublin asylum regulations. The revision may contain a punitive pay-off clause that would affect those countries–the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia–that refuse to take the number of refugees the Commission assigned to them in September 2015. According to the Financial Times, the Commission is contemplating a fine of €250,000 per refugee. For Poland, which first agreed to admit 6,200 refugees but later reneged on its promise, this would mean €1.5 billion. Hungary, which was supposed to take 1,294 refugees, would end up with a fine of 323 million euros or 100 billion forints.
The original European Commission decision on quotas was carefully worded. It talked about the temporary relocation of asylum seekers, wording that will gain special significance when we talk about the Hungarian referendum question that was just approved today by the Kúria.
On February 24 Viktor Orbán made an announcement that his government planned to hold 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?” At the time I called the government’s plan to hold a referendum on the subject “Orbán’s latest stunt.” I also wondered, along with many others, whether holding such a referendum might not be unconstitutional because the basic law of 2011 clearly states 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. There have also been questions concerning the formulation of the question. Legal scholars challenged the reference to “compulsory settlement” (betelepítés), which doesn’t exist in either Hungarian or EU law. Objections were also raised over the mention of the European Union as not being a precise term in this context.
These reservations didn’t impress the Kúria, which brushed aside all applications for review. In the judges’ opinion the question was appropriate from the point of view of both the constitution and the law on referendums. They ruled that EU treaties cannot be compared to other international treaties. The referendum question does not touch on the treaties signed at the time Hungary was admitted to join the Union but relates to EU law itself. As for the competence of parliament, such matters as laws governing the settlement of non-Hungarian citizens, their status and the duration of their stay belong to the jurisdiction of the Hungarian lawmakers. Finally, as far as the term “compulsory settlement” is concerned, it can be understood by most people as “placement” of foreigners “for a lengthier period of time” inside the borders of the country. The judges had no objection to the use of the word “European Union” in a general sense because “it is a well known organizational concept, a generic term” meaning “the decision making body of the European Union.” The Kúria this time was not the stickler it was in earlier cases, when every word in the text was carefully scrutinized and usually rejected.
When Orbán announced his intention to hold a referendum, legal scholars considered the conceptual structure underpinning the question so legally flawed that they were certain that neither the members of the National Election Commission nor the Kúria could possibly approve it unless, as one of them said, these two bodies are filled with “lackeys.” Well, it looks as if they are.
Naturally, the opposition is up in arms. Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt (MLP) is planning to go to the Constitutional Court. They will appeal to the judges to defend the very institution of referendums because here the government is proposing to hold one that serves the political interests of Fidesz exclusively. Holding such a referendum “will further deepen the government-induced hatred toward refugees and foreigners.”
Együtt still insists that the question is unconstitutional since it concerns international treaties and its meaning is far from clear. The Kúria’s argument is unacceptable because it lends credence to “the Orbanite lie about compulsory quotas” when they simply don’t exist. Otherwise, the party leaders are urging people to boycott the referendum.
The Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) is also asking its voters not to vote. Considering that DK has about half a million devoted followers, such a request will most likely bring results. DK claims that “the referendum is not about the accommodation of one thousand people but about the rejection of our European Union membership. This mendacious referendum wants people to believe that there is such a thing as a free lunch and that we can be a stowaway in the European Union who evades his responsibilities while holding out his hand for its benefits.” The party’s spokesman added that “those who boycott the referendum will vote for Europe.” This is a good argument politically because the overwhelming majority of Hungarians want to remain part of the European Union.
The position of the leaders of the socialists (MSZP) is quite different. Currently, they are collecting signatures to hold referendums on two issues: (1) capping the monthly salaries of state company managers as well as any holders of high offices financed by the government at two million forints and (2) stopping the sale of agricultural lands still in state hands. Interestingly enough, in 2010 it was the Orbán government that insisted on such a salary cap. However, lately they have been jacking up salaries at an accelerated rate. As for the sale of state lands, there is no need to rehash the corruption that surrounds these transactions.
József Tóbiás, chairman of MSZP, claims that they are making great progress at collecting the necessary 200,000 signatures that would allow them to hold a referendum on these two questions. It would, he maintains, be logical to hold only one referendum at which all three questions would be on the ballot. I guess MSZP politicians fear that these two questions are not “exciting enough” to draw enough voters to render the referendum valid. On the other hand, as we know, Orbán’s referendum question is enthusiastically supported by millions. If Orbán manages to whip up enough enthusiasm in the fall when the referendum most likely will take place, his phony referendum might be valid despite the exceedingly high voter turnout requirement (50% of the whole electorate).
I must say that I will never understand the thought processes of the current MSZP politicians. The only sensible reaction to the Kúria’s decision is to boycott the referendum whose very question is illegitimate. According to the latest polls, MSZP has been gaining support, most likely because of its resoluteness in fighting the National Election Office, the National Election Commission, and Fidesz’s machinations in trying to prevent the party’s representative from turning in his referendum question on Sunday store closings at the National Election Office. The opportunistic move Tóbiás is now contemplating, however, will not endear the party to those who want to have a resolute, even unyielding stance against the current government. In making a deal with Fidesz, MSZP is again playing games for which its former voters will not reward it.