Today’s big news in Hungary is that Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság learned “from a source close to the government” that, after a valid and successful referendum, Viktor Orbán is planning to move onto the larger stage of the European Union. There he is planning to lead the fight for a modification of the Treaty of Lisbon, the fundamental law of the European Union, also known as the Treaty on European Union (TEU).
For weeks now a guessing game has been going in the media and among opposition politicians about the real purpose of the referendum, which by itself doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. What kind of legislative act will follow a valid and successful referendum? After all, the people are ostensibly empowering the government to do something with the mandate. Will parliament be asked to vote on new amendments to the constitution or will it simply issue “a declaration of independence” of sorts as it did after the Tavares Report in 2013? The government, so the argument goes, will have to do something because otherwise it will become far too obvious that the referendum was not about the compulsory quotas and the Hungarian parliament’s sanctioning them but about something else.
If you ask the politicians of the Demokratikus Koalíció what purpose this referendum serves, they will tell you that it is about the eventual Hungarian exit from the European Union. As soon as no more money is coming from Brussels, Orbán will be only too happy to rid himself of the restraints imposed on him. Although I don’t doubt that there might come a time when Orbán would be inclined to say goodbye to Brussels, for such an eventuality he doesn’t need the results of a referendum today.
Many opposition politicians are inclined to think that the referendum is a kind of “trial election.” If more than half of the eligible voters go to the polls, it will be safe for Fidesz to consider holding elections sometime in early 2017. An added benefit would be that the opposition in 2017 would be even more divided and scattered than it presumably would be in 2018. Talk about Fidesz contemplating an early election is nothing new, though these predictions all turned out to be baseless. But now, people argue, this might become a reality. Jobbik politicians are already busy devising plans for such a possibility. Again, I don’t think that Fidesz needs a referendum to learn about its electoral support. Moreover, the party is politically savvy enough to know that the result of a referendum on the “migrants” cannot be translated into votes at a national election.
Viktor Orbán himself was rather secretive about his post-referendum plans in his September 18 radio interview when the reporter specifically asked him about “the legal [közjogi] consequences of a valid and successful referendum.” He indicated that he knows what the next step will be, but he doesn’t want to divert attention from the task at hand, the campaign for the referendum.
Csuhaj’s source claims that these “legal consequences” are not domestic in nature: “Orbán wants to enter the larger stage of Union politics for good” or, in the original, “Orbán végleg ki akar lépni az uniós politika nagyszínpadjára.” Such a decision, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with “legal consequences” in the accepted meaning of the term. I also don’t know what to do with the word “for good” (végleg). It might simply be an ill-constructed sentence. Perhaps what she actually wanted to say was that “Orbán finally decided to enter the stage of European politics.”
In my reading, the information Csuhaj received about Orbán’s plans to change the fundamental law of the European Union might have been correct a few weeks ago, but I don’t believe that this is what he referred to in his interview when asked about the “legal consequences” of the referendum.
Csuhaj herself admits that there is nothing new about Orbán’s desire to change the TEU to give less weight to the European Parliament and the European Council and to strengthen the European Council of heads of member states. The first time he talked about it was very early in his second term as prime minister. After a summit in Brussels in October 2010 Orbán said at a press conference that with the present constitution post-2008 Europe cannot be governed. For years, however, he made no effort to promote the idea. He only talked about it at home.
The first time it looked as if he was seriously thinking about such a move and that he may even have had preliminary talks about it with David Cameron was in January 2016, at the time of the British prime minister’s visit in Budapest. Bence Tuzson, the government spokesman, gave a long interview to pestisracok.hu in which the reporter said: “If I understand it correctly, Hungary will initiate the modification of the fundamental law of the European Union.” To which Tuzson answered in the affirmative. “Yes, because Hungary has an interest in making sure that these documents and values should be in their proper places.” A couple of days later pestisracok.hu seemed to know that the modification of the TEU might be one of the topics discussed during the Orbán-Cameron exchange.
From the interview with Tuzson it is clear that at that point Orbán didn’t feel strong enough to propose such a modification without David Cameron. He emphasized that “we are no lone wolves,” but with the help of Great Britain Hungary was ready to face criticism or even scorn as a result of their upcoming fight. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Came Brexit and the departure of David Cameron, and Orbán had to set aside the project. A few months ago Népszabadság was told by a member of the government that Orbán has no intention of trying to force the issue of treaty modifications because “he so far hasn’t gotten involved in hopeless tasks.”
If Csuhaj’s source is correct, after a valid and successful referendum he would feel empowered to lead the battle for treaty modifications. At least this is what Fidesz stalwarts seem to think. But it is highly unlikely that this meaningless referendum would make such an impression on either Brussels or the other member states that they would be ready to sit down and negotiate with Viktor Orbán.
Csuhaj’s informer heard Orbán talk about this plan “in the past few weeks,” which I assume means before the Bratislava summit. Since for such an ambitious undertaking Orbán would need the solid backing of the Visegrád 4 countries, I wonder whether Orbán is still so sanguine about taking on Brussels anytime soon. The other three Visegrád 4 countries were less than thrilled with Orbán’s disapproving remarks about the Bratislava summit, and by now it seems pretty clear that Orbán doesn’t have the strong support of the group he pinned his hopes on. What he might be looking for is a sharp shift to the far-right in those countries where national elections will be held soon. But that’s a long shot.
In the meantime, we still don’t know what the possible legal consequences will be of a government victory in the referendum.