World·Analysis

Hungarian voters appear set to deliver a blow to EU migrant quotas

Hungary's anti-immigrant government appears set to win a referendum on whether the country should accept European Union refugee resettlement quotas. A victory could send shock waves through the already battered bloc.

Government floods the country with anti-refugee messaging ahead of referendum

Roma boys walk in front of a Hungarian government poster about Sunday's referendum on EU migrant quotas, in Budapest on Sept. 28. The poster says, "We should not take a risk, vote No." (Laszlo Balogh/Reuters )

For months, the Hungarian government has blitzed the country's public spaces with alarmist messages designed to whip up fears of immigrants ahead of Sunday's referendum on the European Union's plan to resettle refugees across the bloc.

"Did you know the Paris terror attacks were carried out by immigrants?" reads one.

"Did you know that nearly one million immigrants want to come to Europe from Libya alone?" reads another.

An 18-page booklet distributed to millions of Hungarian households warns: "If we don't take action, in a couple of decades we won't recognize Europe."

Hungarian soldiers patrol along a fence on the border crossing point from Serbia near Roszke, Hungary on Sept. 13, 2015. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Fuelled by these anti-refugee sentiments, the government appears on track to win the referendum by an overwhelming majority.

Such a victory would be touted as a national demonstration of opposition to the EU's plan — currently proving ineffective — to ease the refugee crisis by asking each member state to resettle a certain number of people. In Hungary's case, it would be about 1,300 of them.

But critics of the Hungarian government say it has unleashed a wave of xenophobic vitriol to capitalize on the crisis and boost its own political fortunes.

"It's senseless, ridiculous, absurd," says Rajaa Ali from Migration Aid International, a Hungarian solidarity organization that provides humanitarian support to refugees. "And unfortunately it's effective, what they're doing."

1 of least tolerant nations

Hungary is one of the EU's least tolerant nations when it comes to refugees, according to a recent survey by Pew Research Center.

It found that more than 80 per cent of Hungarians believe refugees pose an economic burden, while nearly 70 per cent say an influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq poses a "major threat" to society.

Hungary was one of the flashpoints at the height of the refugee crisis last year as legions of asylum seekers tried to travel through it to their dream destinations in northern Europe.

A woman cries outside a train station in Hungary at the height of the refugee crisis in September 2015. The country became a flashpoint during the crisis as thousands tried to pass through it on their way to northern Europe. (Matt Cardy/Getty)

Thousands were stranded at the country's main train station in Budapest. Hungarian authorities barred them from boarding trains, leading to a mass exodus of refugees on foot to neighbouring Austria.

There were also ugly scenes at Hungary's southern border, with refugees being tear-gassed by Hungarian police as they tried to get into the country.

The government later built a border fence to keep out asylum seekers, a move slammed by human rights groups and other European countries.

Hungary's tough action has been mirrored by the tough talk of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He has emerged as a fierce hardliner, criticizing both Europe's refugee policies and the people seeking a better life within its borders.

A stark example of Orban's rhetoric came in the summer when he said that "every single migrant" poses a security risk and labelled migration "a poison."

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been accused of xenophobia after saying an influx of Muslim immigrants would endanger Europe's 'Christian' identity. (Thierry Charlier/AFP/Getty Images)

He has said an influx of Muslim immigrants would pose a threat to Europe's "Christian" identity.  

In a phone interview, Zoltan Kovacs, a spokesperson for the Hungarian government, defended Orban's rhetoric and balked at suggestions of xenophobia.

"That's ridiculous. You know, we've been called by many names," he said. "But our philosophy is, very simply, we choose the frank, outspoken way and we do take care of those issues and problems the [Hungarian] people name."

Playing politics

Bulcsu Hunyadi, an analyst at Political Capital, a think-tank in Budapest, says the government is using the refugee crisis to score political points.

"The migration issue is an issue which mobilizes both [Orban] supporters but also supporters of other parties," says Hunyadi. "And the strategy is working 100 per cent."

And Hungary is not the only country caught up in the right-wing tide sweeping Europe.

In France, the far-right National Front, led by firebrand Euroskeptic Marine Le Pen, whose politics rest on anti-Islam rhetoric, has scored recent victories in regional elections.

In Germany, the AfD (Alternative for Germany) party, which didn't even exist a few years ago, is posing a growing challenge to Chancellor Angela Merkel by exploiting increasing unease over the impact of her once open-door policy toward refugees.

With presidential elections looming in both countries in 2017, stifling the popularity of the far right is no doubt front of mind for leaders in Paris and Berlin.

Implications for the EU project

Their concerns would grow if the vote in Hungary goes the government's way, a result that appears likely.

If it does, it would be a slap in the face to an already battered Brussels, bruised by the U.K.'s Brexit vote and its inability to truly get a grip on the refugee crisis.

It will also be the fourth time in a little over a year that an EU country has voted either against the bloc itself or its actions, following referendums in Greece, the U.K. and the Netherlands.

Perhaps most worrisome for EU leaders, Hunyadi says Orban's plebiscite will likely inspire other Euroskeptic nations to hold their own votes on EU policies.

"In the prospects of Europe, I think such kind of referenda might weaken the EU or demonstrate the conflicts within the EU," says Hunyadi. "And that might have very, very serious implications for the whole EU project."

About the Author

Ellen Mauro is a multi-platform reporter covering U.S. politics from the CBC News Washington bureau. She was previously based in London and has reported from the front lines of some of the top international news stories in recent memory.