'It Is Like A Virus': Brussels Braces For Third Referendum Defeat In Hungary

Hungary-Serbia border fence
The Hungary-Serbia border fence, Asotthalom, Hungary, September 2. Hungarians rejected EU refugee quotas in a referendum. Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

On walls and billboards across Hungary a war of words has broken out. Deceptively cheery blue and yellow government posters ask shocking questions of passersby: "Did you know that nearly one million immigrants want to come to Europe from Libya alone?" "Did you know that the Paris terror attacks were carried out by immigrants?" Meanwhile, other posters produced by the satirical Two-Tailed Dog Party hit back with humor. "Did you know there's a war in Syria?" one queries. Another: "Did you know a tree might fall on your head?"

The messages form part of a high-octane campaign before a referendum on Sunday where Hungarians will be asked to accept or reject the idea of EU quotas for redistributing asylum seekers. The division the posters symbolize runs through the heart of Hungarian society; does it want to be a diverse, open country? Or will its voters embrace the more nationalist vision espoused by right-wing premier Viktor Orban, who leads the anti-EU campaign in the referendum? Polls show that voters are likely to back the government, although whether the 50 percent turnout threshold required for the result to be valid will be reached (and whether that matters to Orban in practice) remains to be seen.

But beyond the clamor in Budapest, Brussels is steeling itself. The referendum would be the third major plebiscite in a member state that goes against the EU this year, after Britain's vote to leave the bloc in June and, less seismic but still significant, Dutch voters' rejection of an EU trade agreement with Ukraine in April. Just like Hungary, the EU has to ask itself some hard questions about its values and purpose.

Pieter Cleppe, the head of the Brussels office at the think tank Open Europe, is among those who thinks events like Brexit and the Hungarian referendum are a clear signal that Europeans want less Europe. "If [the EU] wants to be popular again, it should only continue to do the things where it is popular and it should stop doing the things where it is not popular," he tells Newsweek. On sensitive national issues like migration or national budgets, Brussels should steer clear, and restrict its role to less controversial areas, like boosting competition in European markets, or helping secure the EU's external borders.

It sounds very simple, but as a strategy it might be too good to be true. An issue like the refugee crisis sees individual member states facing down a challenge that is international in nature. A co-ordinated response could well be unavoidable. Hungary's referendum is provoked by an EU commission drive to change the way refugees are distributed across member states. The current system, which makes the first EU state in which a refugee arrives responsible for their asylum claim, places huge pressure on border states like Italy and Greece. One temporary plan, agreed last year, aims to get 160,000 people moved from those two countries to other member states (just over 5,500 have done so thus far). The commission's longer-term goal is to put in place a permanent system for redistributing asylum seekers across the EU.

At the heart of the debate, says Elizabeth Collett, Director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, is the fact that different EU members think differently about their responsibilities to the union. "For the older EU member states," Collett explains, "it's never been questioned" that taking on responsibilities for asylum seekers is part and parcel of being a member of the bloc's passport-free Schengen area. But Hungary, part of the increasingly well-coordinated and bullish Visegrad group that includes other newer Central European EU members the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, think differently.

"For the newer member states, and particularly the Visegrad four, they think the Schengen system is entirely separate legally speaking from the asylum system," Collett says. The Visegrad countries earlier this month signed a joint statement committing to a principle of "flexible solidarity" on tackling the refugee crisis, whereby each state would be allowed to decide its own level of contribution. "Up until now, the EU's avoided that question of 'have we all signed up to EU membership on the same basis?'," Collett says. It may not be able to do so any longer.

On the need for some of kind of permanent refugee relocation system, the commission is stubborn, for now. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos struck a conciliatory tone on the referendum. "We are there to listen to the verdict of the people of Hungary, always with full respect," he stated, but continued to trumpet the commission's long-term goals. Speaking to Newsweek on condition of anonymity and without the need for such diplomatic niceties, one EU official was more bullish: "The referendum doesn't change a thing. It's just playing [to] the feeling of the people in Hungary, and that's it."

Still, the official acknowledges, in the wake of Brexit and the rise of the far-right, "The acceptance of migrants is decreasing all over Europe." A permanent relocation system of some kind must be instated. The official argues: "You cannot keep the [current] system where the pressure is only on Italy and Greece." The commission may have to end up proposing a system where some governments can get around the obligation to take refugees if they "show more solidarity" some other way, perhaps by lending border guards or expertize to another state. A controversial commission plan to fine states who do not take part in resettlement, floated earlier this year, is a less politically attractive option, the official concludes. The exact shape of the plan is still to be decided.

But Péter Niedermuller, an MEP for Hungary's opposition Democratic Coalition, says the problems thrown up by the referendum, and its two predecessors in 2016, go beyond the issue of migration alone. Constant referendums threaten to undermine or supplant the democratic processes built into the EU itself. "If we are always organizing referendums against the European union, against the decisions of the commission or the parliament, then we can close the European parliament," he says, "This is a real danger; that this is like a virus."

Orban, observes Niedermuller, sees the referendum as just one "tool" to be used in pursuit of his end goal: the view that "Europe is Christian, and we have to restore the Christian, white European culture." Orban "does not want this kind of liberal Europe, he does not want an open Europe, he does not want an inclusive Europe," he says. The Hungarian government, on the other hand, says the referendum is about sovereignty. "In this upcoming referendum that honors the most basic of European values–democracy and self-government dating back to the polis system of ancient Greece–we ask the people if they agree with us," government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs wrote in a recent blog. But either way, Orban is espousing an EU where national leaders call the shots.

For now, among fellow heads of government Orban has few ideological fellow travelers for his uncompromising strand of nationalism, though Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice party that forms Poland's new government, is a notable admirer. But, says Niedermuller, the strength of the Euroskeptic far-right in countries like France and Holland, both of which have elections on the horizon, could change that. For him, this is the last time the EU should be retreating, or turning coy about its liberal internationalist values: "We have to fight... against these far-right populists," he declares. He concludes "there's no more space to negotiate with them, to find a common solution. There is no common solution; you cannot find any kind of compromise with Orban, or [Nigel] Farage, or with others."

Sunday's referendum is, on one level, an attempt to gain political leverage by one national leader, and the EU has no legal power to stop others doing the same. But such domestic political expediency also drove David Cameron to announce the Brexit referendum, and that ended up producing one of the EU's greatest shocks of the decade. The EU must decide whether it should trumpet its liberal ideals more boldly, or pull back from the fray of national politics; whether it is a club with a single, rigid set of values, or whether there's room for more disagreement; whether it should give more ground to the anti-immigrant right, or draw its line in the sand. With a bruising few years ahead, finding answers to these questions could be essential to the bloc's long-term survival.