Hungary's Government Lauds 'Historic' Result of EU Quota Referendum

Viktor Orban votes
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban casts his ballot next to his wife Aniko Levai inside a polling station during a referendum on EU migrant quotas in Budapest, Hungary, October 2. Orban has clashed with Brussels over migrants and education. Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

Hungarians went to the polls on Sunday, to choose whether they supported or opposed EU demands for quotas on refugee intake. The result was strongly against the EU policy, but the turnout was below 50 percent. In the aftermath the government shared its opinion with Newsweek.

Rarely have so many Hungarian voters turned out to cast a ballot in support of one cause as they did in Sunday's referendum. The 3.3 million "no" voters constitute one of the strongest mandates of any vote in Hungary—be it a referendum or general election— since 1989.

"The weapon will be strong enough even in Brussels," said prime minister Viktor Orbán on Sunday night as final results were coming in.

Indeed, the message to Brussels is clear. Hungarians yesterday voted 98 percent in favor of the government's position that Hungary should reject the EU's forced migration quotas. That's 3.3 million in a country of 8.2 million eligible voters. "Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?" the referendum asked, and the answer came in as a resounding "no."

The Orbán government initiated this referendum to defend our right to decide on immigration policy and to put a stop to the so-called Brussels migrant quota package. The European Commission has proposed plans to create a permanent mechanism to relocate an unlimited number of migrants to member states without their consent, many of whom entered the EU illegally. But decisions about who enjoys the right to live in our country should not be dictated to us, or to any member state, by Brussels.

Now that 3.3 million Hungarian voters—an overwhelming 98.3 percent of the vote—checked the "no" box, will Brussels finally listen to the people?

Referenda in Hungary are notorious for producing low turnout. It's not surprising that yesterday's voter participation, 43.9 percent, did not reach the 50 percent threshold. Critics have seized on the turnout, insisting that the vote is not legally binding. However, they ignore essential details that underline the magnitude—and political weight—of this vote.

First of all, with the percentage of "no" votes so high, the number of people uniting behind a single issue has rarely reached such levels in democratic Hungary. What's more, the number of people voting to stop Brussels' migration legislation is almost 150,000 more than those who voted for Hungary to join the EU in 2003, and 15 percent higher than the number of people participating in the last European Parliament elections in 2014. The "no" votes were one million more than the number of people who voted for today's governing parties in the 2014 general election.

Such a mandate from the voters cannot be ignored. That's why the government considers the outcome politically binding, creating an obligation for the government and for parliament to act on the result.

The Orbán government has criticized Brussels eurocrats for failing to respond properly to crises confronting the EU, for not seeking the consent of Europe's citizens on important issues, for usurping powers that belong only to the member states and for allowing politics and ideology to run EU institutions.

Take illegal migration, for example. Frontex reports have shown that the number of migrants illegally entering the territory of the European Union has been growing. In Hungary in 2015, we saw tens of thousands of illegal immigrants entering the EU by violating the borders, many of them without documents. While they are often referred to as asylum seekers, the majority of them refused to cooperate with the authorities and abused the freedom of movement within the EU's Schengen zone.

Critics say that the migrant crisis was mainly due to the EU's lack of will to take action and control migration procedures. When the problem became too great, Hungary began to act alone by building a fence to protect the EU's external border and compelling illegal migrants to abide by the rules.

While some denounced these moves as too harsh, eventually other EU member states, particularly those struggling to cope with an uncontrolled influx of migrants, emulated Hungary by building border protection and limiting entry.

More than a year later, there is still no effective EU measure to control illegal migration. We see direct links between terrorism and the mass migration through porous borders. European police report growing crime rates. Local communities express a growing skepticism of immigration as a viable or desirable policy. Yet, the European Commission refuses to relent in its efforts to impose a policy that would have no upper limits on migration, force member states to take in migrants without their consent and do nothing effectively to stop the flow.

The price of ignoring the will of citizens, as we have seen in elections across Europe, can be painfully high. Hungarians voted in resounding numbers to reject the forced migration quotas and now other member states will be galvanized in their opposition. The Hungarian referendum is a warning that the EU should return to its root values, democracy and subsidiarity first.

Zoltán Kovács is the Government Spokesperson of the Hungarian Government​