Orbán’s referendum and EU solidarity

The referendum in Hungary last Sunday on refugee quotas was not the overwhelming success that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had hoped for, despite a massive state-financed propaganda effort.  He was certainly pleased that the outcome was a solid rejection (98%) of mandatory quotas, but the turnout for the poll –  43% – was considerably less than the 50% required to make the referendum legally binding. True to his style, Orbán immediately promised a change in the Hungarian constitution that would ban participation in compulsory refugee quota deals, without prior consent by the Hungarian Parliament.

The Hungarian PM continues to climb up the tree even though his European partners are tendering him an olive branch. It is widely recognized – even by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker who initiated the quota proposal – that the system of compulsory relocation of refugees in the form adopted by the Council in September 2015 will never function.  Alternatives have to be found, possibly building on the concept of “responsibility and solidarity” for refugees, proposed by the Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) and endorsed by the informal European Council in Bratislava last month: a solidarity concept going beyond the simple number of refugees to be taken in.

Other types of national contribution to solving the refugee crises should be taken into consideration. Hungary gave a good example by pledging in Bratislava to contribute significantly numbers of personnel to help protect Bulgaria’s border with Turkey. The Commission has already proposed that a country can pay (€250,000 per refugee) instead of hosting the asylum seeker. And it should be recalled that last year’s quota system gave a considerable rebate to countries like Hungary. Its quota (1300 refugees) is a third of that of Austria, which is smaller in size and population.

The question on solidarity on refugees will not go away. Last year’s quota-system (for 120,000 refugees) –  together with Schengen –   was swept away by the massive inflow of migrants, both refugees and illegal immigrants. Bratislava proclaimed that EU “would never allow a return to the uncontrolled flows of last year”.  If this is to be realized and Schengen returned to normality, a more sustainable migrant policy is needed. Among other elements this should include:

  • A cleaning up of the situation left over from last year. More than 60,000 migrants are still stuck in Greece, often living in appalling conditions.
  • A full implementation of the Turkey Agreement, which includes resettlement of refugees from Turkey to EU member states.
  • Resettlement of refugees from the neighborhood to be the main gateway into Europe in future crises, replacing dangerous sea-crossings, and a mixture of refugees and economic migrants on the way.
  • Preparedness to accept a number of legal immigrants as a necessary price to be paid to ensure full collaboration by key African states in stemming the flow of economic migrants and return of their own citizens when caught as illegal immigrants in Europe. These countries are highly dependent on remittances from their citizens working in Europe.

Such policies cannot be implemented without sharing the burden among member states. Unless all are prepared to show solidarity it could have serious repercussions in other fields, including on EU structural funds in the future. Voices are already heard in many member states that solidarity cannot be a one-way street.  Negotiations on the next financial perspectives (EU budget) from 2020 and onwards, which will start within the next two years, could turn nasty if this debate is not defused beforehand. Note that if Hungary had decided to pay for all the refugees allocated to them under last year’s scheme, the cost would have been about half a percent of what Hungary will receive in EU structural funds support during the present financial period…

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