Hungary Calls Referendum to Block EU Refugees as Balkans Fume

  • EU has no right to impose refugee policy, Premier Orban says
  • Balkan countries meet with Austrian officials to stem migrants

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called a national referendum to block a European Union plan to force member states to shelter refugees as Balkan countries agreed on measures with Austria to crimp the flow of migrants.

The EU has no right to impose its policy of refugee quotas on the bloc’s national parliaments, Orban told reporters in Budapest after a meeting where ministers agreed to call the referendum. No official date has been set for the vote.

“To introduce mandatory settlement quotas without the consent of the people is nothing short of the abuse of power,” Orban said on Wednesday. “The government judges that neither Brussels nor the European Union or any other European agency has such powers.”

The Hungarian vote is poised to deepen the rift within the EU over how to deal with the biggest migrant crisis since World War II. The dispute has pitted German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy against a growing chorus of leaders, particularly in the 28-member bloc’s ex-communist east, who reject more arrivals. The fate of visa-free internal travel in the bloc now rests on either a plan to stem the flow of Middle-Eastern refugees from Turkey before they reach the EU or bottle them up in Greece, their first port of call.

Margaritis Schinas, a spokesman for the European Commission, declined to comment on the Hungarian referendum. In Vienna, Austria’s foreign and interior ministers met with government officials from Balkan countries including Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia and the Republic of Macedonia to agree on measures to reduce the number of people traveling on the so-called Balkan route. Earlier this month, some of the countries warned they may shut out migrants as EU countries threaten to tighten controls to defend the Schengen borderless zone.

Balkan Frustration

“It’s not possible to process unlimited numbers of migrants and applicants for asylum,” the countries said in a joint statement from the Austrian capital. “The migration flow along the Western Balkans route needs to be substantially reduced with a view to alleviating disproportionate burdens on the partners along the route.”

Among other measures, the ministers agreed to crack down on human smuggling, differentiate between “economic migrants” and those fleeing war in the Middle East, and help countries such as Turkey and Jordan deal with the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict in Syria and Iraq. As many as 1 million people will seek refuge in Europe this year, near the levels seen in 2014, the United Nations said last month.

EU leaders, meeting in Brussels last week, failed to bridge divisions over refugee policy, leaving Merkel to say that progress toward a solution was “too slow” because of “problems with European solidarity.” They’ll discuss the future of passport-free travel on March 7, when member-state leaders will hold a migration summit and a separate meeting with Turkey, EU President Donald Tusk said in Brussels on Wednesday.

“The high numbers we are still witnessing have to go down, and quickly,” Tusk told European Parliament. Earlier this month, the Czech envoy to the EU, Tomas Prouza, said the bloc had until around the end of March to solve the crisis or abandon Schengen.

Refugee Lawsuit

Hungary, along with Slovakia, has already filed a lawsuit to block an EU agreement on the one-time distribution of 160,000 refugees. Hungary was outvoted in that decision. The March EU summit has the aim of making mandatory quotas the standard policy to deal with the refugee issue, Orban said on Feb. 22.

The Hungarian leader’s popularity has surged in polls since becoming Merkel’s chief critic. One of the first EU leaders to build a border fence and deploy soldiers to keep migrants out, Orban’s ruling party now has more backing than all Hungarian opposition parties combined, according to a January Tarki poll.

The referendum initiative “is glaringly unconstitutional in its current form on at least two counts,” Attila Mraz, head of the political participatory rights program at the Budapest-based Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, said by phone. The constitution doesn’t allow votes on matters outside of parliament’s power to decide or on obligations stemming from international agreements, he said. On Tuesday, the radical Jobbik party submitted an amendment to change the charter to allow plebiscites on immigration issues even if they’re related to international treaties, according to a draft posted on Parliament’s website.

Orban’s government will ask voters this question: “Do you want the European Union to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?”

“Those who vote ‘no’ in the referendum will stand up for Hungary’s sovereignty and reject mandatory quotas,” Orban said