Orban Digs In for Merkel Fight With Migrant-Quota Ballot: Q&A

  • EU to hold summit on March 7 to forge common migrant policy
  • Whether Hungarian referendum is constitutional isn't clear

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is digging in for a fight against German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The eastern European leader, the most outspoken critic of her open-door policy for migrants, called on Hungarians to vote in a referendum against a mandatory quota plan to help shelter the biggest influx of migrants since World War II.

What’s the referendum about?

Orban announced on Wednesday that he’s calling a national referendum to ask voters “Do you want the European Union to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?” He said voters who vote “no” will “stand up for Hungary’s sovereignty and reject mandatory quotas.” No date has been set.

Why did he call a referendum?

Orban is trying to shore up popular support for his anti-immigration policy after saying he’s under “huge pressure” to accept the quota plan. The EU’s proposal entails agreeing with Turkey on stemming the flow of refugees to Europe and transporting mostly Syrian refugees from there to Europe and distributing them within the 28-member bloc. EU leaders will hold a summit on March 7 to try to agree on a common refugee policy. They will also meet with the leaders of Turkey.

What does Orban want?

Orban has built a razor-wire fence on Hungary’s border and deployed the army to stop migrants. He says he wants to preserve Europe’s “Christian identity” against an influx of migrants, many of whom are Muslim. He’s pointed to western European countries’ challenges at integrating Muslims and the terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere. Orban was the first leader to call on Europe to protect the outer border of the passport-free travel Schengen area, one of the most tangible benefits of EU membership.

Is it Orban alone in opposition to the refugee policy?

No. While Orban may be the most outspoken, his views largely mirror those of other former communist eastern European EU members. A growing number of western European countries that initially backed Merkel’s open-door policy are also calling on stopping or capping further refugee arrivals. Merkel is also under pressure at home, with the migrant crisis becoming the biggest threat to her decade-long chancellorship.

Is Orban likely to win the referendum?

Not necessarily. The biggest hurdle for Orban will be to draw enough voters, as more than 50 percent of those eligible must take part to make the referendum valid. If he clears that hurdle, he’s is almost assured of winning. Almost 90 percent of eligible voters said they were “very concerned” or “concerned” about illegal migration, according to a September poll by Szazadveg, which advises the cabinet on policy.

Can Orban even call a referendum on EU migrant policy?

The government argues it can. The European Commission doesn’t decide whether member states can hold referendums or not, according to spokesman Alexander Winterstein, who said “we have no comment on this.” Even so, some lawyers in Budapest say it’s unconstitutional. Attila Mraz, head of the political participatory rights program at the Budapest-based Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, called the referendum initiative “glaringly unconstitutional.” He said the charter doesn’t allow votes on matters outside of parliament’s power or on obligations stemming from international agreements.

Is this the first legal fight over the EU migrant quota policy?

No. EU leaders agreed last year to the one-time distribution of 160,000 refugees according to mandatory quotas. Hungary opposed it but a majority under the EU’s proportional voting system supported it so the decision took effect and is legally binding. At the same time, even countries that backed the decision largely balked at implementing it. Hungary, along with Slovakia, also filed a lawsuit arguing the EU overstepped its mandate.

Is this only about migrant policy or is more at stake?

While the issue at hand is migrant policy, it’s a proxy for a bigger battle being fought among EU states over how much power the bloc should wield over its members. The balance of powers between the EU executive and member states is also a feature of the British referendum on whether the U.K. should leave the EU.

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