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Hungarians went to the polls on 2 October to vote on the following question: ‘Do you want the European Union to be able to order the obligatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of the Hungarian National Assembly?’

The referendum was supposed to give citizens a decision that will then be enacted in legislation. But the referendum could not have had such a result. The misleading phrase ‘obligatory settlement
of non-Hungarian citizens’ alludes to the resettlement of applicants for international protection, who must belong to a nationality with a minimum acceptance rate of 75%. With two legallybinding decisions taken in September 2015, the European Council had already established the mechanism. What purpose, then, did the referendum serve?

First, it had an international dimension. Hungary has consistently refused to participate in the refugee mechanism, and so the government was looking to bolster the group of like-minded states who
don’t want to be involved. But while the Hungarian government is against relocation, it’s more frustrated by the fact that such a decision could be made by a qualified majority in the first place. Like Slovakia, Hungary has brought the issue to the European Court of Justice on the grounds that the European Council decision has ignored the principle of subsidiarity. Given the pressing need to find a European solution, Hungary has little hope of winning its case, but it can continue to seek wider public support.

Domestically, the vote was a show of force in the run-up to the 2018 general election. It diverted attention from issues such as corruption, decreasing social mobility or segregation. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the centre-left Democratic Coalition (DK) argued that the referendum was a test of Hungarians’ views on EU membership. Over the last six years, polls suggest an average of 49% of Hungarians trust the EU.

But the public media seems to be preparing the ground for a battle between EU membership on one side, and security and secession on the other.

The way the question was formulated put domestic political opponents in a bind. Not to engage with it would have meant staying silent on a topic that made headlines, but engaging was problematic too: advocating a “Yes” was made to sound like openly relinquishing sovereignty.Not surprisingly, the Eurosceptic far-right Jobbik supported “No”, and the centre and the Left were
divided. MSZP, DK and three other parties called for a boycott of the vote. Only the Liberals (MLP) urged a “Yes” vote.

The Hungarian referendum was part of a quest to preserve national sovereignty, wrapped in a manipulative campaign against asylum-seekers. It was about inciting and exploiting hatred and
fear. The quest might have been legitimate, but it remains a dangerous gamble with unforeseeable consequences.

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