Hungary’s in(hum)ane brinkmanship

The Hungarian government’s desperate attempt to weaponize the refugee crisis.

“The Paris attacks were committed by immigrants,” “Since the beginning of the immigration crisis, over 300 have been killed in terrorist attacks” read two of the many gigantic billboards that the Hungarian government put up all across the country in preparation for the upcoming referendum on October 2nd. On the ballot one will be asked the question “Would you like the EU to have the authority to settle non-Hungarian citizens in the country without the approval of the Hungarian Parliament?” Initiated by the government itself, the vote is on a quota system that seeks to equitably distribute the task of relocating refugees from the Middle East across the EU member states.

Putting aside the tone and disinformation of statements like the above, for a government to put its thumb on the scale so blatantly in the campaign of a referendum alone is deeply problematic. This is something former British PM David Cameron can attest to who got into hot water for tipping the scale himself during the Brexit campaign. Nonetheless not only was the question on the ballot remarkable in the way it was framed neutrally, the opposing camps did not have much of a fundraising disparity among them in the first place.

The Hungarian referendum has none of these going for it. Instead, as a testament to how much the question itself is skewed, no major player on the political spectrum has come to endorse a “yes” vote, instead there is bafflement and inertia. In this atmosphere some of the major human rights organizations operating in the country, such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, chose to advocate for casting a deliberately invalid ballot. In the meantime, the government’s toxic rhetoric seems already to be taking root among the people across the country. According to one young boy, 14, from the poorest part of the country, the word “‘migrant’ had already become the playground insult of choice, replacing anti-gay and anti-Roma slurs,” said Áron Demeter from Amnesty International.

In a broader context, Budapest might just be aiming at bolstering its general negotiating position vis-à-vis Brussels. In the absence of any specifics however, the question on the ballot effectively amounts to a blank cheque where the outcome of the referendum will continue to apply regardless of how the EU may fine-tune the exact details for a quota system going forward. This is a hazardous game to play. Not only does this kind of brinkmanship erode trust amongst the EU states, but internally too it runs the risk of undermining trust in a basic democratic institution should the situation eventually call for rejecting the will of the voter. Neither of which an EU still reeling from the implications of Brexit as well a surging far-right in Germany needs any more of.

The administration of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán has a record of controversy and brinkmanship. Yet the willingness to put the most vulnerable in harm’s way in one of the most serious Humanitarian crises since World War II marks a new low for him. Afflicting hundreds of thousands of lives with knock-on effects on the stability of an entire region should be considered too large a collateral risk for a fistful of bargaining chips.

Meanwhile, as a restive EU was heading off to its first post-Brexit summit in Bratislava, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission tried to defuse some of the tensions. In his State of the Union address just before the event, he started to soft-pedal his original stance on a mandatory quota system by commenting that “when it comes to managing the refugee crisis, we have started to see solidarity. I am convinced much more solidarity is needed. But I also know that solidarity must be given voluntarily. It must come from the heart. It cannot be forced.”

This effectively renders the dispute over the refugee quota moot for now. Even so, if this charade with the referendum is any indication, the EU might not afford to put off the arduous work of further integration for any longer. For an organization this large and eclectic, there might very well be a critical point to being a vehicle for brinkmanship and conflicting side-deals. Let’s not find out where exactly it lies.

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