What Is Hungary’s Anti-EU Referendum About?

Analysts waste bandwidth guessing the purpose of PM Orbán’s October referendum on the EU migrant settlement quotas. But it has no clear purpose – at least not yet. It has a cause. And it will have consequences. 

The cause – the reason this referendum idea was born – is that Orbán needed to distract from a loss of face in April. This is why guessing his master plan is silly. He may or may not find a purpose for this grossly xenophobic, legally nonsense referendum before October, but even if he does, it wasn’t his original master plan.

Britain’s splendid news source, The Daily Mail has already called this farce a “Brexit-inspired referendum”. It is not. Keep your self-importance to yourself, Daily Mail. It started in April, billboards are up since May, and the date was set to October 2.

government-funded, xenophobic billboard campaign is already up. Since May, we had to stare at the puzzling message:

“We send the message to Brussels so they will understand it”

This week the government kindly specified:

“Did you know that more than 300 people have died of terrorism since the migration into Europe started?”

“Did you know that the Paris attacks have been committed by migrants?”

“Did you know that Brussels wants to settle a town’s worth of illegal immigrants in Hungary?”

It is a very small town, indeed, considering we are discussing 1294 immigrants – all legal. Who would also turn around and pull their suitcases back to Germany unless they are chained to their bunks.

But the subtext of the billboards is consistent:

Be more xenophobic!

Orbán has never backpedaled on a policy, no matter how catastrophic it turned out to be.** A policy repeal on public pressure is considered humiliating for an autocrat. But he had to backpedal on the mandatory Sunday closure of retail stores, because it was so unpopular, it threatened to provide the opposition with a referendum triumph.

It was in April. The referendum question about the Sunday closure was approved on a sunny Friday morning.

Orbán’s reaction was as follows:


Orbán belligerently announces that he won’t back down. In fact, he will extend the closure to teach us the important authoritarian lesson that resistance is always futile.


Fidesz party meeting behind closed doors. Someone manages to convince Orbán that they would definitely lose – around 70% was against the Sunday closure.


One of Orbán’s less relevant minions steps out and announces the repeal of the policy.


Orbán has to say something, but refuses to discuss the humiliation. Instead, he announces a grand, nation-defending gesture: a referendum to protect his flock from the Brussels-imposed migrant quotas. (He uses the term “forced deportation” (only in reverse), which triggers WW2 connotations in Hungarian.)

Step 5 

Everyone forgot about the Sunday closure thing, media jumped on the migrant quota referendum, even better that it was nonsensical.

No journalists mentions Orbán’s loss of masculinity any more.

So this is how the referendum came to be. Stop looking for well thought-out master plans. Orbán (and his propagandists) are still scrambling to put the idea to use, given that there are huge problems with it:

  1. It is unconstitutional to hold a referendum about obligations in international treaties – This one was settled by the servile constitutional court when they let the referendum go ahead nonetheless.*
  2. There is not even a quota decision to protest against yet – But how would an average citizen know that?
  3. Since Brexit, this EU-phobic referendum is starting to take the shape of an exit referendum – at least in the Daily Mail – and Orbán does nothing to clear up this misunderstanding.

Ominously, the communications machine seems to be testing the mood on exit. They have made two high-ranking Fidesz soldiers ‘spontaneously’ voice their ‘personal’ opinion to the press: They would prefer to be out of the EU, but who are they to voice personal opinions in the press…

The population is not convinced – for now:


In April 2016 77% on Hungarians supported or “rather supported” the country’s EU membership. See how far it declines by October thanks to government propaganda

A device of dictators and demagogues

“Would the right hon. Gentleman wish to put capital punishment to the test of a referendum? Of course he would not, because he is prepared to choose the cases on which he consults the people, according to the convenience of the Government. Perhaps the late Lord Attlee was right when he said that the referendum was a device of dictators and demagogues.

— Margaret Thatcher before the House of Commons on the EEC-membership referendum, March 11, 1975

As any good populist, Orbán has learned to play the instrument of a hysterical referendum on his way to become a full-blown autocrat. In fact, he has a serious fetish for them.***

So Hungary’s upcoming EU-phobic referendum had one purpose: distraction. But it will have consequences – the government is teaching the population to be xenophobic and afraid. Very afraid.

It doesn’t even matter that the referendum question is not legal.



We consider the EU migrant quotas unnecessary and inhumane. Settling people in places that don’t want them – and places they don’t want to be is not only impractical – it is against their human rights. But Orbán is not saving them. Neither is he saving his stoked up public from rapists and terrorists. He is grandstanding – so stop discussing this referendum as if it was about policy.

When there is a threat, the correct course of action is to respond to it – not to teach the population to be afraid, to hate foreigners, and to yearn for a strong leader. But when there is no threat – or when one doesn’t care – it is time to put up billboards and scapegoat Brussels.

By the way,

Did you know that since the migration to Europe started, over 3000 people have died in hospital infections in Hungary?

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Featured image: Banksy


*Fun fact: Orbán’s dearest referendum success in 2008 against a one euro contribution to the healthcare per doctor’s visit was a fiscal issue – which is also banned from referendums in Hungary. The then Constitutional Court was, however, also generous to Orbán.

**When a ghetto in the middle of nowhere for failed mortgage owners proved to be a (predictable) disaster, it went forgotten. When a stupid and unnecessary measure in the tobacco shop licencing act resulted in an epidemic of tobacco shop robberies and an inevitable death, he threatened with the death penalty. But didn’t change the dumb measure.  

***In 2008, he delivered a fatal blow to the then socialist government with a referendum over a petty and symbolic issue: a one euro payment per doctor’s visit. Orbán managed to spin it as the Socialist Party’s evil plot to introduce capitalism in healthcare – and it worked. That triumph contributed to his winning in 2010. This is why he avoided any chance for the opposition to organize a referendum ever since. 

12 thoughts on “What Is Hungary’s Anti-EU Referendum About?

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  12. “Fun fact: Orbán’s dearest referendum success in 2008 against a one euro contribution to the healthcare per doctor’s visit was a fiscal issue – which is also banned from referendums in Hungary. The then Constitutional Court was, however, also generous to Orbán.”

    Not quite. It was (and is) perfectly legal to hold a referendum about a fiscal issue – assuming it doesn’t directly concern the budget. The government wasn’t savvy enough to introduce a central collection / distribution system for the visitation fee, tuition contribution, and hospital daily fee, which left the matter out of the central budget, allowing a referendum to be held. It was a coup de grace to a government already weakened by the leak of the Őszöd-speech two years before, and the global financial crisis.


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