The ability to enforce mandatory migrant quotas is slipping out of the EU’s grasp

Migrants in Belgrade try to make it into Hungary in early October. Andrej Cukic/EPA

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban seems to have mastered the art of creating controversy. On October 2, Hungarians voted in a referendum on the European Union’s planned relocation of refugees around the bloc, a move described in Brussels as a way to offer solidarity in the wake of an unprecedented number of people reaching Europe by sea.

While not enough people voted in the referendum for the result to be valid, 98% of those who did supported the rejection of the quotas, representing a significant moral win for Orban’s “cultural counter-revolution”. At the same time, the referendum showed that the migration issue is merely a tool in a much wider battle about the future of where power lies between Brussels and EU member states.

There’s no doubt that the migration crisis has had a visible impact on Hungary. At the height of the crisis in summer 2015, some 10,000 refugees and migrants traversed Hungary daily, sleeping en masse at Budapest’s Kelety train station as they waited for transport to Western Europe. Day and night, streams of people seeking a new life in Europe passed through homogenous towns and villages of Western Hungary. Since then, however, the Western Balkans route and Hungary’s southern border with Serbia (where the majority of the crossings took place) have been sealed. Only a handful of asylum seekers are processed every day despite a capacity to process around 100 applications.

The EU’s controversial deal with Turkey on a “refugee swap” has now also come into effect, leading to both a significant drop in crossings across the Aegean Sea, and the number of lives lost at sea. The average number of daily crossings since the deal came into effect on March 18 fell from 1,740 to 94 by mid-September.

But despite the question Orban put to Hungarians in the referendum, there are two reasons why it was irrelevant to the migration debate. First, the EU’s relocation scheme has so far been very slow, and shows no short or medium-term capacity for expanding. At the moment there are more than 63,000 refugees waiting for relocation from Greece alone, with an additional 100,000 people awaiting relocation. Under the quota scheme Hungary was obliged to take 1,294 asylum seekers, which is actually slightly lower than the 1,583 the EU had managed to relocate across the EU under the EU-Turkey deal by mid-September. Safe to say, at the current rate, it would take years for Hungary to receive all 1,294 refugees.

Viktor Orban votes in the referendum on migrant quotas. Szilard Koszticsak/EPA

Second, the debate in Brussels and across Europe’s capitals has already moved beyond mandatory quotas. The European Commission has actually shown surprising willingness to negotiate on the issue.

From conversations I’ve had in Brussels, it appears the commission has been silently dropping the “mandatory” aspect of the relocation quotas, while proposing more flexible forms of solidarity between the member states, including providing financial support for the maintenance of refugees in other EU states or lowering the quota numbers. Even the commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently stated that solidarity must be given voluntarily, rather than being uniformly imposed from Brussels. To this end, in the wake of the referendum, the commission has tried to “appease” Hungary, increasing European Investment Fund support for small Hungarian rural firms by €160m.

Poland and Hungary on their own

But petty cash is hardly sufficient for Orban, nor is he willing to negotiate. Formerly a staunch liberal, he has become a crusader for a new form of Europe based on, in his own words, a “system of national cooperation” – in contrast to a more federalist view of Europe. Orban positions himself as a defender of Christendom, protecting its borders against foreign invaders, much as the Hungarian kings of the 16th and 17th century did against the Ottomans.

It is a mythical image, but one that also has the ears of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the grey cardinal of Polish politics who is chairman of its ruling Law and Justice party. In the eyes of both men, Europe’s Brussels-centric liberal era is over, and it’s time gravity was shifted back to European capitals. This conveniently ignores the fact that in Brussels it is essentially the member states that ultimately call the shots, not the supranational European Commission.

Orban’s and Kaczynski’s “cultural counter-revolution” is more defined by what it stands against, than what it stands for. Ultimately, it is battling against two Bs: Brussels and Berlin. Falsely or not, in their eyes, Brussels represents “an ever closer union” that may one day lead to a federal EU that will eat away the sovereignty of its member states. Berlin, on the other hand, means Merkel to Orban (his staunch critic and one blamed for the migration crisis) and Germany to Kaczynski – Poland’s old nemesis whose tremendous economic power he ultimately fears. So Merkel’s open-door policy on refugees and calls for solidarity and burden-sharing among member states merely made the mandatory quotas a perfect target for these two reactionaries.

Visegrad grumbles

Such world views do not sit comfortably with the other two members of the Visegrad Group: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. While all four countries voted against the mandatory quotas in the Council of Ministers, and both Prague and Bratislava criticised the proposals, they trod a much more careful line. For example, while the Slovak prime minister, Robert Fico, was very quick to tell a domestic audience that Slovakia was no place for Muslims, the country is silently implementing voluntary relocation for refugees. Given that the current Slovak EU presidency sought European unity of action as one of its top priorities, the Hungarian referendum is merely an additional headache rather than an opportunity.

This means that while Hungary’s referendum may have a wider raison d’etre, it does nevertheless also have more indirect consequences. By holding the referendum, Orban narrowed the parameters for dialogue on possible alternatives for how to relocate refugees. The referendum will merely add further divisions to an already fractured EU.

So in terms of providing an instrument for Orban’s counter-revolution, the referendum has succeeded. Rather than a humiliating defeat, it ensures that the spectre of Orban will haunt Europe for years to come.

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