Hungary’s foreign minister defends the country’s refugee policy and challenges Europe’s “political correctness”.
Over the past few days, the streets of Hungary have been taken over by large billboards with an unequivocal message: “Let’s send a message to Brussels so that they understand.”
The defiance and arrogance of the ruling nationalist movement led by Hungarian President Viktor Orban has reached new levels with this campaign that cost his country millions of euros. In two weeks, he will be able to use a new bargaining chip in his populistic demands: an overwhelming victory in the upcoming referendum on the quota of Syrian refugees that his country will accept.
Orban’s victory in the upcoming vote is assured. The question asked to Hungarian citizens could not have been more biased: “Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent?”
It is hard to imagine that a country would vote en masse to allow any organisation to impose decisions without consulting its own elected parliament. Had the question been “Do you want to protect a handful of civilians escaping war?” then Orban’s success would have been less certain.
Orban has framed the debate around the issue of national sovereignty. The argument is that Hungary needs to resist against decisions taken abroad, as it has done throughout its history.
In the 19th century, the country resisted diktats from the Austrian Empire. In the second half of the 20th century, it stood valiantly against the orders from Moscow. Now, Orban suggests, it is time to resist policies from Brussels as if the European Union was yet another conqueror.
What Orban fails to mention is that Hungary is free to follow the British road and leave the European Union at any time. Nevertheless, this is a step that Budapest will not take. The country benefits greatly from EU membership with its gross national product per head increasing by 20 percent since Hungary joined the union 10 years ago, despite a recent stuttering under Orban.
Yet, despite impressive economic results, the Hungarians have to understand that being a member of the EU does not mean that you can simply reap the benefits without contributing to a common political project.
In the case of the Syrian refugees, both Greece and Italy are supporting the bulk of the weight. Even if the efforts made by both countries is little in comparison with Lebanon or Turkey, both are in dire need of support from European solidarity.
Matteo Renzi is about to bet his political survival in an upcoming referendum on constitutional reforms, currently overshadowed by the debate on refugees. The Greek economy is still recovering and needs support from neighbours.
Yet Orban is using the refugee crisis for his own interests. His objective is to annex the electorate of the other nationalistic parties in Hungary, such as the neo-nazi Jobbik party, by blowing the issue out of proportion.
If Hungary is not ready to step up to its obligations ... then the very pertinence of its EU membership should be reassessed.
In truth, the European Union plan for refugees allocation only requested Hungary to welcome 1,000 refugees – that represents a mere 0.01 percent of the current population.
If Hungary is not ready to step up to its obligations, if the country does not want to contribute to a regional effort by implementing Brussels’ negotiated quota system, then the pertinence of its EU membership should be reassessed. This is in essence what other European leaders are starting to suggest.
Before the European summit held last week in Bratislava, the foreign minister of Luxembourg – a founding member of the EU – clearly suggested that Hungary should be left on the side of the European Union.
According to Jean Asselborn, Hungary should be kicked out because of its repeated violations of the EU’s core identity.
The EU is not an a la carte menu whose finality is to increase economic return. It was never meant to be a pedestrian trade agreement but instead was founded to “make war unthinkable and materially impossible” and prevent the rise of nationalism, as the Schuman Declaration of 1950 clearly stipulated.
By not standing up to its original values, the European Union is losing its soul and therefore its raison d’etre. The European project is not about ethnic or religious identity, nor is it about economic gains but it is about the protection of democracy and the interdependence between people and nations.
Unfortunately, the Bratislava summit confirmed that European leaders were ready to settle for very mild and cautious stances. The priority curser has been pointed towards stability and security, playing directly into the hands of the extreme right parties.
With elections over the next few months, neither Angela Merkel nor Francois Hollande seem willing to take an ambitious long-term approach. The fallout from Brexit, the opposition between Mediterranean and Nordic countries, the renewed assertiveness of xenophobic leaders in the East … all these divisions seem to paralyse the already lukewarm Franco-German tandem when leadership would be deeply needed.
Instead of playing on the defensive in the wake of globalisation and its inevitable consequences, a reaffirmation of European values together with a strong rebuttal of Orban’s xenophobic tactics would have been the correct long-term strategy.
Until European leaders stand up to their responsibilities, the European youth will not buy into the universal project, and the democratic deficit of the European institutions will worsen, leading to their eventual demise.
Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.