Announcing the results of a referendum on how to deal with Europe’s migrant crisis, Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, sounded like a man preparing for a drawn-out war with the leaders of the European Union. “Serious skirmishes and major battles await,” he told a crowd of his supporters in Budapest on Sunday. And the outcome, he added, will decide “the future of our children and grandchildren,” as well as the survival of Hungary’s “Christian roots.”
In reality, the stakes in Sunday’s plebiscite were not nearly that dramatic, and the results were not as favorable as Orban made it seem. The ballots asked Hungarians whether their country should be forced to accept any of the asylum seekers who arrived last year in the European Union, and the vast majority of voters – an astounding 98% – answered no. But the turnout, at around 43%, fell well short of the 50% threshold that Orban needed to make the vote legally valid. So he was left to declare the vote “politically valid” – or, in other words, symbolic.
The symbolism, at least, was potent. It showed once again how vulnerable the E.U. is to populist revolts, which have begun to erode not only its authority but also the viability of its existence. The most painful battle was fought over the Brexit referendum in June, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the E.U. altogether. A year before that, Greece held a referendum to reject the terms of its debt to European creditors. That vote had little practical effect, as Athens was still forced to accept the same bailout deal that voters had rejected. But the referendum still achieved one crucial goal – it cast the E.U. as a bullying paymaster intent on subverting the sovereignty and democracy of its members.
Orban, a right-wing populist, is now using the migrant crisis to push a similar message. His excuse for calling the referendum in the first place was an E.U. plan to redistribute about 160,000 asylum seekers, most of them Muslim refugees who had fled the wars in Syria and Iraq. Hungary’s share of that number would have been about 1,300 people – hardly enough to threaten the future of a nation of nearly 10 million. But Orban treated the proposal as an existential threat to Hungary’s sovereignty and its Christian traditions.
It was also a chance for him to strike a blow at the E.U.’s authority. “The purpose of the whole referendum,” Orban said in July, “is to give the Hungarian government a powerful mandate in the battles that are expected to take place in the E.U.” These battles are already being fought over the bigger question facing Europe's future: Should the E.U. evolve into an ever-closer political bloc modeled on the United States, or should its purpose be limited to facilitating free trade and easing travel among its members?
After the Brexit referendum, the idealists in Brussels who had been calling for a “United States of Europe” have fallen quiet, and power has begun to flow back to the capitals of E.U. member states. Fueling that trend is a powerful current of nationalism and xenophobia that has swept across the Continent, undermining the principles of openness, diversity and tolerance that have always formed the core of the European project.
“It is a historic moment,” said Martin Schultz, the President of the European Parliament, in an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine last month. “A growing number of people are declaring what has been achieved over the past decades in Europe to be wrong. They want to return to the nation-state.” Left unchecked, this trend could revive the “demons” that caused two world wars in Europe in the 20th Century, Schulz warned. “We brought these demons under control through European structures. But if we destroy those structures, the demons will return.”
The E.U. seems increasingly powerless to stop them. As Greece, the U.K. and now Hungary have shown, any attempt to make E.U. nations shoulder the responsibilities of membership risks a revolt at the ballot box, where anti-E.U. populists tend to have the upper hand. Much like the supporters of Brexit in the U.K., the Hungarian government resorted to blatant fearmongering in order to get out the vote. One billboard asked voters, “Did you know that Brussels wants to settle a whole city’s worth of illegal immigrants in Hungary?” Another said, “Did you know that the Parisian terror attacks were committed by immigrants?”
Both of these ads were deeply misleading. The E.U. migrant quota for Hungary would hardly be enough to fill up a village, let alone a city, and nearly all of the terrorists who struck in Paris this year were E.U. citizens, most of them born in France.
But the message from Orban's government still struck a chord. Even though voter turnout fell below the legal threshold, it was still more than the turnout during the 2003 referendum when Hungary voted to join the European Union. That in itself is a troubling sign for the advocates of further integration, and Orban took it as a sign of victory during his speech on Sunday night. “Around 15% more [voters] participated this time than in last elections to the European Parliament. So the weapon will be strong enough,” he said, to take his fight to Brussels in the years to come.