Editorial: A lesson in the risks of referendums

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The following is the editorial column from the July 1 biweekly edition.

As Hungary prepares its own referendum designed to show displeasure with Brussels, the government might do well to learn from what just happened in the U.K.

Immediately after the U.K. narrowly voted to leave the European Union, it sounds as if the electorate has awoken from a wild party with a hangover, and now polls show that at least one million voters regret their decision. Furthermore, it is becoming clear that even pro-Brexit politicians had no plans for a successful “leave” vote. They have created a monster they do not know how to control.

In Hungary, members of this government are saying the lesson of the U.K. vote is that Brussels needs to change – to listen to the people and understand that we do not want asylum seekers. But a more important lesson is that Hungary should appreciate what we have. We do not need the referendum planned for this fall, which has the sole purpose of saying Hungary is opposed to an EU plan that would see us sheltering a certain quota of asylum seekers.

Like the Brexit vote, the Hungarian referendum was conceived for political reasons and is not legally binding. There is no clear course of action if the electorate votes “no” in a referendum that makes a “yes” vote seem weak by asking: “Do you want the European Union to prescribe the settlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary without the approval of the Hungarian Parliament?” A majority of “no” votes to this petulant question mostly allows the government to claim it has the support of the people in opposing refugees.

The government has suggested that it will use the referendum result to justify fighting a refugee quota in the European court system. But the real reason the government wants to hold the referendum in the fall is to keep the topic of asylum seekers in the media and in public discourse for a more important vote: the general election, which is set for early next year.

Until the refugee problem exploded across Europe about a year ago, the popularity of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz Party was flagging. By taking the low road – encouraging fear of Muslims and refusing to help people in need – Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government have improved in the polls. They cannot fix the country’s failing health care and education systems, and they cannot hide the signs of rampant corruption in their government, but Fidesz can whip up Islamophobia. It clearly wants to keep doing that until election day.

As Orbán rightly notes, many people in the U.K. said they supported the Brexit referendum because they oppose migrants. But the migrants they oppose include several hundred thousand Hungarians who have used EU membership to find better jobs in the U.K. than they can find here.

Since Hungary joined the EU in 2004, the country has been enjoying massive improvements in its economy, infrastructure and overall quality of life. This government acknowledges that efficient and timely use of EU funds helped produce impressive figures in GDP growth last year. There is no question that Hungary is a net beneficiary from its EU membership.

Yet this government flirts with Euroskepticism and constantly criticizes Brussels when it wants to distract attention from its own shortcomings. At a time when the EU needs unity, this government is joining the far right around Europe in seeking to weaken the Union.

The EU has helped to ensure peace and prosperity in Europe, while creating the world’s largest single economy. Not only Hungarians, but roughly a half billion EU citizens in all have benefited immensely from this arrangement. The Union may be an easy target for sniping populists, but they do not really have any alternatives.

As many floundering leaders in the U.K. have discovered, expressing Euroskeptic opinions can have political benefits but acting on those opinions is political suicide. If our leaders refuse to acknowledge the futility of demonizing the EU, we hope they have at least learned that it can be bad for their careers.

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