The Hungarian government first announced its intention to perform a new “national consultation” during a Fidesz-KDNP party congress in Visegrád in February. In Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s address to the congress, he mentioned “five threats” that Hungary would face in the coming year, mainly originating from Brussels. The Prime Minister promised to defend the interests of the Hungarian people, and announced the government would seek to determine people’s will via the national consultation, a state-produced questionnaire mailed to every household in Hungary. A week later in his annual state of the nation address, Orbán repeated his solutions to “the five threats,” including:
- Defending the government’s decision to keep asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied minors, detained in transit zones,
- Opposing Brussels’ aim to prohibit reductions in domestic public utility charges,
- Cracking down on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Hungary,
- Defending domestic tax policy from EU centralization, and
- Defending job-creating support funds.
Fidesz delegation leader Lajos Kósa announced in a radio interview Sunday that the five questions of the national consultation would be ready within two weeks, adding that “we would like to know the opinions of the voters on many issues.
“We must constantly strengthen the protection of the country. It is work that must continue as long as Hungary is burdened by the pressure of immigration,” Kósa said, and repeated Orbán’s claim that the government is undertaking important debates with the European Union on key issues on which the Union wants to force Hungary’s hand.
But given the content of those five threats announced by Orbán, most of their elements do not indicate an attempt by Brussels to overwrite any lawful decisions made by the Hungarian government, and in fact appear to be battles declared by the Orbán government itself.
As 444.hu reports, in three of Orbán’s five points, the EU’s position does not contradict Hungarian government plans at all. On one point, concerning detention of asylum-seekers, the consultation seeks Hungarians’ opinions on a policy already proposed and passed as law by the Orbán government (this law does, however, contradict EU and United Nations rules). The fifth point involves the government’s desire to rid the country of civil organizations that receive money from foreign sources, especially those financed by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. In all cases, the declaration of Orbán’s crusade against Brussels can be seen as the propagation of fear meant to further consolidate his power.
The Threat of Immigration
The government’s consultation question regarding asylum-seekers reportedly seeks to determine whether Hungarians want the government to hold asylum-seekers in detention until a decision has been reached in their asylum applications. But the National Assembly already passed a resolution last week permitting law enforcement to detain asylum-seekers and anyone who irregularly entered Hungarian territory, accompany them to the southern border and deposit them on the other side, at which point they will (if they get lucky) have the chance to formally apply for asylum at the border crossing. If their asylum application is accepted for processing, the asylum-seekers will be held in “transit zones” along the border and not permitted to leave, unless it is into Serbia, at which point their applications would be terminated.
Numerous international organizations condemned the law, which the government unambiguously calls a “legislative border blockade,” including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Council of Europe. The UNHCR expressed “deep concern” about the law, declaring that it “violates Hungary’s obligations under international and EU laws, and will have a terrible physical and psychological impact on women, children and men who have already greatly suffered.”
Additionally, a 2013 resolution adopted by the European Parliament and the EC declares that “no one can be held in detention solely on the basis of their request for international protection.” Still, the Orbán government asserts that its new asylum system is in line with EU laws.
The decision to conduct a national consultation on the matter could indicate that the Orbán government expects additional condemnation of its asylum law from international organizations, and possible legal challenges from the EU and EC.
Brussels’ attacks on Hungary
Prime Minister Orbán referred to a “new national policy” during his state of the nation address, and emphasized the need for the government to “give appropriate answers” to challenges posed by policies in Brussels. “It can only work if we fight, in a completely tight unity with the Hungarian voters, for our common interests.”
One of the fights Orbán will take to Brussels concerns a government-mandated domestic utility price reduction (rezsicsökkentés) implemented by the Fidesz government in 2013. The government claims that utility prices are lower when an official price is set by the government than if utility companies compete on the open market, but that Brussels aims to ban Hungary from mandating such a price. Orbán and the government tsar of the price reduction program Szilárd Németh have both warned that Brussels wants to “rip from the Hungarians’ hands” the opportunity for cheaper prices, and that if service providers are set loose to compete on the open market, utility prices would skyrocket.
But as 444.hu points out, the government is disputing a single EC resolution which states that, after 2023, 52% of household electricity may not be officially priced but be determined by market prices. This rule has not yet been finalized in the EC, and would have to be accepted by member states to go into effect. Fidesz’s argument that this potential rule is an attack on its price reduction plan is inaccurate, as the rule would only affect a portion of electricity prices, and not the price of all utilities. Under the rule, if passed, the remaining 48% of electricity could be priced by mandate as Fidesz wants, even though in 2016, market prices for electricity were cheaper than official prices.
Orbán also argues that Brussels aims to force a tax rise on Hungarians. But this argument is based on a point within a massive package of proposals still being debated in the EU called the European Pillar of Social Rights. The plan, which will reportedly be formally proposed by the EC this month, mostly concerns labor law regulations. In one point, the proposal aims to standardize modes of calculation for determining tax bases. So the proposal, if eventually passed, would not determine the amount of taxes to be paid, but create a method for calculating just what should be taxed.
Even so, EU President Jean-Claude Juncker in his initial proposal of the plan stated that “I believe we do well to start with this initiative within the euro area, while allowing other Member States to join in if they wish to do so.” Therefore, Hungary would not be obliged to participate in the plan, which hasn’t been passed, which wouldn’t explicitly mandate tax rises, unless it chose to.
Finally, Orbán has warned of Brussels’ aim to attack Hungarian labor programs, claiming that the country’s public work program, workplace protection plan, and job-creating development support are under threat. However, there are no indications to suggest that Brussels aims to shut down the public work program, no matter how objectionable. Additionally, the use of all EU development funds must be reviewed by the EC to ensure adherence to competition rules, something for which Hungary is guilty of numerous violations.
So far, it is difficult to tell what Orbán intends to defend Hungarians from concerning EU labor policy. One EC member in Brussels quipped that “maybe they want to protect themselves from the 3 billion forints per day in EU subsidies.”
Sweep them out of the country
As we reported earlier, the Fidesz government intends to make 2017 the year when foreign-funded NGOs are “swept out of the country.” The first concrete steps toward this plan were taken when the Prime Minister’s Office released an action plan for the first half of 2017 which features a proposal to require the leaders of NGOs to release personal asset declarations, a recommendation made earlier by Fidesz officials insisting that foreign-funded organizations were attempting to exert influence on the country’s domestic policy at the behest of foreign powers.
Later, during the Fidesz-KDNP congress in Visegrád, delegation leader Lajos Kósa declared that such organizations should be required to register themselves with a court as “foreign-funded organizations,” a practice adopted in Putin’s Russia that has faced international criticism.
A national consultation question on NGOs would likely inquire whether the Hungarian people think foreign-funded organizations should covertly influence Hungarian affairs on behalf of foreign interests and governments. If past consultations are any indication, and in light of years of anti-NGO hysteria promulgated by the Fidesz government, it isn’t hard to predict what the “will of the people” might be.