The failed referendum shows that Viktor Orban's noisy bluster is starting to wear thin, even in Hungary. The EU must be happy about that, says Max Hofmann.
If you were listening closely on Sunday evening, you may have heard gloating laughter from the EU Commission building in Brussels. Naturally, even a valid Hungarian referendum would have made little difference to the course of European refugee policy, but at least Viktor Orban has now been slapped down by his own people, not just by grandees of EU institutions. Orban's scaremongering can no longer draw a majority of voters to the polling stations, even in Hungary.
The aim was supposedly clear. Hungarians were to spell out once again to everyone in Europe that they didn't want to take in any refugees, not even if - according to current laws - there were only 2,300 of them. The idea was for everyone in the EU to get the message: All the ministers have said it, Viktor Orban has said it, and now the people have said it, too.
The problem was that most of them didn't want to say it. Of the roughly 45 percent who voted, it's true that the vast majority were on Orban's side. Nonetheless, as the referendum was deemed invalid, this wasn't the triumphant signal the government in Budapest wanted to send.
Numbed by slogans?
So what does this referendum actually tell us? Valid or not, it effectively just confirms what we have known for a long time already through opinion polls: The majority of Hungarians don't want to take in any refugees. It also shows, once more, that Viktor Orban is prepared to go on annoying his European colleagues as long as the strategy keeps working for him at home.
However, this is precisely what now seems to be gradually coming to an end. The referendum cost around 40 million euros ($45 million). Orban had all of Hungary plastered with posters calling on people to vote. Yet still not enough of them went to the polling booths on Sunday. It seems that some Hungarians have also had enough of Orban's constant bluster.
So in fact the whole referendum was just a money-eating machine aimed at symbolically sticking up two fingers at Brussels again. But Orban's pointless vote has shown that his rabble-rousing tactics aren't really working for him anymore. In order to maintain the effect of his populist cocktail, he has to keep stoking fear of the downfall of Western civilization. In other words, he has to keep on increasing the dose, as he did with the referendum, in order to achieve the desired effect. But it seems the dose was already too low for voters: The majority seem to have been numbed by their leader's constant sloganeering, preferring to stay at home on a Sunday, refugees or no.
All evil comes from Brussels
Perhaps it's also because Hungarians - unlike the British - are actually quite pleased with their EU membership, or at least with the billions of euros that flow their way from Brussels. This is why Orban has two faces. When he drops in on other heads of state, he tries, by all accounts, to go along with them a bit. Behind the scenes at the summit in the Slovakian city of Bratislava in mid-September he backed everything, even working up a concept of his own - "flexible solidarity in refugee policy." Yet still there had to be criticism. The meeting had been a failure, he declared at the end. His cooperation during the summit, in the company of the other heads of state and government, is the one side of Orban; badmouthing everything for the domestic stage is the other.
And this is precisely the problem. The Hungarian premier has perfected a familiar mechanism: All evil comes from Brussels (or Berlin), all good things from one's own EU member state. It's a self-sustaining loop that seemed to work as long as the European Union was somehow muddling along. But since the Brexit referendum, at the latest, it's clear that this way of dealing with Europe leads straight over the cliff. Joining in a bit at EU summits, then holding referenda at home against legally binding EU decisions, is certainly not an effective way of doing things. It's high time Viktor Orban understood this. The failed referendum provides hope that for many Hungarian citizens, this realization has already prevailed. For the good of the EU.
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