The leader has warned that funding will decide his country's future
The ideological chasm between Viktor Orbán and the EU keeps growing wider, but a possible ‘Huxit’ has long been a fantasy. Indeed, the prospect of leaving the EU would be unpopular with a government which enjoys the economic benefits of EU membership and with an opposition that fears adding fuel to the fire of burgeoning euroscepticism. But that might be about to change.
Bizarrely, calls for a plebiscite relating to EU membership are now being made by pro-EU politicians. Members of Hungary’s once united but now very-much-divided opposition have launched a referendum initiative intended as a pre-emptive strike to stop any imagined future EU departure attempts by Orbán.
Their referendum proposal got off to a shambolic start. First, an MEP from the Hungarian Socialist Party announced that he would submit a referendum question asking whether Hungarians “agree with parliament creating a law on Hungary’s commitment to EU membership”. The fuzzy question quickly drew derision, including from opposition leaders. But later, the leader of Jobbik — a now-sanitised, formerly extreme-Right party — submitted a more sensible proposal: a referendum on removing the Hungarian parliament’s current theoretical ability to take the country out of the EU without a referendum.
It’s unlikely that Jobbik’s proposal will actually go to a public vote; Orbán’s Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament and no discernible interest in the idea. What’s more, horrified reactions from other opposition parties have been telling. Conscious of the Brexit referendum’s polarising effect on perceptions of the EU, they fear that forcing voters to take sides — even on such a pre-emptive question — would only boost the eurosceptic cause, opening a “Pandora’s Box” on whether Hungary should stay in the EU.
The opposition hates Orbán, but many hate the idea of ‘Huxit’ even more. They will therefore not wish to upset the status quo in which Orbán brushes all questions about ‘Huxit’ aside by insisting that he sees Hungary’s future in a reformed, less domineering version of the EU. Forcing him to participate in any kind of referendum would make this nuanced stance harder to sustain.
Yet whatever the outcome of the referendum proposal, the EU itself is slowly but surely forcing Hungary’s hand. Brussels continues to withhold pandemic recovery funds from Budapest and has triggered a mechanism for withholding budget payouts, despite receiving proposals which the Hungarian government claims should resolve ‘rule of law’ concerns.
The proposals are unlikely to be enough: reading between the lines of statements by EU leaders, it’s clear that the funding blockages are mostly political, not legal. The minister for the EU in the current Czech EU presidency last week said a controversial recent speech by Orbán about “race-mixing” will have “political consequences” and “accelerate” the bloc’s rule of law proceedings.
Orbán himself suggests that funding issues will ultimately decide Hungary’s EU future, claiming that by around 2030 Hungary will become a net contributor to the EU budget and that “he who pays the piper calls the tunes.” The message is clear: a fundamental re-evaluation of negative Hungarian-EU relations will become unavoidable once the country starts paying more into the bloc than it gets out. The outcome of such a shift is for now uncertain. It could spell the end of the Orbán regime, or it might put Hungary on the road out of the EU, with or without a referendum.