30 April 2018

The recent Hungarian parliamentary elections resulted in a major victory for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party, in power since 2010. Fidesz even managed to secure a majority in parliament, with 133 seats out of 199 now under its control.

The main focus of this election was immigration. Mostly ignoring economic issues, Orbán’s campaign consisted of presenting his goal to defend Hungary from external forces, which, so his narrative goes, include the financier George Soros, the EU’s obligatory plan to resettle migrants from Italy and Greece, and migrants themselves. Building upon the population’s fears of “migrant invasions,” Orbán’s media campaigns have been promoting his theory that Hungary stands as “the last bastion in the fight against the Islamisation of European civilisation.” His campaign was anything but moderate, with anti-Semitic and xenophobic billboards, advertisements and speeches aimed at “stopping” Soros and migrants, and a strong anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The focus on immigration seems to have ended up being Orbán’s winning card in this election. Despite the fact the country has not taken any refugees under the EU relocation scheme, immigration is an issue that remains a concern for most Hungarians. According to the Századvég Foundation’s most recent Project 28 survey results, 72% of Hungarians see illegal migration as a very/somewhat serious problem and 94% believe the EU’s borders must be protected more effectively. Recent Eurobarometer results also reveal that 58% of Hungarians rank immigration as the most important issue facing the EU and over 60% see it as a problem, rather than an opportunity, for the country.

European media was surprised by the success of the racism and right-wing populism of Fidesz’s anti-immigration campaign, but some of Orbán’s arguments, however extreme they might sound, are not as isolated as it is often assumed. Extreme positions can be found even in narratives considered to be ‘mainstream’. In France, for instance, Interior Minister Gérard Collomb is pushing for more control on asylum demands with a new reform recently adopted by the National Assembly. Collomb argues that some regions in the country are “submerged by inflows of asylum seekers,” and asking, “Could [France] build a whole medium-sized city every year to welcome refugees?”.

The latest Eurobarometer results suggest immigration remains the top concern of EU citizens. This is not to say that Europeans are necessarily against granting asylum to refugees in principle, but rather that they are worried about protection against illegal and uncontrolled migration. The Project 28 poll reveals that the average of people in the EU28 who consider illegal migration a very/somewhat serious problem is 78%. 78% also believe that the EU’s borders should be better protected.

Moreover, an increasing amount of Europeans are demanding a reform of migration policies. The poll shows that the number of people who approve of the Central and Eastern European approach, i.e. strict control or closing borders altogether, is twice the amount of those who agree with Brussels’ methods. The number of those who support the EU’s quota plan fell from 53% in 2016 to 47% in 2017. These are concerns that leaders cannot ignore in the long term, if they want to maintain their democratic legitimacy.

But the continent remains divided on the possible ways forward. On the one hand, some insist on prioritising their national sovereignty. Orbán, for instance, suggested that he could accept participating in a refugee distribution mechanism only if it is Hungary which decides who gets to cross its borders, not the EU. On the other hand, others are calling for greater action at the EU level in order to regulate and redistribute the flows of asylum seekers. For instance, Italy’s Five Star Movement, which came out as the single largest party in recent elections, suggests making immigration an entirely European policy and reforming the Dublin Regulation. In Germany, Health Minister Jens Spahn claimed that European borders should be better protected, adding he would “be open to partial surrender of sovereignty, if this would make the borders safer.”

These divisions are already visible within EU institutions and will further prevent efforts to strike a deal at the European Council in June. The plan to revise the Dublin Regulation put forward by the Bulgarian presidency remains controversial for Central and Eastern Europe and especially for Southern member states, who have expressed their concerns over the presidency’s proposals.

With Orbán’s re-election, Hungary’s battle against Europe on migration policies will continue. Despite being referred to the European Court of Justice by the Commission over noncompliance with the refugee quotas, the government in Budapest continues to be supported by other parties in the European People’s Party (EPP) group, of which Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU is also a member. This may also encourage anti-immigration movements in other member states and reduce the possibility of reaching an EU level agreement.

While concerns about migration vary across the EU (and indeed from typically British concerns over intra-EU Free Movement), the topic will remain a top priority for citizens and national governments. A revision of EU migration and asylum policies is necessary, as the Bulgarian Presidency recognises. One area in which some form of agreement is possible is strengthening external borders control, which many member states advocate. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that making progress in external borders security will be a goal of the Austrian EU presidency later this year. However, the persistent divisions over approaches towards reforms reduce the chances of a major breakthrough in this area.