Brexit fuels Hungary’s anti-EU fire

Aftershocks from Britain’s vote to leave the EU have spread to Eastern Europe, where nationalist movements say the British decision is giving strength to their campaigns against EU migration policies.

Hungary will hold a referendum in the coming months on whether to reject German chancellor Angela Merkel’s mandatory quota plan that would force Hungary and other EU members to accept a share of refugees.

Attila Szigeti, a resident of Bicske, a town 37 kilometers west of Budapest, says he will vote to reject the quotas.

For the past year, Szigeti, 28, has had a front row seat to the migrant crisis that has seen more than a million people arrive in Europe from places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “At the beginning, we did not have a problem with them.” The annoyances, he said, were minimal. “They did not do anything serious, just stealing corn from the edge of my cornfield.”

But as their numbers grew, so did the problems. “They gather in groups, form gangs, and annoy and threaten locals,” said Szigeti. He has since shaved his head, but denies any suggestion that he is a racist skinhead. “With this look, I do not need to watch my back. I do not have to be afraid because this way, I appear tough.”

Refugees and migrants at the camp appeared surprised to know they are perceived as a threat.

“Why we are not allowed here in Europe, we are not human beings like you? We have no desire, we have no rights like your children?” asks Mano, a 22-year-old medical student from Afghanistan who arrived at the camp last week.

Mano fled Kabul after extremists killed his brother for working as a translator for French forces. Now, he resents that some in France and elsewhere in Europe cite fear of terrorism as a reason for rejecting refugees. “What can we bring with ourselves? Nothing. We also want peace. That’s why we leave our country,” Mano said.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government is spending millions of dollars on billboards and other ads ahead of Hungary’s referendum, which will ask “Do you want the European Union to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?”

Orban said the vote will be “a chance to stand up for Hungary’s sovereignty.” Analysts predict an easy victory for the referendum.

“He has presented Brussels as an enemy of the Hungarian nation,” said Nick Sitter, a public policy professor at Central European University in Budapest, an institution funded by American billionaire and anti-rightist crusader George Soros. “He has said that in 1848-’49 we stood up against Vienna, in 1956 we stood up against Moscow, and now we have to stand up against Brussels.”

The leading opposition party in Hungary is the far-right, Russian-backed Jobbikparty, whose leaders see Brexit as a boost for the migration referendum, and more broadly, the anti-EU movement.

“When the people are going to go to the booth to vote it is going to be very clearly a vote for or against Brussels and the EU’s policy with regard to migration,” Marton Gyongyosi, deputy leader of Jobbik in parliament, told VOA.

Orban has said he supports a strong Europe and has been careful not to appear as though he is pushing for an exit. But he wants deep reforms in the grouping.

Last week, Hungary and the Visegrad group that includes Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, announced they will draw up their own plans to decentralize the EU.

Hungary’s far right is also refraining from calls for a referendum to leave, for now. “At the moment I would say we are in a holding position because the Brexit might kick off enormous changes within the European Union,” Jobbik’s Gyongyosi said.

In Bicske, Attila Szigeti says he is eager to vote in the referendum and wants Hungary to end the influx of asylum-seekers.

“You feel like they do not want to assimilate and behave like us. They ignore our culture and I completely understand the British,” he said. “It is not racism, it is patriotism.”


(Refugees sit in the sun at a collection point in Röszke near the Hungarian-Serbian border, while waiting to be transported to a registration centre. Photo: UNHCR/Z. Gal)