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Think Hungary’s vote makes it the exception? Think again

The reasons why ‘new Europe’, by and large, resists EU quotas runs deeper. But the EU as a whole will have to admit that, in the awkward mixture of hostility and apathy exposed by its referendum, Hungary may be less of an exception than the rule

If any EU country was going to vote against accepting a Brussels-imposed quota for accepting refugees, then Hungary was a prime candidate. One of the most ethnically homogenous and linguistically closed of all EU states, it was also, by virtue of its geography, one of the most affected by the desperate procession of displaced people across Europe a year ago.

Pictures of Budapest’s main railway station overwhelmed by the mass arrival of people from elsewhere seemed to sum up something about the European Union’s inadequacy, whether of security or compassion – or both.

The result of Sunday’s referendum had seemed to be a foregone conclusion. The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban had asked the country’s 8 million voters a leading question: “Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent?” And the answer was, well, not as decisive as Orban and his ministers surely hoped.

From those who took part came the expected resounding “No” (98 per cent of votes cast). But more than half of all registered voters appear not to have felt strongly enough to cast their ballot. The 43 per cent turnout fell well short of the 50 per cent required to make the referendum legally valid.

Any calculation by Viktor Orban that he would be able to use the result to pressure the rest of the EU into abandoning all idea of quotas has misfired. He insisted yesterday that the vote had shown overwhelming support for his position. But the Luxembourg foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, who argued that Hungary deserved to be suspended or expelled from the EU for its negative attitude to refugees, should perhaps think again: Hungarians have emerged as less dogmatic or xenophobic than they were painted.

The EU can also draw some consolation from this result. If nothing else, it suggests that the panic of this time last year has subsided. Hungarian opinion is less hostile to the EU than, say, that of the UK (which is logical, given Hungary’s status as a net beneficiary)

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