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Hungary: Budapest Mulls EU Referendum Amid Strong Public Support For Membership

Hungary's socialist-dominated coalition government has sent parliamentary parties plans for amending the constitution to prepare for accession into the European Union and holding a referendum on the country's EU membership. Hungary, one of the 10 candidates scheduled to join the EU in 2004, is the first to debate the membership referendum and the constitutional amendments needed for accession. Despite solid public support for EU membership, the strong center-right parliamentary opposition is showing signs of increasing euroskepticism.

Prague, 16 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy is proposing his country hold a referendum on European Union membership next March, and has submitted proposals for the necessary constitutional changes required to hold the referendum.

Hungary, like all candidate countries, must modify its constitution to give over part of its legislative authority to the EU. The EU last week gave the green light for 10 candidate countries, including Hungary, to join the 15-member bloc in 2004.

The governing coalition of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the liberal Free Democrats has a narrow, 10-mandate majority in the 386-seat parliament, and needs the support of the center-right opposition in order to secure the two-thirds of the vote needed to amend the constitution.

Hungary currently enjoys more than 70 percent public support for membership -- the highest of all 10 candidates.

But former Prime Minister Viktor Orban's conservative center-right FIDESZ, which is the main opposition party, this week refused to discuss the proposals, saying they need more time to study them.

FIDESZ has lately become increasingly euroskeptical and analysts say the party could try to delay the debate on the amendments and the referendum.

Robert Wright, a Budapest-based correspondent for London's "Financial Times," says Orban might be pursuing a more euroskeptical agenda, based on the fact that many candidate countries become less enthusiastic once they discover the price they have to pay for membership.

However, Wright tells RFE/RL that Orban's strategy is risky, given the high level of support that EU membership enjoys in Hungary: "The opinion poll data so far suggest that this is not a successful strategy and this is not something that most Hungarians particularly like or approve of. So obviously, if they [the opposition] procrastinate on it beyond the Copenhagen summit [12-13 December], that might not do terribly much for Hungary's reputation and that kind of thing. But this seems to be the strategy they want to follow -- they want to procrastinate, they want to have a heightened state of political tension, and this way they are certainly managing to get that."

The 10 candidate countries set to become members in 2004 -- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Cyprus, and Malta -- should complete admission negotiations by the end of this year.

Most candidates have said they will hold a vote on EU membership next year, and reports say there is tacit agreement among several of the more important candidates to begin the referendums in spring -- with Hungary going to the polls before less enthusiastic nations like the Czech Republic.

Support for EU membership has generally risen in recent months in most candidate countries. However, analysts say it could plummet if Irish voters reject again on 19 October the EU's Nice Treaty, which sets the institutional framework for enlargement.

Orban, a media-savvy populist who narrowly missed re-election after a hard-fought general election in April, was a staunch EU supporter during his term. But Orban now says that EU membership must come under better, carefully negotiated terms for Hungary.

Despite an agreement last month among Hungary's parliamentary parties to make complete constitutional amendments and agree on the EU referendum before the December Copenhagen summit, Orban has continued to set conditions.

The FIDESZ leader wants a ban on foreigners buying farmland, more support from the state for domestic business, and an across-the-board pay rise of more than 3 percent.

However, Wright of the "Financial Times" says that Orban is playing a risky card: "In the end, one has to be fairly skeptical about whether he can really turn around the huge and sustained public support in Hungary for EU membership before the referendum and whether he can really make this strategy work. But again, it's a fairly nuanced strategy, what he is saying is: 'I'm not against EU membership, but I want to make sure that it's done correctly.' And that's a fairly sophisticated message and one has to wonder if perhaps it's a little bit too sophisticated and people won't really quite get it."

Some analysts point out that even in the likely case of a pro-accession vote in Hungary, debates such as the current ones in Hungary could raise eyebrows in Brussels.

Enlargement analyst Kirsty Hughes of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, says the EU will be closely watching the Hungarian referendum: "In a country like Hungary, people will be reasonably confident that's going to be a 'yes' vote. But from the Brussels point of view, people will also be looking at what sort of member Hungary is going to be -- if it's going to have these sorts of debates, what is it going to be like when it's joining the EU?"

Nevertheless, journalist Wright believes that because Hungary has always been a model pupil among the EU hopefuls, it will be difficult for the EU to show public dissatisfaction with Hungary, for fear it might trigger a wave of euroskepticism in other, less enthusiastic candidate countries.

"Hungary's worked so hard at joining the EU, and has done so many of the basic hard homework types of thing that other countries haven't done, that Hungary is almost needed by the EU as an example to the other countries. Hungary is always held up as an example to the other countries. So if Hungary does something that the EU would prefer it no to do, they tend, in my opinion, no to pay terribly much attention to it because simply, they can't afford for Hungary no to be an example to other countries like the Czech Republic, like Poland. Hungary has to remain the model pupil, so I think the chances that the EU is going to show any kind of displeasure about political events in Hungary are extremely low."

Analyst Hughes notes that past EU enlargements referendums have proved unpredictable. She says that even in the case of the coming "big bang" enlargement, there is no guarantee that all referendums will say yes, despite the fact that the 10 candidate countries are far less wealthy than those in the previous wave of enlargement.

"The EU has had experiences like this before, in the previous, most recent enlargement to Sweden, Austria, and Finland. Norway was also a candidate country and had completed negotiations but said 'no' -- in fact, said 'no' twice -- to joining [after] having negotiated. So I don't think anybody is relaxed about the idea that all 10 candidate countries will automatically win their referendum. We would expect the vast majority to win, but there may be one or two upsets and that obviously would be regrettable."

Hughes believes that EU officials will look to the referendum in Hungary as a signal of how future referendums will go. She says a close result in an EU-friendly country like Hungary will ring alarm bells about the course of referendums in other candidate countries.

Meanwhile, debate in parliament on Medgyessy's proposed constitutional amendments and referendum date are set to start after the local elections, which are scheduled for 20 October.