BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary will hold a referendum on European Union plans to create a system of mandatory quotas for migrants, an initiative that Hungary’s government has rejected, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Wednesday.
Orban has used harsh anti-migrant rhetoric since the migrant crisis escalated last year and gained notoriety for erecting a steel fence along Hungary’s southern border to keep out migrants - a policy now adopted by other Balkan countries.
He said the plebiscite, the first of its kind in Europe, would be a major test of European democracy.
The EU declined official comment, saying it was were trying to clarify what Orban was proposing.
Orban, who did not say when the vote might be held, has said the quotas would redraw the ethnic, cultural and religious map of Hungary and Europe. Under the plan, most EU nation would be obliged to accept a certain number of immigrants.
“Nobody has asked the European people so far whether they support, accept, or reject the mandatory migrant quotas,” he said at a news conference.
“The government is responding to public sentiment now: we Hungarians think introducing resettlement quotas for migrants without the backing of the people equals an abuse of power.”
Orban said he was aware of potential wider ramifications of such a referendum, especially if Hungarians say “No” to quotas.
“We had to think about the potential impact on European politics of such a proposal, but that was a secondary consideration,” he said.
“To us this is a fundamental, unavoidable, essential question of Hungarian politics: can anyone else decide for Hungarians who we Hungarians should or should not live with?”
EU officials noted no date had been set for a vote and suggested Orban may be more concerned with heading off talks on future plans for a permanent EU system of asylum relocation. Holding a referendum to undo a temporary scheme agreed by EU ministers last year would disrupt those EU plans.
European Council President Donald Tusk warned in the EU parliament on Wednesday that any leader who blocked joint efforts to resolve the migration crisis could make it more likely Britons would vote to quit the bloc in a June referendum.
Political Capital Institute analyst Peter Kreko said: “All in all, we can see that Orban is in a winning position as long as he speaks about the migration issues, as it allows him to play the role of the defender of the nation.
“It is his interest to keep this issue on the agenda even until (elections in) 2018,” Kreko said. That way, the referendum would eclipse such issues as education and healthcare. It would also pre-empt a political defeat for Orban if the European court rejects Hungary’s suit against the quotas.
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Larry King