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Hungary’s Referendum on Dual Citizenship: A Small Victory for Europeanism

The pro-naturalization camp inside and outside Hungary accused Gyurcsany of betrayal and exaggeration, revealing the atmosphere of partisanship, fractiousness and polarization that has characterized the closely divided Hungarian political forces.

The dual-citizenship proposal failed at the polls; with only 38 percent of voters turning out, the 51 percent of them voting in favor of the question was not sufficient to satisfy the requirement of approval by 25 percent of registered voters. Gyurcsany’s strategy had carried the day, and analysts agreed that the public had responded to the Prime Minister’s pocketbook appeals and had been left cold by Orban’s call to unite all 15 million Hungarians, of which 10 million live in the Hungarian state.

After the vote, Orban remained unreconciled and called on Gyurcsany to convene a forum representing all Hungarians to work out a plan for dual citizenship. The issue, while resolved for the moment in favor of Europeanism, is likely to flare up in the future, especially if Hungary’s economic growth lags and a more nationalist administration is voted into office.

International Complications

The prospect of dual citizenship for ethnic Hungarians, especially when Orban linked the issue to greater autonomy for them in neighboring states, was greeted with disapproval by those states. Romania, in particular, contains the Transylvania region, which Hungarians regard as a historical seat of their nation, and has the largest Hungarian minority and one that is well organized and anxious for expanded autonomy. The possible use of dual citizenship as a wedge for Budapest to influence minority policies in neighboring states is perceived by those states as a threat to their sovereignty.

The referendum came at a time when the incumbent prime minister of Romania, Adrian Nastase, was facing a close presidential runoff election to be held on December 12. In order to win the election, Nastase must gain votes from supporters of the ultra-nationalist and anti-Hungarian Grand Romania Party, as well as maintain his alliance with the pro-autonomist Democratic Union of Hungary, which pursues a pragmatic approach of counting on E.U. membership for Romania to strengthen its Hungarian minority’s case.

Expecting continued support from the Hungarian party, Nastase responded to the referendum by citing a 1979 agreement between Budapest and Bucharest that prohibited dual citizenship. Budapest responded that it had formally canceled the agreement in 1990, to which Bucharest replied that it could find no documents to that effect.

The exchange was embittered by a letter from Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana warning that any ethnic Hungarians who applied for Hungarian citizenship — were the referendum to pass — would be stripped of their Romanian citizenship. Gyurcsany pointed out that Romania’s constitution permits dual citizenship and that approximately 300 Romanian citizens apply for Hungarian pensions each month. Hungarian Foreign Minister Ferenc Somogyi took the position that “all countries have the sovereign right to choose whom they would want to recognize as their own citizens.” He was backed up by the European Commission, which issued a statement on December 6 that “it was the full right of Hungary to have a referendum on citizenship.”

The Bucharest-Budapest exchanges played into the hands of Orban’s Civic Union by forcing Gyurcsany to defend the legitimacy of the referendum at the same time that he was urging people not to vote on it. The exchanges also put pressure on the alliance between Nastase’s Socialists and the Democratic Union of Hungary. Both of the Socialist leaders escaped political damage, Gyurcsany when the referendum was defeated and Nastase when the Democratic Union opened up negotiations with the Socialists to form a minority government.


The defeat of the Hungarian referendum on dual citizenship was a temporary victory for the E.U., but also a reminder that unresolved problems from the past can surface having the potential of disturbing European integration. The success of the E.U. design to westernize Eastern Europe depends more than anything else on robust economic growth and broad distribution of its benefits in the region. If rising expectations are not met, nationalist sentiments that can be exploited politically remain close to the surface.

Gyurcsany’s success in opposing the referendum and Nastase’s success in keeping the Hungarian party on his side were both based on the perception of their respective constituencies and allies that European integration is the best way to satisfy their interests. If that perception should change, the E.U. will not so easily overcome the European past.

Reproduced with kind permision of the Power and Interest News Report.

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an analysis-based publication that seeks to, as objectively as possible, provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader.

The Power and Interest News Report

BBC News Story on the Referendum

EuroObserver article on the Referendum

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