Europe warns of 'referendum contagion'

By Paula Kennedy
BBC Monitoring

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
"Call me Madame Frexit," suggests Marine Le Pen

Do the warnings of "referendum contagion" triggered by the UK's Brexit poll have any substance?

Or has the threat of other countries rushing to hold popular votes as a way of putting pressure on the EU been somewhat exaggerated?

French Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen has long made it clear that if ever she came to power, she would not hesitate to push for a "Frexit" if she did not succeed in renegotiating the terms of France's membership of the bloc.

Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's announcement of a referendum on migrant quotas suggests that the temptation for populist leaders to hold plebiscites on EU policies that are unpopular with their citizens - to try to boost their own standing at home and possibly gain extra leverage within the bloc - can be all but irresistible.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Viktor Orban appears to be confident that the vote will go his way

Brexit, Frexit, Czexit...

Several of the former communist countries that joined the EU in 2004 resent any suggestion that "old guard" members such as France and Germany may be trying to dictate policy to the rest.

This suspicion has been exacerbated by the migrant crisis, which resurgent right-wing groups and populist politicians have seized on to push a Eurosceptic agenda.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (L) - shaking hands with British Prime Minister David Cameron - has warned of the impact of a "Brexit"

Immediately after British Prime Minister David Cameron's announcement that Britain would hold a referendum on its continued EU membership on 23 June, the pro-EU Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka warned of the impact of a Brexit, saying that it could produce a "domino effect" that would result in a "wave of nationalism and separatism" sweeping across Europe.

Mr Sobotka hinted that there were some fringe right-wing groups in his country who would jump at the chance to push for a "Czexit", though he insisted that such a scenario would be "senseless and dangerous" and could even return the Czech Republic to Russia's sphere of influence.

However, not all Eastern European leaders appear to share Mr Sobotka's concerns over the possibility of deepening divisions within Europe.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Hungarian government is pursuing an anti-migrant policy

The Hungarian premier has long delighted in firing shots across the EU's bows and last week Mr Orban seized on what has become a sore point with several countries: the EU's proposal for mandatory quotas for the resettlement of migrants. He announced that his government was planning to hold a referendum to gauge whether Hungarian citizens were prepared to accept such a proposal.

'Egotistic goals'

Hungary, like its fellow members of the Visegrad group (which also includes the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia), is still effectively a monocultural society.

Many Hungarians fear that an influx of migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia would dilute their cultural identity. Mr Orban is therefore apparently using a referendum on the quotas issue as a vote of confidence in his government's anti-migrant policies - and seems to be sure that it will go the way he wants.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
European Council President Donald Tusk has warned of a "populist tide" sweeping Europe

Last month, European Council President Donald Tusk warned of the possibility of other EU leaders following the lead set by the Brexit referendum, saying that this path was "a very attractive model for some politicians in Europe to achieve some internal, very egotistic goals".

The Hungarian move may prove to be the first of a new wave of post-Brexit referendums.

BBC Monitoring reports and analyses news from TV, radio, web and print media around the world. You can follow BBC Monitoring on Twitter and Facebook.