Genval, 2nd April 2017 – The latest plans of illiberal Hungary aiming at closing the Central European University (CEU) can be explained in the context of the 2018 general elections. As there is no potent opposition, the government desperately needs permanent war rhetoric & a popular public enemy. Attacking science and research can however backfire.
(source of the photo: Index)
Lex CEU: what is it about?
The Hungarian government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, is planning amendments to Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education, which would make it impossible for the Central European University to continue its operations as an institution of higher education in Budapest. Due to its foreign financing, the new law would require an international treaty between Hungary and either the U.S. or the State of New York to ensure the continuity of the function of the University. There is no rational reason for that: the CEU is a well-known and respected academic institution located in the Hungarian capital, which has many Hungarian and international professors and which attracted many students to Hungary so far. The reasons must be therefore irrational and could be explained by political reasons.
Central European University (CEU) is a graduate-level, English-language university accredited in the U.S. and Hungary and located in Budapest. The university offers degrees in the social sciences, humanities, law, public policy, business management, environmental science, and mathematics.
CEU has more than 1500 students from 100 countries and 300 faculty members from more than 30 countries. CEU was founded by philanthropist George Soros, who has provided an endowment of US$880 million, making the university one of the wealthiest in Europe. It is considered as one of the most prestigious universities in Central Europe for social sciences and humanities.
CEU has two schools, including the School of Public Policy and CEU Business School, 13 academic departments, and 17 research centers. (source: Wikipedia)
Walking in the shoes of Erdogan and Putin
Many say that the Hungarian government acts similarly to Turkey and Russia when it conducts attack against critical NGOs. As I argued recently in my joint post with my fellow Polish colleague, the Hungarian government has launched several times massive attacks against real and critical NGOs. A first campaign in 2014 was attacking the credibility of Hungarian NGOs and trying to gain controlling power over their funding, distributed independently from the government. And the most recent development was in early 2017 when the government openly announced that NGOs should be ‘eliminated’ as they are serving foreign interests. There is a draft-law under discussion about this. Even government politicians found this anti-civil campaign disgusting but they accepted assuming that it is necessary for the aimed political victory during the 2018 elections. However, there is not enough political justification for attacking a University. 95% of Hungarian voters have no clue about CEU and it can be easily regarded – as it as – as an attack against the freedom of science, which is not common since the Middle age.
The link between anti-NGO rhetoric and the CEU is George Soros.
This is about the national 2018 elections only
As the 2018 election year approaches, the government is in need of a popular enemy who can be blamed for any failures and lack of societal and economic successes. The recent refugee crisis and closing the Balkan route put Hungary to the international news. It served well the popularity of the government but since the migrant flow has diminished, an old-new enemy was needed: the Hungarian born George Soros. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán named him in his recent speech by describing him as a ‘large predator swimming in the water’. He is a well known philanthropist funding critical NGOs, and he is the founder of the CEU, too.
This time, the government went too far
The controversial move has created wide opposition both in Hungary and all over the world: over 500 prominent U.S. and European academics, including 17 Nobel Laureates have signed an open letter in support of Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.
Hungarian Commissioner Navracsics also opposes the move
It is ironic that the Hungarian Commissioner nominated by the Orbán government happened to be responsible for education and culture. Tibor Navracsics was so far loyal to the government. First, he wrote a letter to fellow Commissioners arguing against a European Citizenship Initiative which was about triggering article 7 against Hungary. Because of this act, he received a letter from Commission President Juncker reminding him that, as a commissioner, he must remain neutral and not represent the interests of his home country. Later Commissioner Navracsics claimed that he voted ‘no’ during the Hungarian migrant quote referendum which was an anti-European hate campaign.
However this time, being a well known academic person himself, he truly behaved as a European Commissioner for Education should by saying:
“Central European University is one of the most important higher education institutions not only in Hungary, but also in the European Higher Education Area. Therefore, I think it’s important that after the correction of possible irregularities, it can continue to operate in Budapest undisturbed,” – Tibor Navracsics, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport
What will make the government to change its mind?
Manifestations and public opposition in Hungary only. As the reasons of the law are rooted in domestic policy, only domestic opposition can stop the government. History shown that international pressure on the Orbán government does not really work. It makes the regime just more determined. However, there are a few failures when the government was obliged to retreat and all of them were because of fear of losing votes:
– a planned internet levy had to be canceled because of massive manifestations against it
– Hungary revoked a law about closing the shops on Sundays because it was unpopular,
– Budapest, after consulting with the Prime Minister, revoked its application for the 2024 Olympic games because enough signatures were collected for a binding referendum about the issue.
By going home on last Friday, I have seen many people against the Hungarian Permanent Representation to the EU protesting against this law. By writing these lines, thousands of protesters went home after a huge demonstration in the Hungarian capital Budapest, which reminded me to the anti-internet tax movement. Soon or later the Hungarian government has to understand that it crossed the Rubicon. The earlier this decision is revoked, the better for everyone: for the freedom of science, for the students and for Hungary.
I was advised by some friends to translate a Hungarian article to English which explains why did all attempts aiming at reaching the Western standard of living has been failed in Hungary in the past 100 years. The author makes parallels examining the major regimes (Horthy regime: 1921-1944, Kádár regime: 1956-1989, Post-communist republic: 1990-2010, and the recent Orbán regime of ‘National cooperation’: 2010 – onward) arguing that the ruling forces has first nationalised available resources and then relied on foreign financial support. The article makes the point that a true check-and-balance system was not created because of the lack of financially independent elite and due to dependence on policy. None of the mentioned regime could eliminate existing inequalities and they have failed. The article is available in Hungarian only.