How to chase away a university

For the past week or so I’ve been in Budapest on a study visit at the Central European University (CEU), where I’ve been doing some research on cultural evolution with the anthropologist Dan Sperber and his group.  I wouldn’t normally be blogging about this kind of everyday academic excursion, but if you’ve been following the news at all closely for the last few weeks then the name of the university might ring a bell, because of the well-publicised plans of the authoritarian Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán of the right-wing populist party Fidesz, to close the place down.

The CEU was founded in 1991 by the American businessman and philanthropist George Soros.  It awards both Hungarian and American degrees, the latter thanks to an agreement with the educational authorities of the State of New York.  It’s one of the best universities in Central Europe, with a high Times Higher Education ranking.  It’s also a bastion of liberalism and democratic values, with students from all over the world doing unfettered research into a wide range of subjects, often with generous grants and scholarships.

Image result for orban soros
That last point does not go down well with Orbán, a self-proclaimed “illiberal democrat” who has been undermining the rule of law in Hungary for much of his political career, and especially since he was returned to office in 2010.  As far as Orbán and his brand of muscular nationalism are concerned, Soros and his transnational, cosmopolitan worldview—as represented by institutions such as the CEU—represent a threat to the sovereignty of the  nation state.  It doesn’t help that Soros’s foundation finances a number of NGOs that have been strongly critical of Orbán’s policy towards refugees.  So a few months ago, the government announced that Soros and his international network of subversive liberal influence needed to be reined in.  And that meant that the CEU became a target.


At the end of March, Orbán’s government pushed through a bill, which the President of Hungary has since signed into law, to tighten the regulation of foreign educational institutions.  Nobody is even trying very hard to pretend that this law has any other purpose than to close down the CEU.  It imposes a legal requirement for any foreign university established in Hungary to also have a campus in its country of origin, a condition that the CEU just happens not to meet.  Moreover, all staff of foreign universities who are not EU citizens (which, in the case of the CEU, means the majority) will need to apply for a Hungarian work permit, as the new law eliminates the existing waiver.

But according to my friend Roeland Termote, who is the Eastern Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC, the exact rules imposed by the new law don’t even matter that much.  Even if the CEU were to comply with the law to the letter tomorrow, or if it were to find a loophole of some kind, the Fidesz government would very probably just pass another law to introduce another set of conditions.  The Constitutional Court could strike down the law, but for that to happen, either the President, or at least one-fourth of Hungarian MPs, or some other high government functionary, would need to request an appearance before the Court. In short, if Orbán really wants to shut the CEU down, there’s not much that can be done to prevent it.

Resistance
But it seems that Orbán may have underestimated the resistance he would face on this issue.  Since the start of April there have been several large demonstrations against the anti-CEU measures, with thousands of academics and ordinary citizens taking part.  On Thursday of last week I too was standing outside the Hungarian parliament building, chanting pro-liberal, pro-European slogans along with thousands of others.  The protests have evolved from their initial focus on the CEU and Soros to become a more general outlet for disaffection with the regime.

We know from watching Putin, Trump, and Erdogan that when authoritarian leaders with big egos encounter unexpected popular resistance, they resort to conspiracy theories.  Viktor Orbán is no exception to this; he certainly isn’t about to accept that thousands of his own people would spontaneously demonstrate against him.  So for the last few weeks, the Hungarian media—mostly controlled by people close to Orbán—have been full of stories of thousands of foreign demonstrators allegedly flown in on tickets paid for by Soros.  Having just stepped off a plane here myself, I’ve been joking with my colleagues that I, too, have been sent here by “Uncle George” on an all-expenses-paid trip to reinforce the ranks of the rebels, under the fiendishly clever cover story of a “study visit”.

Pretty much nobody supports Orbán in this.  Foreign leaders, other universities, and intellectuals worldwide have been unanimous in their criticism of the attacks on the CEU.  Even the genuine fascists in the Hungarian parliament—this is a country where the leading opposition party, according to the polls, is even further to the right than the government—are against the new law.  Orbán had expected to receive support from Donald Trump, his brother in authoritarian arms across the ocean; after all, Orbán was about the only European leader to have supported Trump’s candidacy, and he celebrated Trump’s victory as “the end of liberal non-democracy”.  But the American government has let it be known that they are also concerned about Orbán’s actions, and has called on him not to interfere in the operation of the CEU.

Death penalty
Can anyone stop Orbán?  Much hope rests with the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest grouping in the European Parliament, which includes Orbán’s Fidesz party, but also moderate Christian Democrat parties such as Angela Merkel’s CDU and Belgium’s Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams (CD&V). 

The EPP is well aware that Fidesz is their black sheep. In 2015 Orbán proposed to reinstate the death penalty in Hungary.  After strong protests within the EPP, he was forced to back down.  Then there are the regular reports about widespread corruption, large-scale detention of migrants, muzzling of press freedom, and now curbs on academic freedom.  The EPP is gradually getting tired of Orbán’s antics.[1]

Up till now, the various Christian Democrat parties in the EPP have tried to rein Fidesz in, not least because they have 14 seats in the European Parliament.  But the Belgian CD&V group, at least, are now prepared to talk about expelling Fidesz from the EPP.  It’s becoming clear that any advantages of having Fidesz inside the tent and trying to exercise a moderating influence on them are outweighed by the disadvantages.  As CD&V MEP Tom Vandenkendelaere puts it, “How far can you take Realpolitik without selling your soul?”

The question then arises of whether CD&V are prepared to transform their undoubtedly fine words into actions.  You can’t just tell everyone that there are limits to pragmatism, and then continue to turn a pragmatic blind eye to what you claim to oppose.  If Fidesz and Orbán continue on their current path, and nobody else in the EPP speaks up to oppose them, is CD&V prepared to accept the consequences of their position?

Brain drain
It’s an open question whether—and if so, how much—Orbán really wants to close down the CEU, or to bring back the death penalty.  Closing down the best university in the country would surely result in a brain drain that went far beyond the CEU; Orbán (or, at the very least, his advisers) must realise this.  And bringing back the death penalty would be in direct conflict with the Lisbon treaty, which Hungary signed up to in 2007, as well as many other international accords.  So what is Orbán’s game?

The fact that the resistance to his policies is coming principally from the European Union is good news for Orbán, because it fits with his narrative of ‘unelected left-liberal bureaucrats’ who are undermining the independence of proud nation states from their offices in Brussels.  He has used the same approach when dealing with the refugee crisis.  His fighting talk about the death penalty is mainly aimed at his own constituency: “We’re doing all we can to protect our citizens, but those do-gooders in Brussels won’t let us”.  Of course, his hostility towards the EU is selective: Hungary receives hundreds of millions of Euros in subsidies each year, quite a lot of which ends up in the pockets of corrupt local officials.

The hope for the CEU is that something similar will happen with the recent law.  It seems unlikely that Orbán actually wants to close down the CEU, which would gain him nothing at home and cost him credibility internationally.  His real aim is to look tough and score points off Soros.  The most likely outcome, as far as I can see, seems to be some kind of legal compromise, whereby the CEU gets to continue with business as usual and Orbán avoids any loss of face.  Then he can go back to tilting at other EU windmills, without actually changing anything.

(Translated by Nick Brown, adapted from a piece originally published in De Morgen)




[1] It should be noted that the EPP is not the only party group with an enfant terrible in its midst. For instance, the European Conservatives and Reformists have to deal with the right-wing populist True Finns.

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