4 December 2018

CEU’s departure from Hungary is a dark moment for Europe


After years of legal and political drama, the Central European University is finally leaving Budapest.

The university has been under threat for a while from Viktor Orban’s government, which recently passed a new law making it much more difficult for foreign-run universities to operate in Hungary.

All this attention afforded by a government to a small foreign operation might seem illogical. But things become clearer when the personalities involved come into focus. CEU’s founder is George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist and activist who has become a bête noire of the international populist right and the Hungarian government in particular.

In Hungary’s recent parliamentary elections conspiracy theories about Soros acting to covertly undermine Hungarian culture through immigration and multiculturalism moved from the fringes to become mainstream public opinion. Since the election, Orban’s campaign against Soros has only intensified. In Budapest it’s now common to see what many consider anti-Semitic posters condemning Soros.

As a Soros outpost, CEU has naturally become a target for Orban. That his government is cracking down on a university is yet another sign of Hungary’s descent into authoritarianism, with institutions that fail to tow the line being punished. It also suggests Orban and his Fidesz party are tightening their grip on what can be taught to Hungary’s young people.

But there is a broader context to the clampdown. The attack on CEU is part of a widespread attack on international non-governmental organisations, and especially those connected to Soros, which extends across eastern Europe and into Asia.

Last month, the Open Society Foundation, a pro-democracy NGO founded by Soros, announced it would be leaving Turkey following hostility from the Erdogan government. Open Society had already decided to withdraw from Hungary back in May of this year.

CEU’s relative endurance in a comparable situation ought to be celebrated, but not unduly. In truth its ineffective campaign exposed the weakness of international institutions which might in the past have been expected to force Orban into exercising restraint.

The way CEU went about defending itself was also questionable. Michael Ignatieff, the university’s president and rector, is a man of impeccable academic credentials and political experience. He has struggled manfully to protect his domain.  He cleverly and evocatively suggested that his university’s fate typified the confrontation between nationalism and internationalism, liberalism and illiberalism, a conflict which holds European elites transfixed.

It sounds like a powerful line, but when illiberalism and nationalism are winning in Hungary, defining oneself as integral to the losing side may not have been the wisest tactic.

CEU’s defenders also held protests and seminars of sympathy at elite educational institutions across western Europe. Though such events may have fostered solidarity, it’s hard to argue they did much to sway the Hungarian government.

The university also made its case in the international press, with Ignatieff and Soros offering interviews, and British and American correspondents kept up to date with the university’s bureaucratic battles. A student at CEU, Rosa Schwartzburg, was even given space in the New York Times late last month to put the university’s case to its readers.

The piece was well written and clear, but the newspaper’s decision to headline the effort “Can Students Save George Soros’s School?” probably only made life more difficult for CEU.

In truth, the campaign to keep CEU in Hungary seems not only to have failed, with little substantive international support forthcoming, but to have actively harmed the university’s cause.

In the past, appeals to the international community might have shamed Hungary’s government into reconsidering its behaviour. But now, with that government political secure and nationalism rampant, linking the institution even more obviously with foreign interests and  ‘globalism’ looks to have been a big tactical mistake.

What’s more, the fate of CEU may foreshadow worse things yet to come in Orban’s Hungary.

James Snell is a British writer whose work has appeared in National Review, Prospect and History Today.