The looming decision on whether to close the prestigious Central European University (CEU), a symbol of the resistance in Hungary, is bringing together the opposition to forge an innovative plan to end the ‘Orbánian’ state, EURACTIV.com reports from Budapest.
Among the long list of controversial decisions taken by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, no other issue has provoked such a political earthquake like his efforts to close down the CEU.
Since the FIdesz leader took power in 2010, the European Commission and the European Parliament have accused him of eroding the rule of law and fundamental freedoms due to his attacks against the media, harassment of NGOs and neglecting Hungary’s Roma community.
Meanwhile, corruption remains widespread in the country and key sectors of the economy are controlled by his allies.
But it was his attacks against the freedom of academia that were at the core of the sanctions procedure triggered by the Parliament last month (Article 7).
For the Hungarian government, the situation is pretty straightforward, based on the new Education law at the heart of the controversy.
The CEU “would like to enjoy a privilege, not given to anybody. And that is a problem,” explains Hungary’s Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Relations, Zoltán Kovács.
In a series of interviews with government officials, opposition leaders, experts and citizens, the American university emerges as something bigger than its 423 faculty members and 1448 students from 117 countries.
But walking through the quiet corridors of its buildings at the heart of Budapest last Friday (5 October), it was hard to grasp that its fate had brought together the opposition for the first time, and inspired one of the biggest demonstrations in recent years in a country where big protests are now rare.
European leaders, the Trump Administration, Nobel prize winners and even the commissioner for Education and Culture, Tibor Navracsics, a member of Orban’s party, have spoken against the closure of the American University.
“The CEU has become a symbol”, its pro-rector for Hungarian Affairs, Zsolt Enyedi, told this website in his office.
The prestigious school, founded in 1991 by investor and philanthropist George Soros to build “open and democratic societies”, is a shining emblem against Orban’s illiberal state. The last line of resistance, some said, together with some pockets of the judiciary.
But for Orban, the university also represents a symbol. It is Soros’s stronghold in his nation. And the Hungarian-American investor represents the biggest threat to Christian Europe, Orban’s political compass.
He blamed Soros of ‘flooding’ Europe with refugees (or migrants as he said). The EU was part of the ‘Soros plan’ through the refugee quota imposed on the member states.
Soros, the enemy
Orban has frequently boosted his popularity by battling enemies such as the IMF, banks, and Brussels. But his bitter fight with Soros, the man who paid for his studies, has a deeper meaning.
He portrayed the magnate as the evil face of all the existential threats to Hungary. And voters believe him.
Fidesz’s propaganda machine, including a combination of billboards and regional media controlled by allies, spreads his narrative very efficiently across the country and cements its supermajorities in the Parliament.
“What Soros is doing at the CEU is not good…what he is doing to the whole Europe”, said Zsofia, visiting Budapest from the surroundings for a cosmetic fair.
“Are you a liberal? Because I don’t like gipsies, gay people or migrants”, added her colleague Dorina.
Only the capital resists Orban’s dominance. “Budapest is the last big battle, where the old influencers, the intellectuals remain”, explained Katta Tüttö, a socialist local representative in the District 12 of the city.
Having a broader perspective as an active member of the Socialist party at national and European politics, Tüttö admitted to the weakness of the opposition and its inability to break Orban’s political narrative.
“We had a lot of discussions… but we didn’t find a way out”, she confessed over tea in front of the splendid Parliament building on a sunny afternoon.
She argued that Hungarians deal very badly with insecurity. And Orban has claimed for himself the position of protector-in-chief.
He not only guarantees that Hungary will not become a melting pot of migrants and Muslims, but also that Hungarians will not lose their jobs because of the digital revolution.
Orban’s total control of the political discourse and the resources to amplify the message is only part of the problem.
For Andras Vertes, executive chairman of GKI economic research, the issue is that “the opposition parties are small, different and very weak.”
The situation only gets worse, admits Tüttö, because the fragmentation keeps growing as new parties pop up.
Daniel Berg is partly responsible for that as one of the founders of ‘Momentum’. But as he explained in the brand new offices, the new pro-European and liberal party, similar to Macron’s En Marche or Spain’s Ciudadanos, is responding to past mistakes to counter Fidesz.
“The opposition was captured by Orban and his narrative”, he explained.
The roots of Momentum are traced back to social activism. Berg was one of the organisers of the protest against the closure of CEU last year, where he was a student.
Between 50.0000 and 80.000 people, according to the organisers, took the streets in defence of the university, one of the largest demonstrations in recent years.
Berg also travelled to the US to lobby senators and congressmen to support the school.
“Everything has been done at diplomatic level,” he said recalling the backing gathered in the US, the EU institutions, member states or Nobel prizes.
“But the Government doesn’t care about it,” he lamented.
If external pressure seems insufficient to convince Orban to maintain the American university, the efforts made by the centre also seemed to go to waste.
According to the new Education Law, every foreign university should provide higher education programmes in their motherland recognised by their state.
CEU reached an agreement with Bard College in New York last year to teach some of their courses across the Atlantic. This year, the first students completed their courses.
The state of New York sent an email to the Hungarian government stating that CEU’s programmes are registered in their inventory and conducts educational activities there on Inequality analysis jointly with Bard College.
László Palkovics, then state secretary for education, and Deputy State Secretary Kristóf Altusz visited CEUʼs New York facilities last April.
“The secretary of state told us that we met all the academic criteria. There was only one issue: the international agreement,” said Enyedi.
The new Education law also stipulates that foreign universities have to reach an agreement with the Hungarian government and the state “concerning theoretical support for its operation in Hungary”.
At one point, Budapest and the State of New York were very close to signing an agreement, explained Enyedi. But abruptly, the Hungarian government mysteriously backtracked and no other contacts were made.
“Orban is not ready to tell the world that he is closing down the CEU,” explains the pro-rector. “He would pretend it is an administrative issue”.
And that is what Orban’s spokesman repeats.
“It is an administrative problem. Everybody knows”, Zoltan Kovács said in his office not far from the university.
He knows the CEU corridors well because he obtained his Phd in History there.
The CEU is formed by two legal entities. The original one -American- and a Hungarian arm set up in 2004 by law.
But as Enyedi explained, the Hungarian arm cannot survive without the American one, the core of all its programmes.
The Hungarian senior officials that travelled to New York did did not raise any issue regarding the academic recognition. But Kovács played down the American recognition.
“They are not opening a second campus in the US. They made an agreement with Bard college… A letter of intent with Bard college is certainly not what fulfils the criteria,” he said.
The efforts made on one side to meet the standards set by the new law appear to be unanswered on the other side.
Although they are trying, “that doesn’t mean that they are going to find a way and it will fulfil the standards,” added Kovács.
Enyedi said it is “bullshit” that they are not fulfilling the academic requirements set by the law. The government doesn’t dare to say in Hungary that the New York activities are not enough, he stressed.
The pro-rector knowns that the final verdict will depend neither on the experts nor on the ministers.
It will be Orban who will take such a political decision by January 2019, according to his self-imposed deadline.
“What we are hearing is that nobody knows what he would do”, Enyedi said.
He suspects that Orban will wait until he can obtain something from the EU institutions or Germany. If not, he will close the American branch of the CEU, bringing down the whole institution.
As the CEU is preparing for the worst, they are opening another campus in Vienna (Austria).
When the news broke last year that the CEU could be forced out of Hungary, they received many offers from around the world. Enyedi explained that the Vienna proposal was so appealing that they decided to set foot there as well regardless of the final outcome in Budapest.
Long and narrow path
Enyedi said that Orban wants to make a point. Despite international pressure or EU condemnation “he is still the boss”.
“He can do whatever he wants”, he stressed.
The fate of CEU may be at his mercy, but his future is not in his hands, a hopeful opposition argued.
“No regime lasts forever, it is up to us how long it lasts”, said Berg.
Parties have already started to prepare their assault to crack the ‘Orbanian’ state.
“We are already working on a way out of his narrative,” pointed out Tüttö.
Although she did not want to disclose many details, she explained that it would include “most of the opposition” and it would have many legs, including social media and activities outside traditional political fora like the Parliament.
All the opposition parties, including the far-right party Jobbik, already teamed up last year to ask the Constitutional Court to review Orban’s bill that aims to shut down CEU.
“It was the first time all the opposition came together, it was a beautiful moment,” recalled Enyedi.
The plan is “a narrow path and it will take a long time”, Tüttö admitted. But she hoped that opposition parties could organically start shaping the agenda and framing the discussion.
Berg agreed it would take time but gave hints of how to do it.
Momentum is already outreaching villages outside Budapest, engaging in local activities and community service, and addressing local issues.
At the same time, the opposition needs to get together in a ‘Frankenstein’ coalition. “We need to find a minimum common denominator”, he stated.
For Berg, the agenda is pretty simple: getting rid of corruption, a pro-EU and pro-West orientation, and restoring the rule of law in the country.
“Looking at the numbers, the situation is not as bad as it seems,” explained GKI’s Vertes. During the last national elections held in April, a majority of people did not vote for Fidesz.
However, the fragmentation of the opposition and the majority system helped Orban to obtain a new supermajority in the Parliament.
The opposition sees next year’s local elections as a key trial to test whether their attempts to forge a united front and their approach to break the ‘Orbanian’ narrative could work.
The economy could also play a role. The three engines of recent growth (global momentum, EU funds and wage increases) will start to diminish in the next few years, said Vertes.
Hungary was the first nation rescued by the IMF and the EU after the crisis in 2008. Today, the country is growing above 4%, and salaries are growing at a rate of 10% but this will start to slow next year.
The flow of money was not used to transform the country but to enrich certain groups and Orban’s allies.
“There hasn’t been any structural change”, Vertes pointed out.
When Hungary joined the EU was the third biggest economy in GDP per capita in the Eastern bloc, behind Slovenia and Czech Republic. Today it’s in 8th position.
Kovaks blamed the inherited situation of the country when they took over after the bailout.
For Vertes, the reason is the “many bad decisions” taken by Orban. “He worsened the situation”. And chief among them he mentions the Education laws.
Orban’s assault against CEU may be one too many. But as his opponents and critics recognised, he is a good strategist and clever politician. It is unclear what would be his final act in his fight against Soros.
“If that [the decision] affects our freedoms and quality we have no choice but to leave,” said Enyedi.
But contrary to what he may have thought, his final strike against Soros would not mean the end of the resistance.